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US ties with Iranian opposition strengthening

The Iranian opposition is gaining momentum due to a growing consensus in the US Congress over the necessity for regime change in Iran. A senior delegation of US senators went to Albania’s capital Tirana this week to meet Maryam Rajavi, who heads the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political coalition calling for regime change in Iran and considered the main threat to the ruling mullahs. 
They also met members of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MEK), the main member of this varied coalition of groups and individuals. The high-profile visit comes at a time when Washington has slapped major new sanctions on Iran, including its Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), for its ballistic missile drive, its support for terrorism and its human rights violations. Given that the IRGC controls over 40 percent of Iran’s economy, these new sanctions are a heavy blow to Tehran’s ambitions.
Ties between Iran’s opposition and US officials are strengthening, and the number of high-level officials supporting the opposition is rising. They recognize the opposition as a legitimate representative of many Iranians who seek democracy in their country. Rajavi expressed her gratitude for the US Senate’s tireless efforts to protect thousands of MEK members in Iraq and relocate them to Albania.
Previously, in a Senate briefing, several US officials strongly condemned Iran’s destructive role in Iraq. Sen. Roy Blunt joined an initiative demanding the urgent transfer of MEK members stationed in a former US military base known as Camp Liberty near Baghdad. 

Tehran fears the opposition’s soft power more than the hard power of foreign governments. That is why Iranian leaders and media outlets react forcefully and anxiously to such visits and opposition activities. 

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

In April, Sen. John McCain, a longtime supporter of the Iranian opposition, visited the MEK in Albania and met with Rajavi. MEK members were able to leave Iraq after a four-and-a-half-year ordeal in Camp Liberty following their forced transfer from their 26-year home in Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad. 
From 2009, following the transfer of security from the US military to the Iraqi government, the MEK came under eight major ground and rocket attacks by Iran-backed proxies against Ashraf and Liberty. This was in parallel with a seven-year siege. After losing more than 160 of their colleagues to the attacks and blockade, MEK members were finally able to leave Iraq for European countries, mainly Albania.
This latest visit sends a strong signal to Tehran that the NCRI is gaining momentum. This time last year, Tehran was hell-bent on destroying the MEK. Now the tide has turned, with the opposition on the offensive. 
Tehran fears the opposition’s soft power more than the hard power of foreign governments. That is why Iranian leaders and media outlets react forcefully and anxiously to such visits and opposition activities. The opposition can be a very powerful tool to pressure Tehran without the need for direct military confrontation.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh.