In his response to my article on the connections between a number of potential Trump Cabinet nominees and the Iranian organization known as the Mujahidin e-Khalq (MEK), Robert Torricelli does what the group’s supporters always do: He rewrites history, and then smears the group’s critics.
|Members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, an armed Iranian opposition group in Iraq, guard the road leading to the group’s main training camp near Baqubah, north central Iraq, in May 2003. | AP Photo
With one MEK supporter already tapped to be a Cabinet secretary (Elaine Chao at Transportation); several others, including John Bolton and Fran Townsend, still in discussion for senior jobs in a Trump administration; and a fourth, Newt Gingrich, taking the self-described role of “chief planner,” the character of the MEK and, by extension, its well-paid supporters matters.
Let’s start with the revisionist history. Torricelli, a former congressman and senator and for many years the MEK’s lawyer, denounces my assertions about the group’s violent past as outrageous and contends that he “has seen no evidence to support the assertion Benjamin makes that it took part in terrorist activities against Iranians or Americans.”
But there’s plenty of evidence out there. For decades, and based on U.S. intelligence, the United States government has blamed the MEK for killing three U.S. Army colonels and three U.S. contractors, bombing the facilities of numerous U.S. companies and killing innocent Iranians. Multiple administrations have rejected efforts by the MEK and its surrogates to claim that any bad acts were the result of what Torricelli calls “a Marxist group” that briefly ran the MEK while other leaders, who later rejected this cabal, were in prison.
So much was true when Torricelli himself was in the House of Representatives and served as a member of the Europe and Middle East Affairs Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In a written response to a subcommittee question in 1992 about the MEK, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau wrote:
We do not deal with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. This policy arises from our concerns about the organization’s past use of terrorism, its continuing advocacy of violence, and a fundamental contradiction between its policy and our own.
First of all, the Mojahedin murdered several Americans [sic] officials in Iran in the 1970s. This is not history to us, nor do we accept the Mojahedin attempts to excuse such actions on grounds that some of the organization’s leaders were incarcerated at the time of the attacks. The organization took responsibility for the attacks, and must bear the subsequent responsibility. They also supported the occupation of our Embassy in Tehran, in which American diplomats became hostages for over a year.
This is not a solitary reference. The issue came up frequently, and the answer was always the same. A 1992 Congressional Research Servicereport detailed the MEK’s extensive record of murder of Americans and Iranians. Although Torricelli denies that the MEK took part in Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Kurds after Operation Desert Storm, the report, drawing on U.S. government sources, notes, “Iraqi Kurds also claimed the Mojahedin had assisted the Iraqi army in its suppression of the Kurds, ‘a claim-substantiated by refugees who fled near the Iranian border.’” The report goes on to cite the Kurdish leader—and first president of Iraq after the fall of Saddam—Jalal Talabani, as telling reporters at the time that “5,000 Iranian Mojahedin [MEK] joined Saddam’s forces in the battle for Kirkuk” and points to Wall Street Journal reporting as well on the MEK’s part in this bloody campaign.
There is also a rich scholarly literature on the MEK’s misdeeds. Indeed, in 2011, distinguished Iranian-American historian Ervand Abrahamian (author of The Iranian Mojahedin) and three dozen other leading Iran scholars including Shaul Bakhash, Gary Sick and Juan Cole all signed a letter, published in the Financial Times, that opposed removing the MEK from the State Department’s Foreign Terrorism Organization List because of its history of terrorism, cult-like behavior and lack of support among Iranians.
Additionally, the MEK’s lawyer claims that in 1997, at the time of the designation, “The State Department gave as its reasons the MEK’s long record of violence, but I can tell you that as a member of the [Senate] Foreign Relations Committee, I reviewed the State Department file on the MEK and found no evidence, no testimony and no reason for the designation except placating Tehran.” But here, too, former Sen. Torricelli’s statement is incorrect. The State Department never shares the administrative record that underlies the listing of foreign terrorist organizations with anyone outside the Justice Department, the FBI, the Treasury Department and the White House. He would not have seen any State Department “file” or any evidence it contained.
Torricelli dismissed my argument by labeling me, and those who pushed to designate the MEK as a terrorist group back in 1997, appeasers of Tehran. The MEK and its surrogates commonly use this attack against those who criticize the group, but it is nonsense. Those who worked on the designation have repeatedly refuted this claim about doing a favor to Iran, and I certainly carry no brief for Tehran.
Indeed, in my years on the National Security Staff and as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, I’ve been devoted to combating Iranian terrorism. I pressed our European partners to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, which they eventually did in 2013. I briefed other countries on the Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., an effort that led to an unprecedented U.N. General Assembly condemnation of Iran in 2011. MEK supporters simply believe that anyone who won’t echo their calls for regime change in Tehran must be on the Islamic Republic’s side. They also claim that the MEK has a future as the “true democratic opposition to the mullahs”—that if and when regime change comes about in Iran, the MEK will be able to fill the void. But this is just pure wishful thinking. With no support in Iran and a gruesome history behind it, the MEK has no serious political prospects.
Lastly, Torricelli implies that because several high-level officials such as Secretary Hillary Clinton and Secretary John Kerry have thanked prominent American MEK supporters for their help in pressing the remaining group members to leave Camp Ashraf and later Camp Liberty, they somehow approve of the MEK.
I can’t speak for any private communications after I left State, but I would be surprised if the sentiment inside the building were any different from what it was when I was there—which is that gratitude was expressed to various American political figures for urging MEK followers, who were being used as pawns by their leadership, to start leaving Iraq. We wanted to avoid them all getting killed—86 were slaughtered in attacks in 2011 and 2013. That’s why I recommended, and Clinton signed off on, delisting the MEK—and doing so specifically as a matter of her discretion and not because of “changed circumstances,” which would have been the reason of record if the State Department felt confident that the MEK had become a genuinely trustworthy, nonviolent and democratic group.
It’s probably too much to ask that Robert Torricelli or any of the renowned political figures supporting the MEK reconsider their views. But others in Congress and the public ought to consult the abundance of evidence of the MEK’s troubling history, including the abuse of its members relayed in reports by such observers as Human Rights Watch and the account of its efforts to buy influence on Capitol Hill contained in the memoir by former Congressman (and onetime Iran-based CIA operative) Robert Ney. A more informed debate about the MEK might start there.
Ambassador Daniel Benjamin is Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and served as Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department 2009-2012.
Daniel Benjamin, Politico Magazine,