WASHINGTON - A bi-partisan group of U.S. lawmakers has told an Iranian opposition group that it will press for tougher U.S. action against Iran's Islamist rulers, as Tehran awaits word on whether President Donald Trump will follow through on campaign pledges to take a similarly tough stance.
The half-dozen Republican and Democratic House members made the pledges to the Organization of Iranian-American Communities (OIAC) on Tuesday. OIAC, which is allied to exiled Iranian dissident movement Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK, had invited the lawmakers to speak at a gathering in Washington's Rayburn House Office Building, as part of the group's years-long efforts to lobby Congress.
OIAC says it advocates for a "democratic, secular and non-nuclear government" in Iran. MEK, which leads the France-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), seeks to "overthrow" what it calls the "religious dictatorship" ruling Iran. In a statement to the gathering, OIAC political director Majid Sadeghpour said his group looks forward to working with President Trump and Congress to shape a "successful policy" toward Iran, which he called "arguably the greatest threat to U.S. national security."
Trump has yet to outline his Iran policy since taking office on January 20. But as a candidate, he strongly criticized then-President Barack Obama for joining world powers in reaching a nuclear deal with Iran a deal in which Tehran agreed to stop activities that Western powers feared could be used to develop nuclear weapons, in return for relief from international sanctions. Trump said the 2015 agreement would not work, calling it a "disaster" and pledging to either dismantle or renegotiate it.
Speaking to the OIAC gathering, Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called for expanding an existing set of U.S. sanctions against Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) sanctions that are not part of the nuclear deal. "It is time that we put the tools that we have created to use, broadening our sanctions so that they include IRGC-controlled businesses and subsidiaries," Ros-Lehtinen said. "We must target the (Iranian) regime at every turn, not only enforcing the sanctions that have been too long neglected, but expanding their scope whenever and wherever possible."
As part of the nuclear deal's sanctions relief, Iran has been able to sign agreements to buy Western passenger planes for its aging commercial airline industry. Those agreements include state-run Iran Air's $16 billion purchase of 80 aircraft from U.S. plane-maker Boeing a deal announced in December.
Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman has co-sponsored new legislation that could complicate Iran Air's efforts to secure the Boeing aircraft. The bill would require the Trump administration to report on any signs of Iran using commercial aircraft for "illicit military or other activities" violating the sanctions relief.
In an interview with VOA on the sidelines of the OIAC gathering, Sherman accused Iran of using "supposedly civilian aircraft" to support war crimes in Syria's conflict an accusation Tehran has denied.
"We need an ironclad system that makes sure (any newly-acquired planes with American technology) are not used for military or terrorist purposes (by Iran)," Sherman said. He also said U.S. banks should not loan Iran any money to pay for new planes, citing the billions of dollars of sanctions relief it already has received.
Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher told the OIAC gathering that he believes Washington should intensify political pressure against Iran's government.
"One strategy is to help pro-democracy movements who would replace the mullahs," Rohrabacher said. He also called for holding Iranian leaders accountable for human rights violations and encouraging ethnic minorities to pursue autonomy.
"I'm willing to help the Azeris, Baluch and Kurds, who are not part of the Persian majority, to create a situation where you have autonomous regions similar to the states of the United States, so that those people's rights will feel secure as well," he said.
In separate remarks to OIAC members, Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel said he wants to focus on helping one Iranian opposition group in particular MEK, which completed a two-year-long process of relocating about 3,000 of its Iraq-based exiles to Albania last September.
The exiles had been based in Camp Ashraf in eastern Iraq from the 1980s until 2012, when the Iraqi government moved them to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near Baghdad. The exiles sought international help to leave Iraq as they faced a series of deadly attacks after 2009, when U.S. forces who had occupied the country since a 2003 invasion transferred Camp Ashraf to Iraqi authorities who labeled them a terrorist group. MEK members for years have demanded that the Iraqi government compensate them for property left behind in the two camps.
Eliot said the MEK group has $50 million in assets at Camp Liberty and $500 million at Camp Ashraf.
"We want the Iraqi government to sell these properties and return the money to MEK members. It's very important," he told the gathering. "As all of their expenses in Albania are paid by MEK, they need their money to be returned as soon as possible. So I urge Iraq, which the United States has helped for so many years, to honor its commitment to return the money to MEK."
It is not clear whether or when Iraq will complete that process.
Some U.S. lawmakers have long praised MEK for sharing information with the United States about clandestine Iranian nuclear operations. Iran has long denied seeking nuclear weapons.
VOA's Persian service contributed to this report.