MEK Banned Terror Group Seeks U.S. Rebirth
WASHINGTON—An Iranian exile group once allied with Saddam Hussein has enlisted former top U.S. officials—including heads of the CIA, FBI, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and politicians from both parties—to try to get it removed from the State Department’s terrorist list.
The Mujahedin e-Khalq, or People’s Holy Warriors, has deployed the heavyweights on speaking tours in Washington and European capitals, hoping to convey the image of a popular, democratic alternative to Tehran’s ruling clerics.
Obama administration and European officials, however, fear the campaign could undermine Washington’s policy of reaching out to opposition forces in Iran. They say that’s because the U.S. would appear to be aligned with a group that is widely unpopular due to its military alliance with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during the 1980s and ’90s and a string of terrorist attacks the U.S. says it launched inside Iran.
Among the group’s newfound cheerleaders are recently departed members of President Barack Obama’s national security team, including Jim Jones, the former national-security advisor, Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence and James Woolsey, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency.
These officials, and others including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former heads of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, have taken the podium to praise the group. The speakers wouldn’t disclose their speaking fees, but many of them charge between $25,000 and $40,000 per appearance.
"We should take the MeK off the [terror] list and recognize them for what they are, which is the legitimate government of the Republic of Iran," former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said at a recent event in London. Mr. Dean said he has made both paid and unpaid speeches for MeK.
MeK’s backers cite intelligence it has provided the West on Iran’s nuclear program and aid to U.S. troops in Iraq as reasons to remove the listing. They also cite MeK’s democratic platform.
Mohammed Mohaddessin, a senior member of MeK’s political arm in Paris, said Iranian communities in the U.S. and Europe organized and funded the lobbying effort. He said that in 2001, "the MeK rejected all kinds of violence, so there is no excuse for keeping them on the list."
The MeK, led by Maryam Rajavi, was founded in 1965 to fight the Shah of Iran, and the U.S. says it killed several Americans in Tehran in the 1970s. The group briefly allied with, then turned violently against, the clerical regime that came to power in 1979. In the early 1980s, the MeK retreated to Paris. By 1986, it relocated to Iraq and fought alongside Saddam’s forces in the eight-year war against Iran.
The State Department first listed MeK as a terrorist group in 1997. In its latest terror report, in 2009, it blames MeK for many attacks on Iranian embassies, military officers and politicians, though not since 2001 until 2001, when it was based in Iraq. The report says the MeK took part in the deadly suppression of Kurdish and Shiite revolts inside Iraq. Mr. Mohaddessin denies allegations that MeK was involved in internal Iraqi security operations. "Those are rumors spread by the Iranian regime,’ Mr. Mohadessin said.
The group says its main motivation for the campaign is to help protect its ranks in Camp Ashraf, north of Bagdad, whose residents suffered a deadly Iraqi army crackdown last month. About 3,400 MeK members have lived there since allied forces disarmed them after invading Iraq in 2003. MeK officials say its designation lets Iraq treat it as terrorists.
Two senior State Department officials dismissed that argument, saying a delisting wouldn’t help Ashraf’s residents and that the U.S. hoped to move them to another Iraqi location as a prelude to relocating them to third countries.
Getting off the list, which can keep members from entering the U.S., would also allow MeK to raise funds from unaffiliated Iranian-Americans and better organize towards its goal of overthrowing Iran’s goverment.[..]
Mr. Mohadessin blames MeK’s unpopularity on misinformation spread by the government.
The last time the State Department had to consider MeK’s status was during the waning days of the George W. Bush administration. In upholding the terrorist designation, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote in a 2009 internal cable released by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks: "The most powerful myth the MeK has been able to lodge in the minds of most supporters is that they are the democratic alternative to the current regime in Tehran." She also referred to the MeK’s "terrorism and cult-like repression of its members."
In response to an MeK lawsuit, a federal court ordered the State Department last year to review the listing again. U.S. officials say that should be done by mid-summer. A State Department spokeswoman said the federal-court ruling acknowledged that classified information provided "substantial support" for keeping the MeK on the terror list. Both the U.K. and the European Union have taken the MeK off their terror lists in recent years under court orders after legal action by the group.
The U.K. court found that since 2001 it was no longer "concerned in terrorism" and thus must be de-listed. The EU court ruled that the European Commission’s 2008 decision to keep the terror listing violated the MeK’s due process rights and failed to demonstrate why they should stay on the list. On Thursday, French investigators dropped an eight-year terrorism probe of 24 MeK members, including Mrs. Rajavi.
Since December, the MeK has hosted about a dozen events in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels.
"We shouldn’t just de-list the MeK; we should applaud them," Mr. Giuliani, the ex-mayor, said at a Washington event last month. "We should join with them, we’re on the same side," he said to rousing applause from a few hundred MeK supporters from across the U.S. He declined to comment.
Other speakers at recent events include Hugh Shelton, Richard Myers, and Peter Pace, all former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs; Tom Ridge, the first head of Homeland Security; and Louis Freeh, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In an interview, Mr. Woolsey, who said he waived his usual speaker’s fee at a recent MeK event, said Tehran’s condemnation of MeK was "like a backwards weathervane—wherever they’re pointing, we should do the opposite"
Ex-CIA chief Mr. Jones, who said he received his standard speaking fee, said, "I’m not saying I’m convinced this is the future government of Iran, because that’s for the people to decide, but our policy is at odds with reality."
KEITH JOHNSON, JAY SOLOMON and SCOTT GREENBERG