Dubbing its agenda a "third alternative" for U.S. policy toward Iran, the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) argues that the United States must "keep open diplomatic and military options, while providing a central role for the Iranian opposition to facilitate regime change." According to it website, IPC is comprised "of former officials from the White House, State Department, Pentagon, intelligence agencies, and experts from think tanks and universities. The group claims that Iran is a "primary threat against the United States and its allies" and argues that military and diplomatic solutions should be combined in a strategy that calls "for change in Tehran based on Iranians instead of Americans." The group's slogan is: "Empowering Iranians for regime change."
IPC is led by Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Agency staffer who is associated of with neoconservative Committee on the Present Dangerand the "pro-Israel" Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Members have included James Akins,former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who passed away in 2010; Bill Cowan, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and chief executive of wvc3, Inc., a private contractor that provides security and intelligence services to the U.S. government and corporations; R. Bruce McColm, a former president of the International Republican Institute who has been associated with a number of neoconservative-led outfits, including Freedom Houseand Social Democrats-USA; Thomas McInerney, a retired air force lieutenant general and former vice president of the Pentagon contractor Loral Defense Systems; Paul E. Vallely, a retired army deputy general, adviser to the hardline Center for Security Policy,and coauthor with McInerney of the 2004 book Endgame—The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror; Charles T. "Chuck" Nash, a retired navy officer and founder of Emerging Technologies, a U.S. military contractor; and Edward Rowny, another retired army officer who served as an arms control negotiator during the Reagan and Bush Senior presidencies.
IPC's advocacy on behalf of the Iranian opposition—which primarily takes the form of white papers, press conferences, and op-eds—is based almost entirely around the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group considered a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Advocating the delisting of MEK has been a central plank of IPC's work since its founding. Indeed, it is the subject of the group's August 2011 report, "Terror Tagging of an Iranian Dissident Organization," which contends that "A political explanation resolves the puzzle of why the MEK continues to be designated [as a terrorist organization] contrary to the law and the facts."
Tanter, who argues that the MEK "is genuinely committed to democracy and not pretending just to gain support," has suggested that the exiled group embodies the bulk of Iran's opposition, comparing it favorably to the domestic Green Movement. Iran's regime, Tanter wrote in a 2011 National Interest op-ed, "delegitimizes and seeks to destroy the MEK because it challenges clerical rule. By contrast, other dissident organizations, such as the Iranian Green Movement faction headed by Mir Hossein Mousavi, accept clerical rule." This leaves unchanged his implausible assessment from 2006 that "other opposition groups really don't exist," or at least "no other opposition force the regime cares about."
Tanter has also claimed that U.S. intelligence assessments of the group's terrorist activities and purported unpopularity inside Iran "resemble regime propaganda against the MEK." Muhammad Sahimi, a columnist for Tehran Bureau and Antiwar.com, responded to these claims, arguing: "Apparently the argument is that because the Iranian regime grossly violates its citizens' human rights, and its president denies the Holocaust, the State Department should delist the MEK because it opposes that regime. … Tanter seems to claim that anyone who believes that the MEK has no significant support within Iran is a tool of disinformation campaign by the [Iranian] regime."
MEK's critics have likened the organization's advocacy campaign to that of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi exile group led by Ahmed Chalabi that worked to drum up U.S. support for an invasion of Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s. By presenting itself to western supporters as an Iraqi government-in-waiting, INC enabled Iraq hawks in the United States to claim that there was Iraqi support for the U.S. action. For Iran hawks, write Ali Fatemi and Karim Pakravan of the National Iranian American Council, "Maryam Rajavi, the MEK leader and self-proclaimed president of Iran, is their new Chalabi."
IPC in particular has embodied the link between pro-MEK groups and pro-INC groups. A 2010 LobeLog investigation found that "through 2006, IPC shared an address, accountants, and some staff with multiple organizations that either fronted for or had direct ties to the INC, even sharing staff members with those groups. Some of those ties have continued through today."
Indeed, the MEK has long been at the heart of IPC's policy prescriptions on not only Iran, but also Iraq. On January 11, 2007, a day after President George W. Bush announced his "surge" strategy for Iraq, IPC held a press conference at the National Press Club to announce the release of its latest paper, "How to Make the Surge Work: A Complementary Political-Military Plan for Iraq." Arguing that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki would be unlikely to meet important political milestones in quelling the violence in that country because of Tehran's supposed meddling, the IPC paper maintains that the Bush administration should find a role for "the Iranian opposition in Iraq to build a national compact among the Iraqi factions."
Less than a week earlier, on January 5, 2007, IPC held a press conference at the National Press Club at which it claimed to provide convincing evidence of Tehran's role in fomenting violence in Iraq. Under the headline "New Intelligence Points to Iran Destabilizing Iraq," the conference showcased the work of Alireza Jafarzadeh, president of Strategic Policy Consulting and a FoxNews analyst, who claimed to have "specific intelligence" revealing the covert activities of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force in Iraq. According to a press release on the IPC website: "Jafarzadeh, author of The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis, said intelligence he has received 'suggests a sharp increase in Iran's sponsorship of terrorism and sectarian violence, especially in the past few months. The Qods Force secretly trains, finances, and arms an extensive network in Iraq ... The Qods Force has embarked on creating a new terrorist infrastructure and is calling it 'Hezbollah' to mimic Lebanon's Hezbollah. This Iraq network operates in Basra and Baghdad and is in contact with the Qods Force and Hezbollah of Lebanon.'"
IPC's Tanter followed up Jafarzadeh's remarks to push for the involvement of the MEK in U.S. operations in the region. He argued: "One way to overcome the acrimony between the U.S. government and Sunni politicians is to utilize an interlocutor trusted by both groups. The Mujahedin-e Khalq can function in just this capacity; indeed, the MEK already engages in quiet negotiations with Iraqi factions and has excellent relations with the U.S. military."
IPC's first white paper, "U.S. Policy Options for Iran," presented a strategy of regime change involving Iranian dissidents, primarily the MEK, which the report describes as "indisputably the largest and most organized Iranian opposition group." IPC discounts negotiations with the Iranian government as an effective strategy. "Negotiations will not work," commented Vallely, one of the IPC principals who helped prepare the report. Vallely described the Iranian regime as a "house of cards." In addition to calling on the U.S. government to take the MEK off its list of international terrorist organizations, the IPC report advocated that the Bush administration "might encourage the new Iraqi government to extend formal recognition to the MEK, based in Ashraf, as a legitimate political organization. Such a recognition would send yet another signal from neighboring Iraq that the noose is tightening around Iran's unelected rulers."
The report concludes: "The designation of the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department has served, since 1997, as an assurance to the Iranian regime that the United States has removed the regime change option from the table. Removing the terrorist designation from the MEK could serve as the most tangible signal to the Iranian regime, as well as to the Iranian people, that a new option is now on the table. Removal might also have the effect of supporting President Bush's assertion that America stands with the people of Iran in their struggle to liberate themselves."
Although functioning as an MEK booster group in Washington, IPC apparently is not institutionally tied to the MEK. Rather, it sees the MEK, with its political and military affiliates, as the only organization with the potential for destabilizing the current Iranian regime and opening the door for change. At IPC's first news conference, Neil Livingstone, an IPC founder, explained the relationship: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The IPC demonstrated its strong ties on Capitol Hill in April 2005 when it convened a briefing at the invitation of the Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus of the House of Representatives, then chaired by Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and Bob Filner 9 (D-CA)."
Tancredo raised the issue of the State Department's designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization, and IPC panelists concurred on the need to remove it from the list. Tancredo claimed that the MEK was so designated not because it was involved in terrorist activities, but because the Clinton administration sought to curry favor with the Iranian regime. IPC's Tanter told Tancredo and other caucus members: "While Iran's nuclear clock is ticking very fast, the clock for a regime change is much too slow. And if Iran were to acquire the bomb before the people are able to change the regime, it might obtain a new lease on life, act to extend the Iranian Revolution throughout the region, and threaten U.S. interests in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel."
Tanter also presented his prescriptions for U.S. policy in Iran at a press briefing at the National Press Club on November 21, 2005. He argued: "One military option is the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which may have the capability to destroy hardened, deeply buried targets. That is, bunker-busting bombs could destroy tunnels and other underground facilities. But the Pentagon's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review states that over 70 countries employ underground facilities for military purposes, while the United States lacks sufficient means to destroy these facilities. In addition, the Non-Proliferation Treaty bans use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, such as Iran. Such a prohibition might not apply as much to Israel. In this respect, the United States has sold Israel bunker-busting bombs, which keeps the military option on the table.
"Empowerment requires working with Iranian opposition groups in general and with the main opposition in particular. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the Mujahedin-e Khalq are not only the best sources for intelligence on Iran's potential violations of the nonproliferation regime. The NCRI and MEK are also possible allies of the West in bringing about regime change in Tehran.
"The international community should realize that there is only one group to which the regime pays attention and fears: the Mujahedin-e Khalq and the political coalition of which the MEK is a part, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. By delisting the NCRI and MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations listing maintained by the Department of State, it would allow regime change to be on the table in Tehran. With regime change in the open, Tehran would have to face a choice about whether to slow down in its drive to acquire nuclear weapons or not."
Not all members of the U.S. right, however, look favorably upon the MEK. Prior to a large MEK-organized rally held in Washington, DC on January 19, 2006, Michael Rubin, an Iran expert at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, wrote an article in the right-wing online journal FrontPageMagazine.com entitled "Monsters of the Left: The Mujahedin al-Khalq." Rubin wrote that the MEK "in public, says the right things about freedom and democracy but, in reality is dedicated to the opposite. Maryam Rajavi and her husband [Massoud] are adept at public relations and adroit at reinvention, but the organization over which they preside eschews democracy and embraces terrorism, autocracy, and Marxism."
In a rebuttal to Rubin, IPC's Clare Lopez—a foreign policy hardliner who has also served as an advisor to the Likud-aligned Clarion Fund as well as the neoconservative Center for Security Policy—said that Rubin "vilified the one organization that actually has the wherewithal to challenge the terrorist theocrats in Tehran." According to Lopez, "While the MEK's wartime actions [attacking Iran during the Iran-Iraq war] undeniably alienated some Iranians, the group's survival and ability to organize itself, and collect and disseminate key intelligence about Iran's top-secret nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction programs clearly attest to an extensive base of support inside the country today. The MEK's broad level of support among the Iranian Diaspora is obvious in regular and large-scale demonstrations, for instance, in New York City to protest the September 2005 appearance of Iran's terrorist president [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad at the United Nations and on January 19 in Washington, DC to urge referral of Iran to the UN Security Council, where seas of hundreds of waving placards with photos of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi are always prominent features."
The January 19, 2006 rally was organized by the Council for Democratic Change in Iran, which is a front group for the MEK. The keynote speaker, by video conference, was Maryam Rajavi. Tanter was one of the featured speakers. In his speech, he said that the revolution in Iran will not be one of the nonviolent "color revolutions" likes those in central Europe. "To say that the only route in Iran is the non-violent route of Gandhi and King is to misunderstand the nature of the theocratic regime in Tehran."
The pro-MEK rally was endorsed by two senators: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), as well as by the House's Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus and by four individual congressional representatives: Reps. Christopher Shays (R-CT), Ed Towns (D-NY), Bob Filner (D-CA), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX).
Another vocal supporter of the MEK has been Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who has claimed that there is "wide support" in Congress for the MEK and that it will be "one of the leading groups in establishing secular government in Iran." In 2003, Ros-Lehtinen released a letter of support for the MEK that she said had the backing of 150 colleagues, whom she refused to identify. "Because of [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami's well-funded campaign of propaganda, lies, and misinformation, I have decided not to release the names of these signers."
On May 11, 2006, IPC released a policy paper, "What Makes Tehran Tick," which concluded that Iran's hostility toward Israel and the United States is less a result of feeling threatened or living in a "tough neighborhood" than of "the nature of the regime's revolutionary ideology." Explaining the paper, Tanter stated: "The Islamist nature of the regime takes on enhanced importance because Iran is on the road to acquiring nuclear weapons, and there are few exit ramps along the way." Tanter said that, "Given the Islamist character of the Iranian regime and its nuclear potential, only regime change ends the threat of a nuclear-armed Islamist Iran. Diplomacy and military strikes would only delay the onset of the Iranian regime acquisition of nuclear arms."