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Iran's nuclear program: Is regime change the way to stop it?

While Obama officials tout tougher sanctions to get Iranians to the negotiating table, foreign policy conservatives are looking to revive regime change as the way to stop Iran's nuclear program.

By Staff writer / December 17, 2010

Actors, dressed as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from the group called 'Iran 180' demonstrate in New York's Times Square December 10. The groups demands a '180' by the Iranian government in their pursuit of nuclear weapons, in honor of International Human Rights Day.

Brendan McDermid /Reuters

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Washington

US foreign policy conservatives are pressing for a new approach to Iran that ramps up support for the Iranian opposition and revives the Bush-era goal of regime change in Tehran.

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Borne of two catalysts – frustration over President Obama’s attempts at engagement with the Iranian regime, and anticipation of the more-Republican Congress taking office in January – the push for a harder line toward Iran looks beyond economic sanctions for pressuring the Tehran regime.

Pro-democracy initiatives and overt support for the Iranian opposition are touted as the best way of felling two birds with one stone: Iran’s advancing nuclear program, and the regime developing it. The hardliners are more likely to espouse military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but support for that route is by no means universal among them.

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Among the top priorities of the members of Congress, former Bush administration officials, and Iran experts touting an overtly anti-regime policy is removal of an exiled Iranian opposition group – the People’s Mojahedin of Iran or the MEK (Mujahideen-e Khalq) – from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

“Our effort to support freedom in Iran is … weak and inconsistent at its very best,” says Frances Townsend, former national security adviser to President Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism. Removing the MEK from the terrorist list, she adds, would send Iranians the message that “our policy goals are a reflection of our values.”

Holdouts on terrorist listing

It would also end a situation where Washington and Tehran are the last two governments designating the MEK a terrorist organization, Ms. Townsend says. The Clinton administration first added the MEK to the list in 1997 on evidence that the organization was responsible for American and Iranian deaths – and in the hopes of opening the way to dialogue with Tehran.

Britain and the European Union have removed the MEK from their terrorist organization lists, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is reviewing the US designation.

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