Iranian terrorist group has close US allies

The Mujahedin-e Khalq, which the US designates a terrorist group, has the backing of prominent American conservatives.

Clinton at House Foreign Affairs Committee
Members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq lobby US politicians to remove their organisation from the terrorist list [EPA]

Something strange is happening in Washington. In August, the Obama administration is expected to announce whether it will keep the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian group that killed American civilians and officials in the 1970s, on its foreign terrorist organisations (FTO) list.

Known for its cult-like behavior, the MEK (also known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, PMOI or MKO) fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s regime against its own country during the bloody Iran-Iraq war. This is one reason why it has almost no Iranian support, even if it refers to itself as the “most popular resistance group inside Iran” on its official website. It does, however, enjoy the backing of several US heavyweights with high national security credentials.

George W. Bush’s attorney general Michael Mukasey has described MEK members as “courageous freedom fighters”. President Barack Obama’s former national security advisor, General James L. Jones, gave a speech at a MEK conference dominated by non-Iranians. Their events have also been attended by former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.

MEK supporters point to the humanitarian issues at its headquarters in Camp Ashraf near the Iran-Iraq border as the reason for their advocacy. But it also has a “parliament in exile” called the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) with a “president-elect” named Maryam Rajavi who intends to rule Iran for a “transitional period” after the government is “overthrown”. The calls to protect Camp Ashraf have merit, but the Obama administration is being simultaneously lobbied to delist a FTO with a known anti-Iran agenda, thereby upsetting the already delicate political balance between Iran and the US.
The president does not want to be accused of being soft on Iran while it is pounding its chest in Iraq, but succumbing to the MEK’s well-organised lobbying effort will not only further harm US-Iran relations, it will also negatively affect Iran’s internal opposition. Since the FTO list is seen as a diplomatic weapon rather than
a national security tool, the delisting of the MEK will be read in Iran as an escalation in hostilities and force President Obama into a position that is not his own.

From Iran to Iraq

For an organisation that has been attempting to cultivate alliances with officials on both sides of the Atlantic for years, the MEK began as a radical, anti-Western, anti-monarchist movement in the 1960s. Its mix of Islamic ideology and Marxist analysis attracted young, educated Iranians, and with other anti-monarchist groups it helped overthrow the pro-American regime. Among its myriad victims in Iran were three American civilian contractors, an incident the State Department would later cite as a reason for its terrorist designation. In 1979, the MEK also supported the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran.

According to Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian, “the Muhjahideen tried to work within the regime from 1979 until 1981”. But after it became clear that the Islamic government was not going to share power, the regime itself became its main target. It was the first group to conduct a suicide bombing in Iran, and it carried out a series of assassinations and bombings that left many Iranian officials dead. The state department lists an MEK attack in April 1992 on 13 Iranian embassies in different countries as proof of “the group’s ability to mount large-scale operations overseas”.

The response of Iran’s clerical government was brutal, torturing and executing thousands of MEK members and other dissidents. In 1981, the MEK leadership fled to Paris and many of its surviving members went to Iraq in 1986. Policy analyst Vali Nasr told PBS’s Frontline that that during this period the MEK acted “as an arm of Iraqi intelligence against Iranian operatives in Iraq, against Shi’ites and against the Kurds”.

According to a 2009 report by the RAND Corporation, while the MEK denies killing Kurds, MEK press reports “quote Rajavi encouraging MEK members to ‘take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards'”. The report also states a “substantial number” of members who “were lured to Iraq under false pretenses … particularly with respect to its cult behavior – and many have been forced to remain against their will”.

Well-armed by Hussein’s regime, the MEK tried to invade Iran in the last stage of the Iran-Iraq war. According to Abrahamian, this may have been because it was their last chance to take Iranian territory before a cease-fire made it impossible to do so.

When I asked former high-ranking member Masoud Banisadr how he thought this might have affected the Iranian perception of them, he told me members were trained to believe that “95 or 99 per cent of Iranians supported them”. But when they entered the Iranian city of Eslamabad, they realised that everyone had fled in fear of them. “We had been told that Iranians would welcome us with roses and we never really asked why that didn’t happen.”

From “fighters of the people” to a “cult”

Banisadr, 57 years old, has written a memoir about his life in the MEK until his departure in 1996 – an event he attributes to “luck”. He said mind control was a normal occurrence at Camp Ashraf: “I remember being forced to attend a speaking session lasting for 3 days. In total I think we got around 2 hours of sleep a night.” He was also forced to leave his family. “They told us to imagine sleeping with the corpses of our spouses. Not to think that they had been dead for a long time, but just long enough so that the body was still warm.”

Camp Ashraf is closed to most outsiders, but in 2005 Human Rights Watch released a report describing the “mass divorce” that was imposed on Banisadr and all other members and “abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave” to “lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members”. The former MEK members interviewed also reported “two cases of deaths under interrogation”.

Do Iranians support the MEK?

MEK members who are estimated in the thousands decry their negative descriptions. According to a Talking Points Memo (TPM) interview with US-based MEK lobbyist Ali Safavi, “When you talk about the MEK, and you say they are a cult …we take it very personally … Because in our view … it is an insult to our [loved ones] who have been murdered by this regime”. According to US foreign policy analyst Barbara Slavin who interviewed current and former members, it’s the family of MEK who were killed by the Iranian government that make up the majority of its base today.

MEK advocates do not take criticism lightly; they are known to discredit their critics by smearing them, disseminating misinformation in the US and Europe. According to a 2004 FBI report, the MEK brands “former members and witnesses as Iranian government agents”. This information is then “often picked up by Western Intelligence agencies as factual information and is disseminated as intelligence”.

Safavi told TPM that “nobody in his right mind” who opposes the regime in Tehran can be opposed to the MEK. But this infuriates supporters of the Green Movement which brought millions of Iranians into the streets in 2009. According to Muhammad Sahimi of PBS’s Tehran Bureau: “Anyone who opposes the [Iranian government] and cares about Iran and democratic principles cannot do anything other than vehemently oppose the MEK.”  There is “no comparison with the non-violent Greens and the MEK”, he said.

Tehran-based Green supporter Hossein Barmaki says he has never met anyone who publicly or privately supports the MEK: “The only government people in Iran could accept for the future is a democratic one, and that’s never going to be the MEK.”

But the devotion of the MEK’s hardcore supporters is undeniable. According to the RAND report, ten people immolated themselves simply because leader Rajavi was briefly arrested in Paris in 2003. Two died from their burns.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”

As with the MEK’s inner workings, questions also arise from its reported ties to Israel and its advocates. In 2006, the New Yorker‘s Connie Bruck suggested that the verified MEK intelligence provided to the US about Iran’s Natanz nuclear site was given to them by the Israelis:

“An Iranian-American political activist … said that Israel had earlier offered it to a monarchist group, but that that group’s leaders had decided that ‘outing’ the regime’s nuclear programme would be viewed negatively by Iranians, so they declined the offer. Shahriar Ahy, Reza Pahlavi’s adviser, confirmed that account-up to a point. ‘That information came not from the M.E.K. but from a friendly government, and it had come to more than one opposition group, not only the mujahideen,’ he said. When I asked him if the ‘friendly government’ was Israel, he smiled. ‘The friendly government did not want to be the source of it, publicly. If the friendly government gives it to the US publicly, then it would be received differently. Better to come from an opposition group.'”

The information about Natanz was publicised by MEK spokesman Alireza Jaferzadeh, who appeared in a number of media outlets following his Natanz revelation as a political analyst. Jaferzadeh has been heavily promoted by the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), a hawkish DC-based organisation focused on the US’ Iran policy. Founder Raymond Tanter, who produces the majority of the IPC’s output, is a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think tank founded by the main Israel lobby organisation in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Tanter advocates regime change in Iran and has spent considerable time lobbying the government to remove the MEK from the FTO list. During a 2005 IPC National Press Club briefing (now removed from the IPC website) Tanter explained his views on the MEK:

“The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) are not only the best source for intelligence on Iran’s potential violations of the nonproliferation regime. The NCRI and MEK are also a possible ally of the West in bringing about regime change in Tehran.”

Last year investigative journalists Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton also revealed that the IPC once shared an address, accountants, and some staff with multiple organisations that either “fronted for or had direct ties” to the Iraqi National Congress (INC) headed by Iraqi conman Ahmed Chalabi.

Legal or political?

According to Slavin, the reason Iran hawks and pro-Israel supporters have come out in support of the MEK is because of the old Washington mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. But she says that’s not a good enough reason to delist them: “You have to look at the nature of this organisation. It’s like saying you support Nazis because you don’t like communists.” National Iranian American Council research director Reza Marashi, who worked for the Bush administration’s Iran desk, said, “It’s like the ‘anything but Obama’ attitude turned onto the regime. They look at the six inches in front of their face and don’t look beyond that. You’d think they’d learn their lesson from Iraq.”

But strategic reasoning may not be the sole concern motivating this advocacy: some of the MEK’s prominent supporters have also reportedly received massive payments for speaking at their events. The New York Times reported that Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler, who has been trying to negotiate with the group, guessed that “about a million dollars was spent” on MEK lobbying “over the last six months”. When he asked how much retired General Clark received, adding that “[h]e doesn’t get out of bed for less than $25,000”, one member replied that the group’s advocates were not “doing it for the money”.

To the question of how this can be legal, Shayana Kadidal, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights said the transaction may have been done through a lobbying organisation, and to be held criminally liable, the government needs to show that you knowingly provided aid to an FTO. “Proving liability simply because there was a transaction could be difficult,” he said.

But in January, law professor David Cole wrote that Mukasey, Giuliani, Ridge and Frances Fragos Townsend could have committed a crime simply by vocally supporting the MEK’s cause in Paris. While proving liability is again the issue, the Patriot Act’s material support law makes it a felony to support an FTO by engaging “in public advocacy to challenge a group’s ‘terrorist’ designation or even to encourage peaceful avenues for redress of grievances,” wrote Cole.

According to Chase Madar, a lawyer specialising in US terror laws, the application of this law is highly selective. “It will be applied very strictly to, let’s say, the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, whose leadership is in jail for raising money that was several degrees removed from Hamas, but not when it comes to former government officials.”

Madar also says that there would be no legal obligation for the US to protect Camp Ashraf simply because they were taken off the FTO list and “can’t see what good it would do”. He says that the kind of attention this case has received on Capitol Hill suggests it has more to do with political concerns than with legal or humanitarian ones: “This is all part of a pattern in Washington among neoconservatives and neoliberals that America has a duty to shove political change down Iran’s throat.”

Blowback and US Policy in the Middle East

MEK supporters’ talk of facilitating “democratic change” in Iran through a group that does not have support there recalls memories of the UK-US engineered coup against the government of Mohammad Mossaddegh, who is still revered by Iranians as their first and only democratically-elected prime minister. What resulted was decades of authoritarian rule, from a pro-US but repressive and deeply unpopular monarchy, to a clerical establishment that enforces Iranian independence from foreign control through equally repressive means. This was the US’ “blowback”, and as the late Chalmers Johnson noted, the term was first used by the CIA in an after-action report about Mossaddegh’s 1953 overthrow.

In her book on US-Iran relations, Slavin reports that in 2003 the Iranians offered to exchange some key members of Al Qaeda who had fled from Afghanistan for members of the MEK based at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Some figures in the Bush administration supported this, but Slavin notes that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said that the deal was blocked by neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, who thought that the MEK could be used as a force against Iran. A comprehensive peace offer by Iran was likewise scuttled by the neoconservatives in 2003, thereby discrediting the moderates in Iran and facilitating the ascent of the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

However, even the Bush administration had ignored neoconservative entreaties to delist the MEK, which would make it strange for Obama to adopt a position that his predecessor found too risky. The humanitarian concerns at Camp Ashraf are legitimate, but they could be resolved through the assistance of organisations like the ICRC and UNHCR. To conflate this issue with the decidedly political question of delisting may only exacerbate the already fragile US-Iran relations.

In 2009, Obama earned much praise for admitting US responsibility in the 1953 coup against Mossadegh, even if he has failed to follow it up with a genuine move towards rapprochement. Despite the three decades of intransigence, however, the position is far from intractable. But any possibility of a thaw in relations might indefinitely evaporate should Obama take the MEK off the FTO list. It would also further harm the chances of Iranian democracy to develop unfettered.

Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist and co-editor of Lobe Log and PULSE Media. She can be found on Twitter: @jasminramsey

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.