How ‘Terrorists’ Become ‘Freedom Fighters’?: Tom Tancredo and the Iranian Mujahedin
Over past few months neoconservatives in Denver, Colorado, have been exploiting a political window of opportunity opened by two unrelated events, one in Iran and the other in Iraq, using the publicity surrounding the events to subtly reiterate their hawkish call for war against Iran.
Americans Against Terrorism (AAT), the organization that held demonstrations in Denver to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, has joined with a little-known charity called Colorado’s Iranian-American Community (CIAC), a former congressional representative and current chair of the conservative Rocky Mountain Foundation think tank, Tom Tancredo (R-CO), and a number of other pro-Israel hardliners and neo-cons alike.
Their aim has been to use the unrest following the June elections in Iran and the July 28 police crackdown on Camp Ashraf, Iraq, as propaganda to support a group the State Department calls terrorists.
The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), among several aliases, has been the subject of desire by neoconservative lawmakers in the West, in recent years, to use as a proxy army for a "regime change" in Iran, developing another angle of pressure on US President Barack Obama. The MEK has been listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the US State Department since 1997.
The group, at first, appeared to be demonstrating for "Democracy For Iran," as their signs read at the Colorado State Capitol building on Saturday, August 8, the “International Day of Solidarity with Camp Ashraf,” as AAT representative Ana Sami called it. The group has been holding these demonstrations at the State Capitol "regularly, as [they] see fit," she said.
They claim that the Iraqi police crackdown on Ashraf, during which 36 people were arrested and 12 allegedly killed, with hundreds injured, was in compliance with the government of Iran, however, they consistently over-emphasize the protests against the results of the last Iranian election, which is not related to the crackdown on Ashraf.
"Iranian Americans and Americans, of course, have gathered here today to show our support and solidarity for what’s been happening in Iran since the elections took place in June," Sami said at the August 8 demonstration.
She made that statement while standing near a large poster displaying images of the faces of MEK members allegedly killed during the July 28 police raid in Iraq.
However, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq has been noted by news reports dating before the June Iranian election as being keen on expelling the MEK.
The groups also held a panel on August 30 under the title; "The New Iranian Revolution: Done or Just Begun?" Sami sat on the panel for AAT, and it was headed by Rabbi Daniel Zucker of the group Americans for Democracy in the Middle East.
Tom Tancredo also sat on the panel and next to him was a little-known but highly active chair of CIAC and owner of the Lone Tree/Denver-based Alborz Real Estate Company, Tim Mehdi Ghaemi.
Again, just as the demonstrations hook an observer out of compassion for human rights, the panel speakers blurred the two events, and the bulk of the discussion focused on neither, rather, instead on scenarios of an Iranian nuclear threat, and the notion that the MEK should be supported by the United States as a military asset against Iran, all culminating into repetitive calls for ‘regime change’.
Zucker headed the panel with an over-the-top claim about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.
"One missile sent from a, uh, rogue freighter out in the Atlantic, exploding a nuclear warhead, no larger than the size of that of Hiroshima" could theoretically be used by Iran, or for that matter anyone, to cause "magnetic resonance" by detonating the warhead in the atmosphere, Zucker explained.
Tancredo further illustrated Zucker’s imagination by asserting that in the event of a ‘magnetic resonance’ attack "200,000 people would fall out of the skies immediately," due to the effect on computer chips in airplanes.
"Then a dark age descends upon that area affected by it," Tancredo hyperbolized, putting the icing on the cake of this bourgeoning false dilemma presented by the panel.
Tancredo and Zucker gave credit to the MEK for being a valued source of intelligence on Iranian nuclear weapons programs, claiming they had proven their credibility with reports of a clandestine weapons program in Iran in 2003, which did prompt an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but has turned up no violations of any weapons treaty or nuclear non-proliferation treaty, thus Iran’s nuclear facilities are perfectly legal.
According to Gareth Porter’s article "Iran nuclear leaks ‘linked to Israel’," for Inter Press Service (IPS), dated June 5, 2009, the "alleged studies" documents that the IAEA has been investigating ever since may very well be as fake as the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s desire for uranium from Africa, used as a justification for invading Iraq in 2003. The IAEA accepted evidence from the MEK, allegedly fabricated by their allies in Israel, with whom they have had relations since the early 1990s, according to Porter’s article.
A more recent article by Porter, also for IPS, dated September 14, titled “IAEA Conceals Evidence Iran Documents Were Forged,” explains that the IAEA has been ignoring evidence, brought to the agency’s attention by Iran, that the documents were fabricated, which appears in the press as though Iran has not been fully cooperative, but how cooperative should they be when they have evidence that the premise is bogus?
Pressed with this question the panel speakers would have simply accused Iran of misinformation because it’s Iran, a fallacy they consistently recommitted on August 30.
The panel framed Iran as a miniature evil empire. For example, Mehdi Ghaemi claimed that mass graves were recently found near Tehran.
The overall focus was ‘regime change’ in Iran and not human rights.
The part that focused on Camp Ashraf was a presentation of Youtube videos of the July 28 police raid. The footage showed crowds of people being beaten by riot police in a variety of uniforms, wielding large, 2-x-4 wooden sticks as batons, and wrecking fences and buildings with bulldozers. They also showed several enlarged, and full-color, photographs of the bodies of 11 members of the MEK who they say were killed by the Iraqi police.
They also mentioned a hunger strike underway in Washington DC to pressure the Obama administration, and have lately been claiming online that some of the hunger strikers have died in the midst of the strike, although I could find no independent support for that information.
At both the rallies and the panel it quickly became very clear that the victims of violence in both Iran and Iraq, to the hosts of these events, are nothing more than propaganda.
At the August 8 rally Sami shamelessly evoked the identity of Neda Soltan, a young woman shot in the chest during the election unrest in Iran, and whose death the world witnessed via social networking websites. Sami spun her death into propaganda for the MEK within but a few words.
"The Iranian government is, uh, an incredibly oppressive government and there’s been a lot of bloodshed since that time. I think the world has gotten to know the image of Neda, who was the female who got shot by a sniper in the chest … and I think the world was so touched, and I think the voice of Iranians really [is] what’s symbolized by Neda’s … death," Sami said, shortly before saying, "since the election the unrest has not been able to be silenced … and in addition to that you have an opposition that has been fighting for 30 years. It’s time we support them."
By ‘them’ she is obviously referring to the MEK, which is not part of the democracy movement popular among the youth of Iran today, and there is no relationship between the two even ideologically.
However, when one so bravely questions whether or not the Iranian people, even those who protested against the election results in Iran, who are average Iranian’s like Neda herself was, would support the MEK, the panelists of this estranged bed-fellowship claim that anyone who believes otherwise has somehow fallen under the spell of the Iranian government.
Responding to a comment by one very skeptical audience member, Zucker said, "I think that the image of the MEK being unpopular in Iran is part of the Iranian regime’s very successful disinformation campaign."
The audience member shook his head in rejection.
Tancredo responded to the comment as well.
"You may have a different [opinion], and certainly then if you do then I would think … that I can totally understand your unwillingness to have the United States do anything that would, that would cause the present regime [of Iran] some degree of heartburn, and this would, taking them off the list would certainly do that," said Tancredo.
Tancredo also mentioned that when he signed a letter to have the MEK removed from the terrorist list it provoked a critical response from the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. He stopped just short of accusing the Rocky of being influenced by the Iranian government.
"I do not know the extent to which the influence of the regime in Tehran, um, actually extends, but I know it’s, it is enormous … they’ve used the money that they have; oil revenues; to influence politicians throughout the world," he said.
Tancredo went on to explain that whether or not the MEK is popular does not concern him.
Tancredo said that he is "mostly concerned right now with Ashraf."
"That’s [his] immediate concern, trying to do something to protect these people who are truly being held hostage."
However, he also said; "I’m really not concerned with whether or not they win the vote in Iran."
"It’s a murky world out there," he said, "but I am convinced that these people are who they say they are. They are dedicated to the overthrow … of this Islamic Republic."
"To me [the MEK] are allies."
The truth of Tancredo’s view finally peeked out from behind the façade of concern:
"I believe that our interests, the interests of the United States of America; by the way, I think Western Civilization, to tell you the truth; are advanced, by, by using the advantage, by using the things that are available to us in the fight against radical Islam."
According to Dokhi Fassihian, an expert on Iranian-American affairs, with the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), the notion that the MEK is supported by anyone inside Iran is not even realistic. Most Iranians around the world detest the MEK, and in the case of dissidents inside Iran it is even likely that they hate the MEK more than the Ayatollah.
Part of the reason it would be in error of international law to allow the repatriation of the MEK to Iran is that not only would the government persecute them but they could face mobs and lynching among the population as well.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Amnesty International (AI) has reported that Neda’s fiancé was just released from prison in Iran, and allegedly the Iranian authorities attempted to coerce him into signing a statement blaming the MEK for her death.
Fassihian explained to me almost a week prior to that AI report that in the face of the threat posed by the MEK, among average Iranians, feelings of support for the leadership and patriotism ensue, just as in any society. To blame the MEK for Neda’s death would, therefore, be Iran’s attempt to preserve what popular support it still has. The government may be repressive but it has defended the country since the revolution against such threats for 30 years.
World-renowned critic of US foreign policy and host of the popular syndicated radio program Alternative Radio, David Barsamian, also said that the MEK is far from popular in Iran and is commonly misconstrued as being so only by hardliners while beating the drums for further ventures of US imperialism. In fact Barsamian explained that when such advocates of these types of policies use terms like "democracy," or "freedom," they often mean just the opposite.
The way Sami used the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ at the August 8 demonstration certainly implies that this is the case.
"The way freedom and democracy works in America is not necessarily the way it might look in Iran, but still, there are some very, very basic, core elements that exist everywhere that we deem to be a free or democratic … society," she said.
The term ‘regime change’ was repeated again and again on August 30, overemphasized to say the least.
The MEK formed during the 1960s and 70s as a Marxist-Islamic and feminist militant student group that took up arms and participated significantly in the revolution against the Shah, Reza Pahlavi. The US sponsored a coup d’état against the popular secular leader, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953 and reinstalled the Shah who was ousted in 1979 by the Iranian revolution that ushered in the power of the Ayatollah, expelling the US from country with a dramatic hostage crisis played out on Western television from the US embassy in Tehran. The first Ayatollah, Khomeini, purged the leftist factions after the revolution, and honed in especially on the MEK, persecuting and killing many members.
In the Early 1980s the MEK was exiled to Iraq and France where they established a military and political wing respectively, at the invitation of Saddam Hussein. As the Iran-Iraq war (1981-1988) flared up the MEK worked directly for Saddam against Iran, and were involved in campaigns of repression against the Kurds and Shiite communities in Iraq.
In 1997, while the MEK was still working for Saddam, the US State Department put the MEK and its political wing in France, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) on the list of FTOs. The listing was upheld again in 2001 and 2003, under the Presidency of George W. Bush, and they remain on the list today. The US Treasury Department listed the NCRI as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) organization under Executive Order 13224 in August of 2003, and their assets were subsequently frozen by the US Treasury Department.
In March of 2003 the US military carried out Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and occupied Iraq, ending the rule Saddam, and during this operation engaged in combat with the MEK when they approached Camp Ashraf, bombing the camp and leaving several MEK members dead.
The Department of Defense (DOD) was ordered to have the group disarmed and failed to do so at the time. The MEK signed a disarmament agreement after repeated attempts for DOD compliance by the State Department, finally, once they were guaranteed status as "protected persons" under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, even though they remain on the State Department’s FTO list.
The DOD declined to respond to my inquiry for this report.
After the US installed the government of the current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and began withdrawing troops from Iraqi cities, the responsibility for protection of the residents of Ashraf was handed over to the Maliki government.
The Maliki government is dominated by Shiites like himself and is thought by many to be friendly with Iran. In a July 31 press release Human Rights Watch (HRW), Joe Stork, deputy director of the HRW Middle East and North Africa division said the MEK "has made lots of enemies among Iraqis with their support for Saddam Hussein." Stork’s comment was part of a call on Iraq to conduct "an independent investigation into the deaths of at least seven Iranians during [the] police raid on Camp Ashraf" on July 28.
However, the status of ‘protected persons’ does not legitimize aiding covert terrorist activities.
According to a May 2005 report by Human Rights Watch called No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the Mojahedin Khalq Camps, the MEK has a history of human rights violations against its own membership. The RAND Corporation said in a 2009 report, The Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iraq: A Policy Conundrum, that many of the MEK’s members were people who fled Iran not expecting to be smuggled to an MEK camp in Iraq, and the report implied that the group’s popularity even among Iranian dissidents fleeing the country is highly questionable.
"Although the exact figure is not known, it is estimated that approximately 70 percent of [MEK] members now in Iraq joined the group after its relocation there and subsequent decline in popularity. Many of them were victims of these fraudulent recruiting practices," (original emphasis) the report reads (RAND, 2009, p. xvi).
The loyalty of the membership to the leaders of the MEK, Maryam Rajavi and her at-large husband Massoud, last seen in Iraq, is merely a result of the group’s cultish practices, far from its roots in popular and rational ideologies like Marxism, Political Islam and feminism. This implies that there is cause to protect the MEK membership from the MEK leadership.
In the January 17, 2007, broadcast of BBC Newsnight, Tim Whewell aired interviews with former MEK members who described the organization as a deceptive group that uses "psychological manipulation" to enforce a "system of control," Whewell narrated.
The MEK is largely made up of women and the freedom of women in this group amounts to a rigid obligation against any sexual pleasure or relationship, regular arbitrarily enforced disclosures of everything in their personal lives, and the group even issued a "decree" forcing all married members to divorce. Equality of men and women in the MEK is merely equality of total devotion to the leader, Maryam Rajavi, who lives in France and heads the NCRI.
In a March 30, 2007, report on an AhlulBayt Islamic Mission (AIM) TV program called Dateline, entitled "US Intelligence on Iran & the MEK," which can be viewed on the AIM website, two former MEK members explained that the group’s internal practices are "like a cult."
Tom Tancredo has apparently fallen under their sway, enough to argue that they are nice and friendly people, supporting this notion with an alarming, and somewhat incriminating anecdote in which he admitted to having traveled to France and meeting Maryam Rajavi on two occasions in Auvers-sur-Oise, a little town just north of Paris.
However, Mr. Tancredo is not alone.
According to the November 8, 2007, report, "Breaking Stories: Paris Sojourn" by Matt Potter, for the San Diego Weekly Reader, Tancredo’s former colleague and co-chair of the US Congressional Iran Human Rights and Democracy Caucus (IHRDC), Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), had also traveled to France to make a speech to the NCRI, and his travel expenses of almost $8,000, were covered by Ghaemi’s charity, CIAC.
A March 15, 2005 report compiled for the Center for Policing Terrorism (CPT), Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) Dossier, by Nicole Cafarella, reveals on page 11 that the MEK demonstrably uses front groups to raise money and support. Among these groups, according to the CPT report, is the Iranian-American Community of Northern Virginia (IAC-NV), which held a fraudulent fundraiser for the victims of the Bam Earthquake in Iran, but was a fundraiser for the MEK, and the quake victims never saw a penny. According to the report several agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) attended the fundraiser and the US Treasury Department has since frozen the IAC-NV’s assets.
The FBI press agent for the Denver branch office took my questions regarding their possible concerns about similar front groups in Colorado but they have thus far not responded.
The MEK description on the State Department website, regarding their funding, agrees with the CPT report that they have increasingly resorted to front groups for fundraising following the 2003 occupation of Iraq, and before that relying mostly on material support from Saddam (MEK description, "External Aid," in "Country Reports on Terrorism 2006" on the US State Department website).
An article in National Journal, dated January 19, 2008 (Vol. 40, Issue 3), titled "Touting ‘Terrorists’," by Julie Kosterlitz, raised the notion that CIAC may well be one of those front organizations for the MEK.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s office told me that they had no record of even the existence of CIAC, and a search on the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) online listing of businesses and charities revealed nothing as well.
Possibly the organization operates on a budget under $25,000, making them exempt from disclosures or registration at the Secretary of States office, the representative explained, but the fact that the IRS has no information either is suspicious.
AAT is also an organization with a spotty record to say the least. The group was originally founded in Colorado by a Boulder Real Estate lawyer Boulder, Matt Finberg, whom according to a DC Journalism Collective report, "Not All Politics Is Local: A Colorado Race And the International Kahanist Network" (August, 2008), is a staunch follower of the right-wing fringe ideology of Meir Kahane, and in 2007 moved to Israel to live in an "illegal settlement" in the Palestinian West Bank. The report said that AAT disbanded in September of 2004.
The current chair of AAT is Finberg’s former AAT director and co-founder, Dr. Neil Dobro.
According to the DC Journalism Collective article AAT, implicated in an attack ad campaign against a Republican legislative candidate, Rima Sinclair; attacking Sinclair using anti-Islamic defamation (she is Palestinian American); in favor of her Republican competitor Joshua Sharf; the alleged Kahanist founder of AAT is tied to another organization whose name appears on the very same State Department FTO list, and on a similar Israeli government list, the extremist Israeli Kahanist group known as Kach, or Kahane Chai. Kach was the subject of a 2005 Frontline documentary on PBS called "Israel’s Next War?"
Dobro said AAT is a 501c3 non-profit organization, however, the person I spoke with at the Colorado Secretary of State’s office said that if they are operating on a budget at or above $25,000 then "they are out of compliance with our office."
Upon formal request of IRS Form 990 from AAT I have thus far not received any response. AAT was collecting donations at a table during the panel.
Current co-chair of the IHRDC, who took Tancredo’s position, Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), has also been an outspoken supporter of the MEK, and along with Filner, signed a letter from the IHRDC to President Obama to demand that Ashraf residents be protected.
Rohrabacher’s career has long been funded by billionaire Charles Koch, according to his profile on SourceWatch, a website of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), and during his career he has been known to cuddle with some of the world’s most dubious names, including the Afghan Mujahedin (no relation to the MEK) that fought the Soviet Union, and bore the notorious Al Qaeda, which allegedly carried out the most extreme terrorist attack ever in history on September 11, 2001. Rorhabacher was no supporter of Al Qaeda at that point, however, his knack for fraternizing with such groups over the years is nothing new.
The Koch family is known to be funding the anti-Obama town hall-meeting disruptors and anti-tax rallies via FreedomWorks, a think tank now headed by another long-time supporter of the MEK, former US House Majority Leader, and former policy adviser to the Bush administration,…