Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses
Congressional Research Service
People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI)/Camp Ashraf
Of the groups seeking to replace rather than moderate the regime, one of the best known is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI).5 Secular and left-leaning, it was formed in the 1960s to try to overthrow the Shah of Iran and advocated Marxism blended with Islamic tenets. It allied with pro-Khomeini forces during the Islamic revolution and supported the November 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran but was later driven into exile. Even though it is an opponent of Tehran, since the late 1980s the State Department has refused contact with the PMOI and its umbrella organization, the National Council of Resistance (NCR). The State Department designated the PMOI as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) in October 19976 and the NCR was named as an alias of the PMOI in the October 1999 re-designation. The FTO designation was prompted by PMOI attacks in Iran that sometimes kill or injure civilians—although the group does not appear to purposely target civilians. In August 14, 2003, the State Department designated the NCR offices in the United States an alias of the PMOI, and NCR and Justice Department authorities closed down those offices. The regime accuses the group of involvement in the post June 2009 presidential election violence.
The State Department report on international terrorism for 2007 asserts that the organization—and not just a radical element of the organization as the group asserts—was responsible for the alleged killing of seven American defense advisers to the former Shah in 1975-1976. The report again notes the group’s promotion of women in its ranks and again emphasizes the group’s “cultlike” character, including indoctrination of its members and separation of family members, including children, from its activists. The group’s alliance with Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s and 1990s has contributed to the U.S. shunning of the organization.
Some advocate that the United States not only remove the group from the FTO list but also enter an alliance with the group against Iran. The FTO designation was up for formal review in October 2008, and, in July 2008, the PMOI formally petitioned to the State Department that its designation be revoked, on the grounds that it renounced any use of terrorism in 2001. However, the State Department announced in mid-January 2009 that the group would remain listed; the next review of the FTO list is in October 2009.
The group is trying to build on recent legal successes in Europe; on January 27, 2009, the European Union (EU) removed the group from its terrorist group list; the group had been so designated by the EU in 2002. In May 2008, a British appeals court determined that the group should no longer be considered a terrorist organization on the grounds that the British government did not provide “any reliable evidence that supported a conclusion that PMOI retained an intention to resort to terrorist activities in the future.” Currently, the governments that still list the group as a “terrorist organization,” include the United States, Canada, Australia. In June 2003, France arrested about 170 PMOI members, including its co-leader Maryam Rajavi (wife of PMOI 5 Other names by which this group is known is the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK or MKO) and the National Council of Resistance (NCR). 6 The designation was made under the authority of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (P.L.104-132). founder Masoud Rajavi, whose whereabouts are unknown). She was released and remains based in France, and is occasionally received by European parliamentarians and other politicians.
The issue of group members in Iraq is increasingly pressing. U.S. forces attacked PMOI military installations in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and negotiated a ceasefire with PMOI military elements in Iraq, requiring the approximately 3,400 PMOI fighters to remain confined to their Ashraf camp near the border with Iran. Its weaponry is in storage, guarded by U.S. personnel. In July 2004, the United States granted the Ashraf detainees “protected persons” status under the 4th Geneva Convention, meaning they will not be extradited to Tehran or forcibly expelled as long as U.S. forces have a mandate to help secure Iraq. Another 200 PMOI fighters have taken advantage of an arrangement between Iran and the ICRC for them to return to Iran if they disavow further PMOI activities; none are known to have been persecuted since returning.
The U.S.-led security mandate in Iraq was replaced on January 1, 2009, by a bilateral U.S.-Iraq agreement that limits U.S. flexibility in Iraq. The group fears that, now that Iraqi forces have taken control of the camp, Iraq will expel the group to Iran. The Iraqi government tried to calm those fears in January 2009 by saying that it would adhere to all international obligations not do so, but that trust was lost on July 27, 2009, when it set up a police post in the Camp, which was resisted by PMOI residents. The PMOI says about a dozen were killed in the clashes. Some observers say Iraq might move the camp to Iraq’s interior, away from the Iran border. The EU “de-listing” might help resolve the issue by causing EU governments to take in those at Ashraf.
5 Other names by which this group is known is the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK or MKO) and the NationalCouncil of Resistance (NCR).
6 The designation was made under the authority of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (P.L.104-132).
Kenneth Katzman – Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs – www.crs.gov