On paper, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq sounds like the sort of group the United States government might like to cultivate: well-organized Iranian exiles concentrated in Europe and Iraq who share Washington’s antipathy to the theocracy in Iran. The group — whose name translates as “warriors (or freedom fighters) for the people of Iran” — has its own “parliament in exile,” the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and says it supports a secular government, democracy, human rights, and women’s rights in Iran.
In practice, however, the Iranian group has some major shortcomings in the ally department. For the past decade, the State Department has listed the MEK as a “foreign terrorist organization,” and more recently has argued that the group displays “cult-like characteristics.”
The MEK has been waging a spirited campaign to persuade the U.S. to drop the terrorist designation — which would require either the secretary of State’s say-so or an act of Congress.
Although the group can’t make its own case directly, in the past several years two prominent former U.S. government officials have been publicly touting the MEK’s virtues and arguing that the United States should remove it from the terrorist list.
At the moment, the more high-profile and influential of these advocates is former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, a senior policy adviser at the global law and lobbying firm DLA Piper. Last year, Armey wrote two op-eds for Washington newspapers urging the State Department to drop the MEK’s terrorist designation.
“Never has the old adage ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ been more true than in the case of the MEK,” he wrote in The Hill in July. And in The Washington Times in December, Armey wrote, “With a stroke of the pen, the secretary of State could, and should, remove the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and the National Council of Resistance of Iran from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.”
In 2006, DLA Piper and Global Options, a crisis-management company, issued a 232-page report with a foreword by Armey and Neil C. Livingstone, then-CEO of Global Options, aimed at refuting the U.S. government’s allegations against the MEK and calling for an end to its terrorist designation.
Another public advocate for the MEK is Raymond Tanter, who was a senior staff member at the National Security Council in the Reagan administration and is now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. In 2005, Tanter co-founded the nonprofit Iran Policy Committee, which lists as directors or advisers a half-dozen former executive branch, military, and intelligence officials and describes its mission as promoting a “central role for the Iranian opposition” in bringing about “democratic change” in Iran. The committee’s publications, conferences, and congressional briefings routinely urge the U.S. to take the MEK off its terrorist list, as well as to meet with and fund the group.
The MEK began as an anti-shah leftist group in the 1960s. It got on the wrong side of the United States when members assassinated several of the shah’s American advisers in the 1970s. In the three decades since Iran became an Islamic regime, the State Department says, the MEK has waged violent attacks inside that country, and it maintains the “capacity and will to commit terrorist acts in Europe, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, and beyond.” Over the years, the MEK has periodically reinvented its ideology, which today blends elements of Marxism, Islam, and feminism.
A charismatic husband-and-wife team leads the group: Massoud Rajavi, whose whereabouts are unknown, is the military leader, and Maryam Rajavi heads the political wing from France. The MEK’s size is also unknown, but the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that it could have as many as 10,000 members worldwide.
In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report detailing complaints from a dozen former MEK members that they suffered physical and psychological abuse while they were in the group. The State Department says that members undergo indoctrination and weekly “ideological cleansings,” are separated from their young children, and must vow “eternal divorce” — that is, to remain unmarried or to divorce their spouse.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 took a toll on the MEK, which had set up operations there after being driven out of Iran and, later, France in the 1980s. Because Saddam Hussein had been providing the bulk of its military and financial support, the State Department says, the MEK subsequently began to use “front organizations” to solicit contributions from expatriate Iranian communities.
The U.S. military disarmed the group’s foot soldiers in Iraq and now holds some 3,500 of them as “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions at an encampment there. “We are not embracing them, we just don’t know how to [disperse] them” without putting their lives in danger, says Brookings Institution senior fellow Peter Rodman, who was an assistant Defense secretary through 2006.
MEK supporters argue that the group has renounced violence, poses no terrorist threat, and, in fact, presents a viable alternative to the theocracy in Tehran. The terrorist designation, they say, was a futile Washington sop to appease that regime. “The U.S. government at any moment can make that decision, and decide [that the designation] is unwarranted,” says Alireza Jafarzadeh, the former representative in Washington for the NCRI, and now a self-described consultant and a commentator on Fox News. Jafarzadeh blames “politics” for Washington’s failure to act and says that the MEK spends about 80 percent of its resources “to counter the consequences of the designation.”
MEK supporters argue that the group provided vital intelligence about Iran’s covert nuclear program in 2002, as well as about Iranian-sponsored attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Although more than 220 members of Congress signed a letter in 1998 protesting the group’s terrorist designation, the MEK’s several legal challenges to the designation have failed, and legislative efforts to remove it have gone nowhere.
Despite the Bush administration’s tough line on the Tehran regime, the MEK’s political fortunes in the U.S. have declined in recent years. The NCRI was once allowed to maintain an office, hire lobbyists, hold press conferences, and generally operate openly in the United States. But in late 2003, the administration got tough and the Justice Department shut down the office. The group still has some congressional supporters — led by the ideological odd couple of Reps. Bob Filner, D-Calif., and Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.
And then there is Armey, whose history as an outspoken advocate for the MEK is murky. In their 2006 report, Armey and Livingstone touted regime change in Iran through active support for groups such as the MEK, but said that neither the MEK nor the NCRI provided any direction, control, or financing for the report. Armey’s July 2007 article had a similar disclaimer. The December 2007 article identified Armey only as the chairman of the FreedomWorks Foundation, a free-market advocacy group.
DLA Piper has received $860,000 in fees over the past four and a half years from Saeid Ghaemi, whom the firm identifies as an “Iranian-American businessman who works closely with the Iranian-American community in the U.S. to promote human rights and democracy in Iran.” Public records identify Saeid Ghaemi as a used-car dealer in the Denver area, but an Internet search turned up no information about his political work with the Iranian-American community. When National Journal reached him by phone to ask about his hiring of Armey and DLA Piper, Ghaemi said he was busy and would return the call. He failed to return that or subsequent calls.
Ghaemi’s brother, Tim Mehdi Ghaemi, a Denver-area real estate manager and broker, is a longtime active supporter of the MEK who bills himself as president of the group Colorado’s Iranian-American Community. Over the past three years, Tim Ghaemi has helped to organize half a dozen pro-MEK events, including a controversial January 2004 fundraiser that led the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of the event’s prime sponsor. In 2007, he provided $8,000 for Filner to travel to Paris to deliver a speech at an MEK rally. The Colorado group has a website that posts news about the MEK and articles about Tehran’s persecution of its Iranian opponents, but NJ could find no information about the group, its members, or its board of directors.
Reached by phone, Tim Ghaemi said that his brother, Saeid, was not part of Colorado’s Iranian-American Community, which he called a “larger umbrella group.” He referred to “other, smaller, organizations that work specifically on other projects” such as women’s rights and the rights of minority religious groups in Iran, including Christians and Jews. But “everybody, unanimously, inside and outside [Iran] — they say there is no other hope” than the MEK, Tim Ghaemi said. The United States does not need to “send one soldier, or spend one dollar” to defeat the Iranian rulers he added, but only has to “stop appeasing the regime and take the [MEK’s] name off the list.”
Lobbying disclosure records show that Saeid Ghaemi hired DLA Piper in November 2004, and that Armey joined the team representing him in the first half of 2005. Over time, the team has lobbied Congress; the Defense, State, and Treasury departments; and the National Security Council.
National Journal made repeated calls to Armey’s office for comment and information on how he became a supporter of the MEK. The office referred all calls to a DLA Piper spokesman, who provided no information.
Last year, Armey and the other lobbyists also worked on Ghaemi’s behalf for a House measure urging the secretary of State to designate the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. Shortly after a broader measure targeting Iran and the Quds Force overwhelmingly passed the House last fall, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice designated the force a terrorist group.
DLA Piper also lobbied in the Senate for the Iran Human Rights Act of 2007 that would, among other things, expand U.S. support for Iranian opposition groups to include those outside Iran, and would establish a State Department envoy to reach out to such groups.
Tanter, like some other MEK defenders, says he supports the group because it is the only opposition organization that really worries the mullahs in Tehran. “I did an analysis of all the opposition groups and found that the [Islamic Iranian] regime paid attention to [the MEK] 350 percent more than all the others. I am not here to lobby on behalf of groups on the foreign terrorist organization list. I am an American trying to preserve American national security abroad and save lives.”
Tanter’s tax-exempt Iran Policy Committee has raised a substantial amount of money in a short period of time. In its latest filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the group reported revenues of nearly $917,000 — with Tanter receiving about $102,000 in salary, and the group’s co-chairs, Bruce McColm and Chuck Nash, getting just over $32,000 and $21,000, respectively.
Tanter says his group raises money on the Web and from speeches. “Every time I speak before a pro-Israel group or an anti-Iranian-regime group, hundreds of people show up, and if I’m in Europe, thousands show up,” he said. The average contribution is less than $1,000, he said, but some have been six- and seven-figure donations from his former students who now “make a killing” on Wall Street and “remember me.” Tanter added that he drew on his retirement money to start the group.
The law prohibits anyone in the United States or subject to its laws from providing “material support or resources” to a designated foreign terrorist organization. But these financial sanctions don’t prohibit “U.S. citizens from expressing their views on economic sanctions matters — and that includes the designation of the MEK — to Congress or the Executive Branch” according to the Treasury Department, whose Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees the sanctions. Bill Livingstone, who worked with his brother Neil on the 2006 report, said that the authors made sure the report did not violate Treasury’s rules.
“The First Amendment protects Dick Armey to make his opinions known, and protects the Iran Policy Committee’s educational mission to find options to reinforce our diplomacy” toward Iran, Tanter said. He has hired an attorney who specializes in the arcane Treasury rules and contends that his group tries “to vet our money to make sure we’re not getting any” from prohibited groups. Tanter also points out that several of his group’s advisers and directors are retired military and intelligence officers with security clearances that they would do nothing to jeopardize.
The effect of Armey’s and Tanter’s efforts is unclear. So far, the MEK’s efforts to shed its terrorist designation have met with far more success in Europe than here. The group has won court decisions mandating that the European Union unfreeze the group’s assets and that Great Britain remove it from that country’s list of terrorist groups. The British government says it intends to appeal.
Although the State Department is required to review its designation of the MEK later this year, the group’s supporters fear that the decision will reflect a political climate that has become less sympathetic to their cause. Administration hard-liners, who have lost ground to pragmatists, have been further undercut by the recent National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 — a conclusion that the MEK disputes. “This so-called hard-line [Bush] administration is more interested in striking a grand bargain with Iran than the E.U. is,” Tanter said. He and other MEK boosters also contend that if relations with Tehran worsen, the MEK’s prospects could revive.
The neoconservative community, where the MEK has found support in the past, has become sharply divided, with critics becoming as vocal as supporters in conservative publications. I don’t think any administration is going to want to include them,” said Rodman, who describes himself as a hard-line opponent of the Tehran regime. “Everyone has rejected [the MEK]. They’re not the kind of people we want to work with.”
Julie Kosterlitz, National Journal Group Inc