Hundreds of supporters of the Iranian resistance group Mujahedin-e Khalq rallied in front of the U.S. State Department in Washington Friday, demanding the United States remove the group from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. In a sophisticated display of its public relations ability, the demonstration featured scores of young supporters wearing matching yellow T-shirts and straw hats chanting slogans, live big-screen broadcasts of the speakers, appearances by well-know U.S. politicians and the release of white doves that flew up toward the State Department’s enormous navy-blue flag as a storm of yellow and blue confetti filled the air.
The protest took place as the State Department prepares to decide whether to remove the organization from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. The MEK denies that it supports terrorism.
The department placed the MEK on the list in 1997. The group initially supported the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but later turned against the ayatollahs and, until 2003, carried out bombings and killings of Iranian officials.
The State Department also cites eyewitness accounts and MEK documents that it says demonstrate that MEK members participated in and supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and, in the 1970s, carried out terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in Iran as well as assassinations of Americans.
In the 1980s, because of the group’s anti-Iran actions, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein provided it with financial support and military training. During the Iran-Iraq War, the State Department says, Baghdad "armed the MEK with heavy military equipment and deployed thousands of MEK fighters in suicidal, mass wave attacks against Iranian forces."
The MEK surrendered its heavy arms to the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Iraq and, in 2003, said it was renouncing violence. Since then, roughly 3,400 M.E.K. members have been living at a refugee camp called Camp Ashraf on the Iran/Iraq border.
But the new Iraqi government, which is more sympathetic to the Iranian regime, wants to move the MEK out of Iraq. The camp has been violently attacked several times by Iraqi security forces. In one attack this spring, at least 30 of the camp’s residents died.
At Friday’s rally at the State Department, girls wearing yellow tiaras on their heads with the word "Ashraf" led the audience in cheers.
Onstage, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy addressed the crowd, urging support for its cause. The MEK, which is based in France, has spent millions of dollars to win backing in Washington.
The State Department, in its 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism, noted, "The MEK’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has a global support network with active lobbying and propaganda efforts in major Western capitals. NCRI also has a well-developed media communications strategy."
Some Iranians in the United States have been critical of the MEK. In a press release Friday, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said delisting the group "would be disastrous for Iran’s nonviolent democratic opposition ."
Calling the MEK "a cult that abuses its own members," Parsi said it has "no support among the Iranian people." The MEK, he said, has been paying U.S. politicians to get it off the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
"If the MEK campaign is successful," he said, "it means that America’s national security is officially on sale to the highest bidder, and terror groups are free to set U.S. policies if the price is right."
By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Correspondent