The Mujahideen-el Khalq (MEK) could soon be removed from America’s list of terrorist organizations. However, the controversial decision is being hindered by reports that the embattled group has failed to evacuate the remaining 1,400 group members from Camp Ashraf in Iraq. The MEK has long fought Iranian governments, in what they claim is a struggle to establish a democratic Iranian state.
The decision to remove the MEK from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations has been promoted by some politicians, both Democratic and Republican. Many of the group’s supporters in Washington see the group as fighting a common Iranian enemy. Conversely, critics have said the MEK has used coercion and bribery to win supporters. Should the U.S. choose to delist the organization, the decision would likely inflame tensions between Washington and Tehran during already tenuous negotiations to de-escalate the standoff over the supposed Iranian nuclear program.
Operating in exile
The U.S. has issued a warning to the MEK, requesting that they vacate Camp Ashraf, the main headquarters of the group. Camp Ashraf was protected by the United States during the occupation of Iraq from 2003-2011. This military protection was extended despite the “terrorist” listing of the group. However, U.S. officials have claimed that the protection was extended under the auspices of the Geneva Convention’s provision on “protected populations,” that is, refugees and political exiles. Other foreign governments, including the United Kingdom, do not recognize the MEK as a protected population.
Although some 2,000 MEK members have left the camp, between 1,200-1,400 remain. The MEK has sought to shed its “terrorist” label, insisting that it has renounced violence and sought major reform. While the U.S. has not clearly enumerated the remaining steps the group must take, closing the camp is seen a necessary first step on a path that some hope will ultimately lead to removing the group from the list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). The MEK has been on the FTO terrorist list since 1997.
The group has been involved in targeted assassinations as recently as January 2012, previously working with Israeli intelligence agency Mossad to carry out five known targeted killings since 2007, according to Iranian state sources as well as U.S. government officials. The most recent attack in January of this year killed Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist.
Speaking frankly about the close Mossad-MEK relationship, Mohammad Javad Larijani, a senior aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says, “The relation is very intricate and close. They (Israelis) are paying … the Mujahedin. Some of their (MEK) agents … (are) providing Israel with information. And they recruit and also manage logistical support.”
The MEK was founded in 1965 by leftist university students in Iran who sought to overthrow the monarchical rule of the Shah, supporting instead the creation of a democratic Iranian government. Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, the group was banned by Ayatollah Khomeini … .
Forced into exile, the group established a foothold in France and in neighboring Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq war, the group operating under the “National Liberation Army”. (NLA) attacked Iranian forces carrying out several incursions on Iraqi soil.
While the group shares the legitimate democratic aspirations of most Iranians, Reza Marashi, Research Director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) notes in a recent MintPress statement that the “terrorist” designation is not one handed out haphazardly by the United States. The label, Marashi contends, is accurate and necessary until there is significant reform within the ranks of the MEK organization.
Indeed, a 2009 report by the Rand Corporation describes the numerous attacks carried out against various Iranian governments, including against the Shah. One such attack reportedly killed six Americans during the 1970s.
Additionally, an independent report by Human Rights Watch describes the excesses and abuses within the organization.
“Human rights abuses carried out by MEK leaders against dissident members ranged from prolonged incommunicado and solitary confinement to beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution, and torture that in two cases led to death.”
Nonetheless, the group, which has been labeled by critics as a “cult”, has exerted significant effort lobbying lawmakers to recognize their membership as legitimate opposition. Several politicians, including former Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania Edward Rendell, are accused of openly supporting a group classified as a terrorist organization. In March, the Treasury Department began an investigation into speaking fees Rendell received from the MEK. It is, not surprisingly, illegal for an American to receive money from a known terrorist group.
The US-MEK relationship
The effort to engage Iranian exiles committed to overthrowing the religious theocratic establishment is one promoted by many in Washington. While the MEK has petitioned actively to delist its organization, other groups, operating in exile have supported removing the group from the U.S. terrorist list.
Historically, the United States has not shied away from supporting dissidents and terrorist groups when the relationship is deemed politically expedient. Very often, these relationships have been cultivated as a means to overthrow or challenge unfavorable governments. For example, the United States previously backed the Afghan Mujahideen during the Cold War fight to rid Afghanistan of Soviet colonial rule. The loose mujahideen resistance movement grew later to include the ranks of the Taliban, a group with alliances to the transnational al-Qaida terrorist network.
This “Regan doctrine” promoted a rollback of Soviet influence in countries around the world. This foreign policy lead to the U.S. support of armed groups in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and the aforementioned Afghanistan, among others, in an effort to curb the influence of America’s Cold War adversary.
However, on this issue, it appears that MEK delistment has received small support from other, disparate Iranian exiles. For example, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), representing “a broad coalition of Iranian organizations” claims more than 500 members and has petitioned actively on behalf of the MEK. According to the NCRI website:
“National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a broad coalition of democratic Iranian organizations, groups and personalities, was founded in 1981 in Tehran upon the initiative of Massoud Rajavi, the Leader of the Iranian Resistance.The NCRI has over 500 members, including representatives of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Kurds, Baluchis, Armenians, Jews and Zoroastrians, representing a broad spectrum of political tendencies in Iran. Acting as parliament in exile, the NCRI aims to establish a democratic, secular and coalition government in Iran. Women comprise 50 [percent] of the council’s members. Five organizations are also members of the NCRI, including the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, the largest and most popular resistance group inside Iran.”
Although the NCRI is rarely discussed in Washington, its open public support for delisting the MEK could position them as a key ally of those with vested interest in Iranian regime change. However, MEK support within Iran, and even in the Iranian diaspora, remains limited. In fact, those involved with Iran’s 2009 “Green Revolution,” have categorically rejected the tactics of the MEK.
However, in the U.S., the ongoing discussions about the classification of the MEK continues amidst increasingly hostile rhetoric toward Iran. Some lawmakers have promoted aggressive military action should negotiations fail to dissuade Tehran from supposedly pursuing nuclear weapons. Lobbying by the group is intimately tied to the hardline policies U.S. lawmakers take vis-a-vis engaging Iran.
MEK lobbies Washington
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a non-profit advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., published an article on Tuesday, linking MEK lobbying efforts to a recent bipartisan letter circulating through the Senate. The letter, signed by 44 U.S. senators, strongly urges President Barack Obama to abandon negotiations with Iran if the minimum parameters laid out at the recent Baghdad negotiations are not met.
The immediate action, or “absolute minimum”, outlined by the senators is to shut down the Fordo uranium enrichment facility near Qom, freeze all uranium enrichment above 5 percent and ship all uranium enriched above 5 percent out of the country.
Speaking about the actions, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) commented on the letter in a recent statement, saying, “Absent these steps, we must conclude that Tehran is using the talks as a cover to buy time as it continues to advance toward nuclear weapons capability. We know that you share our conviction that allowing Iran to gain this capability is unacceptable.”
Previously, Congressmen Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Walter Jones (R-NC) co-authored a letter in February, urging President Obama to exercise diplomacy fully before considering other ways in which to engage Iran. The letter gathered 35 additional signatures from congressional representatives and drew popular support from a number of prominent peace organizations. However, a public weary of prolonged negotiations may be more willing to embrace a hardline stance pushed by the MEK and more hawkish lawmakers. A Gallup public opinion poll shows that Americans consider Iran to be America’s top enemy. Thirty-two percent ranked Iran as America’s number one enemy, followed by China with 23 percent and North Korea with 10 percent.
This finding corresponds with a May 18 Pew Research Center Poll showing that a majority in the U.S., Britain, France and Germany would support a military strike against Iran as a means to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. While majorities in Russia and China oppose an Iranian nuclear weapons program, a majority, around 70 percent in both countries, oppose any kind of military action against Iran, even if it meant preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
By Martin Michaels ,MintPress