This past Wednesday could well mark a turning point in the U.S.’s fight against ISIS and other forces of instability and violence in the greater Middle East. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation, and Trade held a hearing entitled “ISIS: Defining the Enemy,” where Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the Iranian opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), was the first to testify.  This is a watershed development, especially at a moment when the U.S. government is flying headlong into a nuclear deal with Tehran that can only help legitimize the brutal Iranian theocracy that is fomenting much of the sectarian chaos that is feeding the rise of ISIS.

In her remarks, provided via videoconference from Paris,. Rajavi offered an alternate reality scenario of an Iran that is secular, non-nuclear, and democratic. Such a nation not only would reduce the existential dread of our allies in the region, but would drain the swamp of Iran’s terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah which have sparked the vicious Sunni extremist backlash led by Al Qaeda and ISIS.  This makes groups like NCRI promising allies in the fight against Islamic extremism. We need to encourage and empower progressive and anti-fundamentalist Muslim groups like NCRI and I urge my former colleagues in Congress to heed what Rajavi said.

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The U.S. may already be feeling the first pangs of buyer’s remorse from its negotiations with Tehran as our warships arrive in the Persian Gulf in a show of strength against Iran’s toppling of a pro-Western government in Yemen.  Tehran’s terrorist proxies are filling the power vacuum in Sana, a fact that has spawned an entirely predictable counter-reaction from Al Qaeda. Chaos and the danger of a spreading anti-American terrorist threat in Yemen have shaken the region and the U.S. national security establishment.

America and the West face a grave choice.  We can continue to acquiesce and accommodate Tehran, loosening sanctions, injecting money into its faltering economy, and legitimizing its leadership with diplomatic victories. Or we can confront the reality of a hegemonic, nuclear-threshold state driven by fundamentalist zeal.

The appearance of NCRI before the Congress today should give us hope that democracy and freedom still have a place in the U.S.’ foreign policy priorities for the greater Middle East. Rajavi’s organization is the most prominent and effective political group calling for regime change in Iran, and have proven their mettle to U.S. policymakers by helping reveal the details of the Iranian nuclear program. They have been warning of the global threat of Islamic fundamentalism since at least the early 1990s. Rajavi’s voice is even more important today because the Obama administration is embracing Tehran even as the U.S. State Department still regards the clerical regime as the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism.

If we are serious about defeating ISIS, we must not empower Iran, an equally potent source of Islamic fundamentalism and the sworn enemy of the United States for 36 years. The U.S. government’s desire for short-term, low-investment political solutions has consistently allowed the Iranian regime to degrade the Iranian resistance.  NCRI members and other brave Iranian dissidents have been systematically hunted, imprisoned, and executed in an escalating parade of atrocities documented by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs.

That a confident, visionary Iranian woman addressed a key committee of the U.S. Congress should not be lost on the Obama administration or the ayatollahs running the show in Tehran.  Iran is still a country where women are routinely stoned to death for a litany of offenses against the theocracy. Rajavi thus spoke as much for the U.S. as she did for the country she hails from. It is time for America to embrace the Iranian opposition as a matter of urgent national interest. It is essential to the defeat of Islamic extremism. And it is consistent with our deepest held values. 

Kennedy served in the House from 1995 to 2011. He is he son of late former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).