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US and the MEK: Blurring friends and enemies

The United States of America has consistently and historically championed itself as a preeminent nation in the world. However, since recent international and domestic events left the US in a more precarious position, they are desperately making friends with unlikely groups.

Post 9/11 US Befriending the MEK or MKO

President George W. Bush, his administration, and the mass media have carried the banner of an age-old mantra post-September 11, 2001: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Along with this mantra, the aforementioned have also propagated a polarizing theory with public statements declaring, “You’re either with us, or against us.”

However, political situations are not always so black and white – but neither are friends and enemies.

The relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the US has remained strained since the 1953 British and US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) orchestrated coup d’état of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, who had aims of nationalizing Iran’s oil. Along with the following 1979 Islamic Revolution and ensuing 444-day student takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, Iran and the US continued to grow apart and remain isolated from one another.

US-Iranian political atmosphere and dominant American philosophies have encouraged the US government to forge a friendship with an Iranian opposition group that is living in exile, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK, MKO or PMOI for the People’s Mujahedin of Iran).

BBC’s Newsnight on January 17, 2007 uncovered an offer that Tehran sent to Washington in 2003, stating Iran would abandon supporting Hamas and Hezbollah if the Western countries would ensure the MEK be disbanded. Many officials in the US government saw an enormous potential of working with Iran, but the offer was stopped in its tracks by Vice President Dick Cheney – and remained unsigned.

Instead of attempting to bridge the gaps between Iran and the US, the American government has been funding the MEK under a guise of ‘democracy promotion’ in Iran. Reported amounts of money differ, but consider the following:

July 16, 2008 the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs met to go over the 2009 International Affairs budget. Noted in a section, Function 150, was $65 million allocated as Economic Support Funds For Iran. Included in this same section, was $1.2 million to launch US-backed Radio Free Europe (a.k.a Radio Liberty Azerbaijani) broadcasts into Iran.

Jason Leopold, of The Public Record, wrote on July 10, 2008 that Congress has appropriated over $120 million to fund ‘democracy promotion’ projects inside Iran.

Investigative journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Seymour Hersh, revealed in his July 7, 2008 article for The New Yorker that the US has been operating with a covert budget of $400 million, he writes, for plans to “destabilize the country’s religious leadership.” This information was found in a highly classified Presidential Finding that “focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change working with opposition groups and passing money.” Hersh also writes that both the CIA and American Special Operations groups have had “long-standing ties” to the MEK.

A Pentagon consultant told Hersh “the MEK has no CPA [Certified Public Accountant] auditing the books, and its leaders are thought to have been lining their pockets for years. If people only knew what the MEK is getting, and how much is going to its bank accounts – and yet it is almost useless for the purposes the [US] Administration intends.”

Even if this is true, the US steams ahead with its aid to the Mujahedin. Congressmen Bob Filner (D-CA) and Tom Tancredo (R-CO) co-chair a bi-partisan Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus – which is the main group lobbying for MEK support and removal from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Most recently Representative Tancredo stated in the House of Representatives that “it’s time to take the handcuff’s off the MEK” on July 14, 2008. At the same meeting, Rep. Filner claimed “the MEK provided significant intelligence that helped blow the whistle on Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons and missile development programs” – neglecting to note that the National Intelligence Estimate deemed Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program since 2003.

Not only do Representatives Tancredo and Filner (and the rest of the MEK supporters in the US government) speak about the group as idealized forbearers of democracy, they also equate the MEK to Iranians en masse. Often times with statements like Filner’s from the aforementioned meeting, “we must…shift our support to the Iranian people” – herein he assumes the almost 70 million strong population of Iran aligns themselves with the MEK, an exiled fringe group.

The MEK in Camp Ashraf

The MEK were active in efforts to displace the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but eventually severed their ties with followers of the Grand Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, becoming a violent, militant opposition group inside Iran – one that carried out bombings, attacks and assassinations on both Iranian and Western targets. At the end of 1981, most MEK members were in hiding or exiled in France. In 1986, with developing Iranian-French relations, the Mujahedin were declared ‘undesirable aliens’ and relocated to Iraq.

Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf City, is north of Khalis in-between Baghdad and the Iranian border. It contains the largest consolidation of MEK members with a population around 4,000.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq included air strikes on the Mujahedin. After the two parties came to terms on a ceasefire, in June 2003 US forces claim to have successfully disarmed Camp Ashraf. In tandem, seven US agencies screened individuals in Ashraf for past terrorist activities. A July 6, 2008 Washington Post article mentioned the FBI fingerprinted 3,800 individuals, and more than 40 already had previous records of known criminality in the FBI’s database.

Despite this finding, the American government concluded the Mujahedin did not have a terrorist basis, and the members of Ashraf City would be protected citizens under the Fourth Geneva Convention in July 2004. On the contrary, the MEK remains among 42 groups on the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) since 1997. Their status on the list has to be renewed every 2 years, suggesting the US has consistently re-categorized the MEK as a terrorist group for over a decade.

Again, regardless of an FTO classification, the large monetary endowments from the US have allowed the MEK to turn Ashraf from a shanty desert town into a camp “made up of a complex of roads and buildings. It contains all sorts of educational, social and sports facilities. These include 4 Olympic size swimming pools, a shopping centre, a zoo, a park, 2 universities, a full size football pitch, a mosque and even a cemetery” – boasted MEK literature handed out at an Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus meeting on February 11, 2008.

The Mujahedin on the Terrorist List

Seeking legitimacy, the MEK is actively campaigning to be removed from lists designating it as a terrorist group.

After 7 years of efforts in the United Kingdom, the British Court of Appeals upheld the Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission ruling that the MEK is not a terrorist organization in May 2008. The ruling was based on the finding that the court lacked evidence to conclude the MEK would resort to terror tactics in the future.

This de-listing means the group now has more freedom to meet, fund-raise, and conduct their operations. For example, one month after the British ruling, the Paris-based National Council Resistance of Iran (the umbrella group of which the Mujahedin is the main part) held a rally outside of Paris where many political figures were present to show solidarity.

How do the MEK represent themselves? They claim to be nonviolent, advocate a democratic, pluralist and secular system of government; advocate normalized relations with all the governments of the region and the world; advocate elimination of all forms of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities; guarantee the individual and social rights stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; guarantee the separation of Church and State; and guarantee autonomy for Iranian Kurds. They also contend to have a ‘president in waiting,’ Maryam Rajavi, for the fulfillment of MEK’s ultimate goal: overthrowing the current Iranian government.

Conveniently ignored is a historical viewpoint of the group, an explanation of why they were exiled from Iran or justifications for their terror listing over time in various nations. Such as the May 2005 Human Rights Watch report that the MEK are rampant in human rights violations, naming them a ‘cult’ that runs ‘prison camps’ in Iraq, implementing physical and psychological abuse to prevent members from leaving.

All in all, a group with governmental overthrow as their main objective combined with a consistent terrorist designation would make a least likely ally, if the US considered it rationally.

A Misguided Union

Desperate with a bad economy, high oil prices, a sub-prime market lending debacle that is only worsening, wars waging on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a US budget that will reach a record $482 billion in the upcoming year according to Bloomberg – the US is grappling for a way out.

Americans should be opening dialogue with the Iranian government, not opposition groups, as many believe that Iranian engagement in Iraq is the primary stabilizing factor that could allow a US withdrawal.

However, the MEK have become a friend of convenience, but not a friend offering any promising outcomes. Especially in a time where both Iran and the US have mounting levels of distrust for one another; how would supporting an enemy of Iran make Iran want to be a co-operative friend to the US?

By Nina Hamedani

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