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Secretary Spencer Abraham – A New Era in the Middle East

Speaker:    And we now give the floor to Secretary Spencer Abraham, former Secretary of Energy under President George Bush. [applause]  You are most welcome to take the floor.  You have ten minutes.

ABRAHAM:      Thank you.  Good afternoon.  President Rajavi, I am happy to stand here with you and with all these other individuals here today and those who are watching and will hear this—people who believe in freedom and who believe in democracy and are willing to give the last full ounce of their devotion to achieve it.  This is a great cause and I’m very proud to be part of it.  I’ve had the chance during my career to work closely on several of these issues, issues when I was in the United States Senate and issues when I served in the cabinet that pertained to the regime in Iran.  I’m proud to have stood strongly against what that regime has represented.    And I’m especially pleased and proud to stand with you on the issues which bring us here today.  We have entered a new era in the Middle East.  Events in Egypt and in Tunisia and in Libya and elsewhere show that people want a voice.  They want freedom and they want democracy.  And the question we face is whether the same encouragement, which was provided Egyptian and Libyan and other freedom seeking activists throughout the Middle East and North Africa will be extended to those pursuing democratic ideals in Iran.  Both the United States and the international community need to answer this question clearly and positively and the answer must be yes. 

Some of the things which need to happen are clear.  First on nuclear issues—Iran’s nuclear program cannot be allowed to lay the foundation for that regime to develop nuclear weapon capabilities.  Moreover, Iran doesn’t need to pursue a nuclear strategy with respect to energy because of its own domestic fuel base.  It has the gas and the oil to meet its energy needs.  And in my view, the International Atomic Energy Association, the IAEA, has not been strong enough on these issues for a long period of time.  The monitoring of this program must be intense and every effort possible must be made to limit their access to greater capabilities. 

I think we all understand today and appreciate one simple thing, which is that the policies of engagement have not succeeded in Iran and that has to be acknowledged.  The United States and others have given Iran time to develop its nuclear capability through the policies of engagement.  Can we say that the relationship between America and Iran or between the world community and Iran is any better today than before?  Is it better than five or ten years ago?  I would say that the answer to that is no.  History has taught us certain lessons that we all too often forget.  One of those lessons is that those who run oppressive regimes and rule by the assertion of power only appreciate power.  They view diplomacy as a one-way street.  If it helps achieve their aims, it will be diplomatic.  If it doesn’t, they will not.  When they are offered concessions, the response is always the same.  They say, “Thank you very much.  We’ll take those concessions and we will think about what you have asked in return.” 

And that is exactly what Iran has done with respect to the terrorist designation of the MEK.  Those who believe that giving into Iran on the MEK designation would bring about a more moderate Iran have been proven wrong.  Wrong on nuclear programs, wrong on meddling in the affairs of other countries, and wrong in the suppression of the rights of their own people and it is time for that designation to be ended once and for all.  [applause] 

This was a policy strategy entered into in difficult times.  Engagement is not always unsuccessful, but when it doesn’t work, it is time to admit it and move on.  Moreover, engagement is always more successful when it is launched from a position of strength.  United States has a long history of encouraging democratic ideals and there is no reason not to pursue that approach in relation to Iran.  No reason to distinguish Iran from others like Egypt or Libya in terms of strategic significance or in circumstance.  Moreover and more importantly, Iran’s role is an abettor of those whose seek to destabilize other US-friendly governments in the region further justifies a new tougher United States policy with regard to Iran.  Therefore there is no justification to be bystanders as the forces of democracy in Iran are repressed.  The regime and Iran’s authority is based on domination and suppression, not popular will and virtually any relaxation of that control will cause that regime to fail.  Even the extension of modest rights to protest and to speak out would bring down the regime.  I believe that because I think the leadership there is weak and it knows it.

Now to listen to their leadership in Tehran, they would of course say that this is not the case.  I say if it isn’t the case, then let’s try it.  Extend rights to your people, give them the right to free expression without fearing persecution or worse, and see how popular you are.  I think it is time for the regime in Iran to go and you all represent the change that is needed. [applause]

Particularly distressing are the circumstances at Camp Ashraf.  Simply put the United States has a moral obligation to protect the people there.  The facts on this are all very clear and you know them.  The United States entered into an agreement to protect the refugees in Camp Ashraf and turn the camp over to the Iraqi government until resettlement.  Since then the people have lived in peril, especially since the attacks took place there.  Now the UN High Commissioner on Refugees was to have reclassified the residents so that resettlement could occur, but this has been denied by the government of Iraq, who has said that first the residents must be relocated to another camp.  For me it is completely unclear why relocation is required.  If Iraq wants these people moved, then let them be resettled by the United Nations sooner not later.  Nevertheless the residents have agreed to move so long as they are protected and placed in a location that provides them with the human dignity they deserve, but that is not what the Iraqis have in mind.  The place where the Iraqis want to move the Camp Ashraf residents is not another camp as proposed.  It is a virtual prison.  In the proposed new location residents will apparently be denied access to lawyers, be denied unlimited access to healthcare, be denied freedom to receive family members.  Be denied access to their own property and be denied the freedom to leave that camp.  And (yet) they call this facility Camp Liberty.  I’d like to know what they would term a camp that was called Camp Detention.  Simply doesn’t make sense and if the United Nations believes that what they’ve entered in here is correct, they should be ashamed of themselves.  They have approved this location [applause] and the United States and all other nations should demand a new agreement be established.

So what’s really going on here?  The answer is a failed and misguided effort on the part of diplomats in Europe and the United States and at the United Nations to see better relations with and better behavior by the regime in Iran.  Unfortunately the naïve belief that designating, thank you, the MEK a terrorist group would empower the so-called moderates in Iran became policy.  And the people in Camp Ashraf have paid the price for that mistake.  Equally unfortunate is the fact that those who crafted this policy and their successors do not want to admit that they made a mistake and so they compounded by keeping the designation in place, even as lives are lost and people suffer.  Congress and the Obama administration and people like all of us who have represented various administrations in recent years have a responsibility to be as forceful as possible at this time.  This is a serious humanitarian manner and we must not sit back and merely condemn violence either past or future.  If we really believe that the international community has a role to play, then it is our responsibility just as it was in Libya to prevent slaughter and if we can do this in Libya, surely we could do this at Camp Ashraf and protect the people who live there. [applause]

I know that I’ve hit my ten minute mark, but I just want to conclude with one thought, more of a personal reflection.  As some of you know, I think, my background is that I’m a Lebanese-American.  I am a proud grandson of Lebanese immigrants who came to the United States some time ago and I have seen my family’s homeland suffer through terrible times and frequent internal conflict, much of it caused by Iran’s meddling and the actions of its surrogates.  As a Senator, I worked to try to change the US-Lebanon relationship.  I worked to advance many causes relating to the Middle East and to Americans of Arabic heritage.  And one of those was the cause of greater US engagement with Lebanon. 

It was never easy when I was in the Senate in the 1990s, because of course it wasn’t, that wasn’t too long back from there that the 1983 events occurred, (and) the Embassy bombing in Lebanon, and of course the civil wars that have taken place.  And in the Senate I worked to educate colleague and to persuade the US State Department and other agencies that the US view on Lebanon required changing.  One key issue was the travel ban.  It was a hard road and it required many, many hours of work on the part of all of its advocates—people like you who wanted to see their families again, wanted to protect people by bringing more US direct involvement to Lebanon.  And it was consistently thwarted by people who believe that the old policy made sense and that we shouldn’t risk something new.  People that were invested in what had gone on in the past and unwilling to open their eyes about what was going on today.  And we worked very hard and it took years of perseverance, but finally we began to succeed.  Ultimately the travel ban was lifted and I believe it made a difference. 

Now we didn’t have exactly the same challenge that you face.  We didn’t have people as much at risk as you do, but you face in some ways the same kinds of challenges with international organizations and governments who are wedded to policies that no longer make sense.  All I can say is this:  this will take determination.  Fortunately you have it.  It will take strong allies, both in the governments of the United States and in the European community and in United Nations.  And it will mean putting a lot of pressure on all of those people, especially those who are ready and can make a difference if they change their position.  But you have the strength to do that. 

Finally you have something that’s more important than anything else going for you.  And that is that you represent a strong moral cause and the forces of history and of human development are on your side, ‘cause the forces of history on our planet are very clear.  Those forces favor democracy.  They favor freedom.  They favor those who advocate freedom and democracy and liberty.  And those forces support the notion that people who are victims deserve to be treated in humane ways.  And so now is the time to move this cause forward and certainly I want you to know that I pledge everything I can do to help, but when you look across this stage, you have a tremendous group of allies here and others you’ve heard from in the past and now it’s all of us, up to all of us to stop just the speech giving and turn from talk to action and that is what we need to do and with God’s will, it will be successful.  Thank you very much. [applause]

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Iraqi forces attack Camp Ashraf