By: Ali Safavi February 10, 2010
On a chilly October day in 1981, after returning home from the University of Michigan campus, I answered a phone call. On the other side of the line was my step mother from Iran. She rarely called those days because of the reign of terror imposed by the regime some five months earlier. In tears, she gave me the distressing news. My older brother, Hossein, had been executed a week earlier.
She told me she had just returned from Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran’s main cemetery, where she had laid a wreath on his grave. When I asked the reason for his execution, she simply replied, “Moharebeh” (“waging war against God”).
Hossein was a prolific writer and an aerospace engineer from Northrop University, California. We shared an apartment for seven years in west Los Angeles before I left for Michigan to work on my post graduate degree in sociology, and he left for Iran hoping to help rebuild a new democratic country after the Shah’s overthrow. A supporter of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK), the main Iranian opposition movement, Hossein was executed along with 57 others on September 27, 1981.
Last week, almost 29 years later, when I read reports from Iranian state-run media that 11 protestors are on death row and two others executed on charges of “moharebeh,” I felt a chill in my spine and the bitter memories of October 1981 came back. Not only the very people who executed tens of thousands on the charge of moharebeh in the 1980s have once again assumed the reigns of power, but they have also expanded the definition of moharebeh to encompass acts such as hurling stones at security forces!
This comes on the heels of the regime’s eight-month long campaign of killing, arresting, torturing and even raping activists in prison to curb protests. Unfazed, millions of disenchanted Iranians are determined to bring about democratic change.
This was most evident on commemoration of Ashura on December 27. The worn-out regime forces were on the retreat and the people more fearless and organized. Considering that the regime has harnessed almost all of its menacing power, the simple act of attending a rally has a profound political meaning.
The people’s persistence has cultivated widespread anxiety in the regime, partly manifested in the rising number of defections, deepening rifts, and a reported exodus of capital. The position of the regime’s number one authority, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has significantly diminished, weakening the regime as a whole.
The question now is not if but when the regime will be overthrown. To his credit, President Obama has offered supportive rhetoric to the large-scale opposition against the regime. He has also pushed for tougher sanctions to prevent the regime from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In the eyes of the Iranian people, however, these attempts, though laudable, are insufficient in and of themselves. Worse yet, the administration’s supportive rhetoric is significantly belied by its unfavorable attitude toward the main Iranian opposition. Since 1997, the US has blacklisted the MEK at the behest of the mullahs. This has severely undercut the organizational strength of the opposition inside Iran while excluding a large portion of the movement from public debate, which explains the poverty of policy decisions toward Iran.
Similar politically-motivated listings against the MEK were nullified by the highest judicial bodies in Europe and the United Kingdom because they are legally baseless. The MEK is not blacklisted in the UK and the EU, which shows that the US is now out of sync on Iran with its closest allies. To the people of Iran, Washington’s attempt to stifle the progress of a crucial part of the opposition seems not only suspect but diminishes the power of the President’s moral support.
MEK members and supporters, who have lost more than 120,000 of their friends and relatives to the Iranian regime, form the biggest organized social network in Iran and a decisive factor for leading the opposition. Restraining them by a politically-motivated label at this crucial moment is a great injustice to the Iranian people.
As the administration grapples with its Iran policy, it should realize that the dichotomy of either military conflict or direct negotiations is a false one. There is a third option presented by the Iranian people and their organized resistance, which avoids the costs of both other options while offering added strategic benefits.
Such refocusing of the American policy lens on the third option will also empower Washington to grasp the facts on the ground in Iran more clearly, enabling it to calibrate its policy more realistically and pragmatically.
Ali Safavi, is a member of Iran’s Parliament in exile, National Council of Resistance, and President of Near East Policy Research, a policy analysis firm in Washington, DC.