WASHINGTON – Former top-ranking U.S. officials on Saturday urged the Obama administration to take an Iranian dissident group off its list of terrorist organizations, saying the move would raise pressure on Tehran at a time when authoritarian regimes are tottering across the Middle East.
Several ex-officials called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to rescind the 14-year-old designation of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq Organization, or MEK, as a terrorist group.
Ex-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, U.N. ambassador during the Clinton administration, said the "thirst for freedom and democracy" in the Mideast and the failure to win concessions on Iran's nuclear program had built support for the MEK in Washington. He said the designation "makes no sense at all" and predicted it would likely be lifted soon.
Retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that Iran could exploit the wave of pro-democracy protests the Mideast by promoting the rise of radical regimes.
Shelton called Iran the world's biggest exporter of state-sponsored terror and said that the MEK, as Iran's best organized internal resistance group, could increase the pressure on Tehran, which is already the target of U.S.-backed U.N. sanctions for its suspect nuclear program. "Iran's current regime is currently a government that needs to change," Shelton said.
The MEK, also known as the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, allied with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, which supported the group's attacks against the Iranian regime. The group was largely wiped out in Iran in the late 1980s.
The U.S. has listed the MEK as a terror group since 1997, though the European Union removed it from its own terror list in 2009.
Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, named by President George W. Bush, called today's MEK a moderate, secular and democratic political organization as well as the largest and most organized opposition group in Iran. "We must make it clear that we stand with those who stand for freedom," he said.
At the urging of the U.S. and Europe, the U.N. has imposed a series of increasingly harsh sanctions against Iran, most recently last June, in an effort to force Tehran to open up its nuclear programs and prove it is not seeking the ability to build an atomic bomb. Iran insists that it is pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful uses.
The Obama administration said last summer the new sanctions were beginning to squeeze Iran. American officials said Wednesday that U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran's leadership is immersed in a serious internal debate about how to proceed in the face of the sanctions and split over whether to use its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons.
But Richardson and others pointed out that Tehran had rebuffed U.N.-drafted proposals at talks in Istanbul in January. "The negotiations have not worked," Richardson said.
Former CIA Director Michael Hayden warned that Iranian opposition forces face a much harder job in Iran than in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where autocratic leaders were recently ousted, because the Iranian government has proven it is willing to use violence against dissidents. Hayden said that governments in the region "are not dominoes, these are very different regimes."
Hayden estimated that Iran could complete all the steps needed to create a bomb in as little as a year, although acknowledged that others say it could take much longer. He said that Iran may not actually construct the device, because of the repercussions of such a move.
Instead, he said, Iran may build components of a nuclear weapon that could be assembled in a matter of weeks. Even such a "virtual" or "kit in the garage" device would give Tehran tremendous political leverage in the region, he said.