With their uprising now staggering under the weight of increasingly brutal and bloody repression, Iran's brave democrats are facing a rapidly narrowing range of choices. It's come down to either carrying on, somehow, with firm demands for reform, or girding for revolution.
The decision is theirs alone, but one key thing Ottawa can do to help block the narrowing of the protest movement's options is to lift the bogus "terrorist" designation applied to the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). This organization is Tehran's worst nightmare.
Delisting the MEK would clear the way for the Paris based National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI), arguably the most dedicated and resourceful Iranian opposition group in the world, to operate openly in Canada. The MEK is the largest of the NCRI's 15 constituent organizations.
While the MEK has a dodgy past, and some of its Canadian supporters are a bit shady, calling it a "terrorist" group is embarrassing and silly. After carrying out a protracted campaign of anti-regime bombings and assassinations in Iran, the MEK joined the NCRI in renouncing violence in 2001. Both groups are committed to a fully secular and democratic Iranian republic.
A few days ago in Paris, the NCRI assembled 90,000 of its members and supporters from around the world, including hundreds of Canadians. Among the NCRI's several friends in Ottawa are Liberal Senator David Smith, Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett and former Liberal MP Tom Wappel, all of whom say Canada should take the terrorist label off the MEK.
Ottawa has kept the MEK on its list of terrorist entities mainly because the White House still calls the group a "foreign terrorist organization," though this designation is now the subject of a court challenge by the NCRI's American supporters. The MEK has been on the White House blacklist since the days of the Clinton administration, but the question of whether or not to keep it on the list has been hotly disputed by a broad cross-section of Democrats and Republicans ever since.
In reality, the MEK is a sort of refugee camp of about 3,000 former guerillas and their families at Ashraf, in Iraq. They are now classified as "protected persons" under Article 4 of the Geneva Convention. And the U. S. military considers the MEK a co-operative and useful intelligence asset. The European Union gave the NCRI and the MEK a clean bill of health in January of this year.
Political divisions among Iranian exiles tend to be sharp and sometimes irreconcilable, but in interviews with several leading Iranian-Canadian activists from across the political spectrum, even those who take a particularly dim view of the NCRI said the "terrorist" label is unfair.
Pouya Alagheband is a 26-year-old University of Toronto student who was a key animateur of the demonstrations that sprang up across Canada following the shocking news that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had somehow swept the polls in the June 12 Iranian elections.
He's no NCRI supporter, but Alagheband says that the MEK's "terrorist" label causes problems -- even for NCRI detractors living in Canada. "It's heartbreaking for me. I want to communicate with them and talk to them, but it will not be good for us."
Unlike most of the pro-democracy groups in the Iranian diaspora, the NCRI advocated for a boycott of the June 12 Iranian elections. It called them a charade in which the regime chose the candidates, decided the issues, controlled the news media and then announced the winner. But since the results were made public, the NCRI has thrown its support behind the consensus
demand that has emerged across the Iranian opposition movement -- that the election results be nullified, and the UN be brought in to oversee a properly monitored election.
Canadian NCRI supporter Ali Behroozian, a 50-year-old employment counselor in Toronto, says the main thing that distinguishes NCRI supporters among Iranian-Canadian activists is that they have no illusions about the Tehran regime's capacity for reform.
"Day by day, the regime is getting more brutal. Unfortunately, I believe that there is no other way forward but to take up arms against the regime," Behroozian said. "Anyone in their right mind will reach this conclusion. It is very unfortunate. It is very sad."
But the NCRI's conception of itself as Iran's "parliament in exile" is off-putting to many
Iranian-Canadians. It also doesn't help that Maryam and Masoud Rajavi, the husband-and-wife team at the helm of the NCRI, command an affection from their supporters that borders on a fanatical, cultish devotion.
Some say the NCRI has no credibility inside Iran because the MEK sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But Toronto-based security analyst Dan Rabkin, Iran editor for the private think-tank World Security Network, says that claim is overblown.
Rabkin contends that the NCRI and its affiliates are clearly well-connected inside Iran. The ruling ayatollahs routinely blame the MEK for fomenting dissent in the country, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards are now blaming the group for the country's pro-democracy convulsions. Tehran has even gone so far as to portray the MEK as an ally of al-Qaeda.
"The regime is obsessed with this group," Rabkin says. "Clearly, there is real dedication with these NCRI people, real discipline. They produce real results, and they have real intelligence resources in Iran."
Last year, Rabkin visited the MEK's base in Ashraf, which is routinely depicted as a spooky commune filled with wild-eyed revolutionary nutcases. "It's actually an incredible place. It's beautiful," Rabkin explains. "These people do not pose a threat to Western interests, that's for certain."
Quite apart from the contribution Ottawa could make to Iran's pro-democracy movement by delisting the MEK, the move would benefit all of us. For starters, it would force Ottawa to face up to a crippling flaw in the federal Anti-Terrorism Act.
As Alan Borovoy of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has pointed out, the act effectively conflates legitimate pro-democracy revolutionaries with the worst kind of anti-democratic, civilian-slaughtering terrorists. Just how did that happen, exactly?
More to the point, why is it that Khomeinist agents and propagandists can organize freely from their base in Canada's "anti-war" movement, but Canadian activists fighting for democracy and a nuclear-free Iran are smeared as "terrorists"? Why have the cries for help from Iran's persecuted trade unionists and student leaders gone almost completely unheeded? Why it is that the mobilization in support of the Iranian uprising in Canada is mainly an ethnic phenomenon?
It's high time we started answering these questions. In the meantime, if Canadians can't, or won't, help Iran's pro-democracy movement, the least we can do is get out of its way. - Terry Glavin is an author, journalist and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia.