US-Protected Iran Exile Group in Line for Huge Cash Windfall
"The MEK can use some of that cash to pay legal settlements with former members that they tortured, as well as the families of Iranians they killed when they fought on the side of Saddam against Iran."
The controversial Iranian exile organization MEK, which the United States calls a terrorist group, could soon see a windfall of tens of millions of dollars as the result of the European Union’s decision Monday to take it off its list of terrorist organizations.
If so, it will mark dramatic turnaround the group’s fortunes.
The MEK, shorthand for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, and also known as the People’s Mujahideen Organisation of Iran, looked like it was on the ropes only days ago, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he wanted its U.S.-protected military base near the Iranian border closed within two months.
But the E.U.’s Jan. 26 decision not only unlocks untold millions of dollars frozen in European banks, it allows the militant anti-Iran organization to go public with appeals for millions more, perhaps catapulting it into a leading role in the Iranian opposition abroad.
The MEK could claim $9 million held in France alone, along with "tens of millions of dollars" worth of assets locked away in other EU countries, its spokesman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
What will it do with the windfall?
"Set off car bombs around Iran," jibed former CIA operative Robert Baer, whose pursuit was dramatized by George Clooney in the 2005 movie "Syriana."
The group says it has renounced violence, but the MEK has carried out dozens of terrorist attacks and assassinations against Iranian targets both inside and outside of the country. Some of those were launched from its base in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi said the unfrozen millions "will be used to increase our political activities … including to further disclose the mullah regime’s secret nuclear weapons sites."
Since Hussein’s overthrow, the 3,000 MEK fighters in Camp Ashraf, as it’s called, have been under the "protection" of U.S. troops, even though they’re still officially labeled terrorists by the State Department.
The seeming anomaly can be at least party explained by frequent reports that the MEK has been secretly helping the CIA run operations against the Islamic regime from its base in southeastern Iraq.
Its terrorist label was earned before the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, when the group, which bills itself as Marxist-Islamist, targeted Americans working in Iran. Indeed, 30 years ago this month the group helped overthrow the U.S.-backed shah and take 52 American hostages.
But eventually it turned against the religious regime. In 2001 its sustained opposition to Iran, its supposed renunciation of violence, and its portrayal of itself as a "progressive" political force won it admirers in the Bush administration and pro-democracy groups in Europe. Of no small note, it has also played a major role in exposing Iran’s nuclear activities.
Walid Phares, a scholar on terrorism and American of Lebanese descent, called the closing of Camp Ashraf "a significant Iranian victory."
"Ashraf was the only base for the MEK against Iran’s regime," he said by e-mail. "If it is shut down, they will lose the only base they have."
"More than a military base of the opposition against Tehran," he added, "Ashraf was a political base for broadcast and political outreach to the opposition in the inside."
On the other hand, the E.U.’s decision will conceivably allow MEK fighters entry into Europe, at least temporarily solving the problem of what to do with them once Ashraf is closed.
That, and the new money, can only add to the MEK’s political clout, which was put on display last year when the group drew 85,000 people to an anti-Iran protest outside Paris.
To date, exile communities have been divided over the MEK because of its attacks on Iranian troops from Iraqi soil during the two nations’ 10-year war. Some call the organization a puritanistic "cult,” because of its iron-fist leadership by a husband and wife team who have been accused of violating the human rights of their own followers.
But the E.U.’s decision could give the MEK a big boost over its rivals, Phares suggests.
"Once they are decertified [as a terrorist group] they will act as an international NGO [non-governmental organization] and will most likely receive even more donations from Iranian exiles," said Phares, a senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.
"De-certification by itself will strengthen the group within the Iranian diaspora," he continued. "Will they access to frozen funds in EU banks? This is another issue and will have to be negotiated. But certainly they will have a legal base. They will spend it to widen their base, and on strategic communications regarding Iran."
All things considered, it’s not hard to suspect a hidden American hand in the E.U. decision, or at least acquiescence in it, since it so neatly finesses the eviction notice served on Camp Ashraf by Prime Minister Maliki.
In any event, it keeps MEK alive — and more — despite the threatened closing of its longtime base in Iraq.
The Iranian regime reacted sharply to the E.U. move, accusing the union of a "double standard" on terrorism. It also said it was drafting a plan to put MEK members on trial, "either in the Islamic Republic or outside the country,” according to Press TV, an Iranian news service.
CQ Politics By Jeff Stein