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

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    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.
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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.

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.

Townsend spoke at a Washington symposium Friday on US policy and the Iranian opposition that offered a flavor of where the debate over the administration’s approach to Iran is headed. The tone was similar to that of a House hearing on Iran earlier this month where both Republican and Democratic members of Congress pummeled administration officials over what they called an ineffective policy.

“The problem is not that a tough approach [to Iran] has failed,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) Florida “but that it has yet to be fully tried.” Representative Ros-Lehtinen is set to become the committee’s chairwoman in January.

Administration officials are hinting that another round of tougher economic sanctions will be coming in early 2011. But the advocates of a radically different Iran policy dismiss the administration’s stated goal of using the sanctions to force Tehran into a dialogue as ineffective and even immoral.

Noting that the Obama administration sees tougher economic sanctions as a way “to get the regime [in Tehran] to the bargaining table,” Townsend adds, “Is that really all?”

Also speaking at the Friday symposium, former attorney general Michael Mukasey was even more strident, placing “the regime in Tehran” at the “center” of an “Islamism that threatens civilization as we know it.”

'A stain' on US honor

He called a policy that places dialogue with the Tehran regime above support for the democratic opposition “a stain on the honor of the United States,” and he said that removing the MEK from the terrorist list and “offering all possible overt and covert support to the opposition” could at least begin to remove that stain.

A House resolution supporting a delisting of the MEK already has more than 100 co-sponsors and signers, with supporters predicting a rush of additional supporters in the new Congress.

Also speaking at the symposium, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said that eliminating the regime in Tehran “should be the proudly declared policy of the US.”

He also had a word of advice for a new Congress that wants to pressure the Obama administration to take a tougher line with Tehran. Noting there was nothing like the barrage of questions he received in Congressional committee meetings as a member of the Bush administration, he said, “When the new Congress convenes … there are a lot of days empty in January for hearings – that will be a good start.”

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