{mosimage}Emporia Gazette - By Antonia Felix: ON JUNE 30, 50,000 Iranian exiles gathered in Paris to show their support for the Iranian resistance, a group that seeks to replace the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran with a secular democracy. Yes, there is a long-standing, internationally supported Iranian resistance. But most Americans, in spite of the White House’s foreign policy focus on democracy building, have never heard of it. The Emporia Gazette

By Antonia Felix

ON JUNE 30, 50,000 Iranian exiles gathered in Paris to show their support for the Iranian resistance, a group that seeks to replace the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran with a secular democracy. Yes, there is a long-standing, internationally supported Iranian resistance. But most Americans, in spite of the White House’s foreign policy focus on democracy building, have never heard of it.

The Iranian resistance has proven itself a formidable threat to Tehran on several fronts, including its ability to deliver crucial intelligence about the regime to the West. Its most well-publicized reports, delivered in 2002, blew the lid off the regime’s secret nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak. More recent reports have uncovered underground nuclear and missile installations and identified factories in northern Tehran that build improvised explosive devices used to kill American troops in Iraq. On another front, the MEK offers Iranians — 60 percent of whom are under the age of 30 — hope for a better future by outlining a democratic platform for the new Iran. This includes the separation of church and state; legislative representation by religious and ethnic minorities; banning of torture, military tribunals, and oppressive military organizations such as the Pasdaran Corps; the elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; and a foreign policy focus on reversing Iran’s isolation by building friendly and cooperative relationships with the West.

This movement, known as the Mujahedin al-Khalq (MEK) and the National Council of Resistance of Iran , does not get much press in the United States, even though it enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress as well as in the EU parliament. These supporters, as well as more than 5 million Iraqis who signed a petition of support for the group last year, believe that the Iranian resistance is the most viable option for bringing about regime change in Iran — and, as a result, greater security to Iraq and the entire region. U.S. Representative Bob Filner, a California Democrat, who spoke at the Paris event, stated that the stability of the Middle East depends upon a stable, democratic Iran, which is possible by “empowering the very opposition organizations that share our goals and values.”

Sitting two rows behind Filner at the Parc D’Expositions that day, I witnessed one of the largest gatherings of what many believe is the burgeoning international Iranian movement that will initiate Iran’s next revolution.

I discovered the MEK during my ongoing research about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her foreign policy agenda, which I began when I wrote a biography of Rice three years ago. As I studied the democratic foundation of the Iranian resistance, I became intrigued by the strong links between the MEK and the theme of women in political power. The NCRI’s president-elect, Maryam Rajavi, embodies the movement’s core ideology of equality and human rights, with a strong emphasis on women’s rights, which the MEK believes is crucial in reversing the oppressive and brutally discriminatory policies of the Iranian regime.

By the time I attended the Paris event I was familiar with the critical role that women play in the Iranian resistance, yet I was struck by the crowd’s overwhelming response to Maryam Rajavi’s presence.

In decades of observing the political process in the United States and writing about women leaders, I have never seen a reaction to the appearance of a woman political figure that can compare to what I witnessed that day. The overwhelming outpouring of affection, as people of all ages clamored for a closer look or to touch her outstretched hands, expressed a combination of respect, admiration, gratitude and, most palpably, hope in this leader. Some academics may claim that feminism is dead, but don’t tell that to the global Iranian resistance, which confirmed in Paris that it puts its hope in a woman and a human-rights-based platform to eradicate Islamic fundamentalism from its country.

Supporting the Iranian resistance, which is known in policy circles as the third option, has thus far not been included in the Bush administration’s discussions about an Iran policy in which “all options are on the table.” The administration has also chosen to not include this movement in its democracy-building foreign policy agenda for the Middle East. And the resistance is not the only big Iran story that been ignored by the press.

The massive protests and riots over gasoline rationing that filled the streets of Tehran, Arak and Mashhad two weeks ago revealed to many Americans for the first time the discontent erupting in Iran. That story made headlines, but according to a recent book, The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis by Alireza Jafarzadeh, which outlines in detail the thousands of anti-government protests that have occurred from the early 1990s through 2006, more than 300 protests occur each month. Unpaid bus drivers, angry students and university professors, families of political prisoners who are languishing in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, abused ethnic and religious minorities, and women who dare to publicly protest the oppressive Islamic codes have all taken to the streets. Thousands of them have been beaten, arrested, and imprisoned as a result, and hundreds of them executed. Over the past 20 years, 120,000 members of the resistance have been hunted down and killed.

If the resistance has played such a significant role in the Iranian regime’s history and has, according to its supporters, the potential to bring about regime range, why haven’t we heard about it?

The primary reason is the U.S. State Department’s decision to label the MEK as a terrorist group in 1997, in a move to appease what appeared to be moderate elements in the Iranian government. A state department official at the time explained that putting the MEK on the terrorist list “was intended as a goodwill gesture to Tehran and its newly elected moderate president, Mohammad Khatami.” Tehran, which has long perceived the MEK as its principal Iranian threat, has used it as a bargaining chip for decades. The strategy continues to work: in 2003, when the U.S. reached out for information from the Iranian regime about al-Qaida members possibly hiding in Iran, the State Department closed down the NCRI’s Washington, D.C., office and froze its assets.

The 1997 designation was part of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “road map leading to normal relations” with Iran, which, predictably, never materialized. Rather than move toward cooperation with the West during the 1990s, Tehran continued to develop its secret nuclear program, which the MEK uncovered in 2002, and to arm and fund terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s policy toward the United States has been consistently and openly hostile, and now, under President Ahmadinejad, the rhetoric and activities are even more aggressive. Negotiating a moderate stance with Iran continues to be impossible with a head of state, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who continuously refers to the United States as the Great Satan.

For the past ten years, the MEK’s terrorist designation has severely undermined the resistance’s ability to operate and layered it with a stigma that, understandably, manages to close down discussions of the group before they begin. Maryam Rajavi’s speech at the Paris event focused on the European Union’s need to comply with an EU court ruling that obligates each EU nation to remove the MEK from the terrorist list.

Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice repeatedly dismisses questions about Congress’s requests for her to de-list the MEK, reiterating that it is a terrorist group. This is a dramatic irony in a foreign policy agenda that named Iran part of the “axis of evil. The vehemently anti-West, Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran has been identified for years by the State Department as the world’s most dangerous sponsor of terrorism, yet Rice continues to throw this government in the same camp as the democratic opposition group that Tehran recognizes as perhaps its most formidable threat.

The American people deserve to be aware of the full range of options in dealing with the religious dictatorship in Iran. The Iranian resistance should become as visible in the press as were Lech Walesa and his revolutionary trade union in 1980. Like the voices of Solidarity, which stood up to a tyrannical regime and transformed not only Poland but ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the voices of the Iranian resistance deserve to be heard.

Antonia Felix is a published author and a member of the English faculty at Emporia State University.