Over the past three decades, Washington's Iran policy has acted like a pendulum, oscillating between engagement and threats of military action. Given the problematic nature of the latter, engagement has essentially held sway. This has provided the Iranian regime a golden opportunity to rapidly advance its quest for the bomb.
In other words, engagement has failed to halt Tehran's nuclear drive.
So, what needs to be done? Tough sanctions are of course necessary, but clearly not sufficient. It is time for the West, the United States in particular, to focus on the third option, i.e., change from within. How? By relying on the people of Iran and their organized opposition.
That opposition movement, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), has been the source of much of the intelligence about the existence of multiple nuclear sites scattered in different parts of Iran, including the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, and the heavy water facility in Arak in 2002; Kala Electric, Lavizan-Shian, and Lashkar Abad in 2003; the Qom underground facility in 2005; and most recently the TABA site in 2011, where advanced centrifuge parts are manufactured.
Iran saw major uprisings in 2009 lasting several months before being brutally suppressed. Currently, Iran's economy is in shambles, the ruling elite are increasing fighting among themselves, and internal dissent has spread.
Nothing can convince the mullahs to halt their ambitious nuclear weapons program. The only and least costly option is to rely on Iranians and their organized opposition committed to replacing the regime with a democratic, secular, and non-nuclear republic. This option has widespread political support, signified by a large group of bipartisan members of Congress who are calling on the State Department to remove the shackles placed on the main Iranian opposition 14 years ago as a goodwill gesture to Tehran.
Make no mistake. Nothing can mobilize Iran's population behind its ruthless rulers, and nothing has been more destructive than the various forms of engagement. However, there is no need for foreign governments to allocate money, dispatch troops, or carry out any kind of military action against Tehran. The West must realize the power of Iran's people, arguably more deeply rooted even than what we saw in the Arab Spring. The time to act is now.
About Alireza Jafarzadeh Author of 'The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis'
Jamie M. Fly Former Director for Counterproliferation Strategy at the National Security Council
Matthew Duss Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress