As U.S.-Iran tensions escalate, Iran’s domestic opposition group is courting allies in the U.S in hope to replace the current authoritarian Iranian regime.
Last week, another former high-ranking official joined the camp.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, registered last week as a foreign agent lobbying pro bono for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a major Iranian dissident group pushing to topple the country’s current administration. Mukasey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this week, Mukasey received attention for defending President Donald Trump in an op-ed, pointing to the Justice Department’s statement that declined investigations into the president’s July call with Ukraine.
The council is the political arm of Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. Responsible for killing Iranian and American citizens in the past, the group was a U.S.-designated terrorist group before its delisting in 2012 following a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign.
The group also had close ties with Iraq President Saddam Hussein, who in 1986 sponsored MEK with weapons, funding and a military base in hope for help against the Iranian government.
Although Mukasey officially registered his ties to the group just last week, he had previously met with the group several times between 2015 and 2018, Foreign Agents Registration Act records in OpenSecrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch database show.
Mukasey is among a list of high-ranking former officials who gave paid speeches at conferences in support of the MEK, and was investigated, but never sanctioned, by the Treasury Department for potential violations of law for accepting speaking fees.
Mukasey spoke last year in Paris at the “Free Iran” conference — a gathering of Iranian opposition groups — in favor of a regime change in Iran, promising that he would never rest while supporting the effort. “We hope that the mullahs will topple,” Mukasey said, “but it’s gonna take more effort.”
The former attorney general joined lobbying firm Debevoise & Plimpton after he stepped down as attorney general in 2009. Since 2011, Mukasey and his family members have given more than $50,000 to mostly Republicans and their affiliated PACs, records show. Much of the money went to hawkish lawmakers including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
All three senators spoke vocally against the Iranian government in the past. In 2017, Tillis was part of a U.S. delegation led by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) to Albania to meet with MEK’s leader Maryam Rajavi. She later thanked the Blunt-led delegation for the Senate’s effort to protect MEK members in Iraq.
Cotton, a longtime critic of the Iranian government, pushed the Trump administration in June to launch a “retaliatory strike” against Iran after the U.S. blamed the country for a series of attacks. McCain backed Trump’s decision to shelve the Iran nuclear deal long before the president withdrew from the agreement, arguing that Iran has “literally been getting away with murder.”
Mukasey’s registration comes at a time when the U.S.-Iran tensions continue to build since Trump’s withdrawal in 2018 from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal.The already-strained relationship took a downturn after multiple attacks and U.S. military movements near the Persian Gulf.
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As the bilateral disagreement intensifies, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently warned that the Middle Eastern country will defend itself with an “all-out war” if the U.S. launches a strike against it. Last Saturday, the U.S. Air Force pulled its longtime Qatar-based Middle East command center back to South Carolina for the first time, the Washington Post reported, saying Iran-related incidents sped up the decision.
Amid rising distrust, the National Council of Resistance of Iran claimed last week that it has evidence proving the Iranian government dictated the attack on Saudi oil facilities, further fueling the conflicts.
Raising its profile in Washington, D.C., over the past few years, the group often participates in congressional briefings, receptions and other events, FARA filings show. They also frequently run opinion pieces in conservative media outlets such as The Washington Times, the Washington Free Beacon and Fox News.
The council has paid American lobbying firm Rosemont Associates $1.4 million since 2013 to lobby the government. Senator-turned-MEK-lawyer Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) — lobbying on behalf of the group — received backlash in 2002 for his support for Iranian opposition groups. While senator, Torricelli met with the council twice in 2001 discussing human rights issues and Iranian missile attacks, records show.
Mukasey’s registration is only the most recent revelation in a network of current and former government officials and ambassadors with ties to the high-profile opposition group.
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, well-known for his aggressive foreign policy views on Iran and other countries, is a longtime critic of the Iranian regime. He advocated for the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and proposed to bomb Iran to stop nuclear proliferation in an op-ed.
For over a decade, Bolton publicly backed the MEK as a replacement for the current Iranian administration. His personal financial disclosures revealed that he was paid $40,000 in 2016 to conduct a speech to the group.
Between 2015 and 2018, the group met multiple times with Rudy Giuliani, former New York City Mayor and now Trump’s attorney, records show. Representing foreign clients while offering legal services to the president, Giuliani has invited scrutiny. The attorney, with rich connections with Ukraine, pushed the foreign government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden in the most recent Trump-Ukraine controversy.
Giuliani spoke publicly on several occasions in support of overturning the Iranian regime. “The mullahs must go, the ayatollah must go,” said Giuliani at last year’s “Free Iran” conference, “and they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.”
Torricelli, who has long lobbied on behalf of the council, published a Politico op-ed in 2016 arguing that Giuliani’s ties to the group should not be concerning.
Officials of the council met Giuliani in July 2015 to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, days after Iran reached an agreement with six other countries in Vienna to scale back its nuclear commitments in exchange for sanctions relief. Since Trump pulled from the deal, Iran has ramped up uranium production, potentially setting the country on a path to breaching the agreement as the U.S.-Iran tensions worsen.
By Yue Stella Yu, OpenSecrets