During a call with reporters on Friday, State Department officials spoke about issues related to the MEK, the exiled Iranian opposition group currently pushing hard to get off the United States’ list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The MEK is engaged in a multifaceted effort to get off the list, and, as part of its strategy, supporters of the group have recruited prominent former lawmakers and government officials from both parties to appear at pro-MEK events in both the U.S. and Europe. Some of these advocates have received tens of thousands of dollars for their appearances.
On Friday, State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Daniel Benjamin and Special Advisor to the Secretary on Camp Ashraf Ambassador Daniel Fried covered the situation at Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s base in Iraq, and how that situation relates to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s pending decision on whether or not to keep the MEK on the terror list. Among the pieces of information: a foreign national once got into Benjamin’s office under “false pretenses” in an attempt to lobby for the MEK.
“I would like to go back to the issue that was asked before regarding lobbying, and I do just want to underscore that when it comes to the [terrorist organization] designation itself, we have not met with any lobbyists or others,” Benjamin said, after Fried confirmed that department officials had met with former U.S. government officials, European lawmakers, and other “advocates” in regard to the situation at Ashraf. “There was, in fact, one gentleman who came into my office under false pretenses from a foreign country to lobby for the MEK, and he was promptly thrown out. But other than that, I’ve had no conversations on this issue.”
The Iraqi government has set a July 20th deadline by which it wants the MEK to leave Ashraf. The MEK set up camp at Ashraf under Saddam Hussein, and several thousand group members remained there after the U.S. invasion. The Iraqi government essentially considers the MEK to be in the country illegally and, in recent years, MEK members at Ashraf have been killed during clashes with Iraqi troops. Benjamin said the MEK’s relocation to Camp Hurriya, a “temporary transit facility,” has hit an impasse.
“The Iraqi Government and the United Nations continue to encourage the secure, humane relocation of residents to Hurriya for refugee status determinations by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees,” Benjamin said. “Almost 2,000 individuals have already relocated, but the remaining 1,200 to 1,300 are holding at Ashraf until various MEK demands are met by the Iraqi Government. The last convoy of individuals, about 400 people, was on May 5th. And the patience of the Iraqi Government is wearing thin.”
Benjamin said the MEK “seems” to have misinterpreted a recent court ruling in the United States, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said that Secretary Clinton had to make a decision one way or another on the MEK’s terrorist designation before October 1. Benjamin said that “[t]his is the MEK’s moment to show that it has taken on a fundamentally different character.”
“The MEK’s relocation will assist the Secretary in determining whether the organization remains invested in its violent past or is committed to leaving that past behind,” he said. “And that really is going to be a very important illustration – or demonstration, I should say – of what the MEK’s orientation in the future will be.”
That said, Benjamin said that any decision about delisting would be made “on the merits.”
Asked about the MEK’s demands that have contributed to the impasse, Fried said that he considered some of the requests legitimate, but not all of them.
“Some of the MEK demands are reasonable. For example, given the hot weather in Iraq, they’ve requested more air conditioners. The Iraqi Government has agreed to provide them, that is agreed to allow a special shipment of air conditioners from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty, and this is being arranged as we speak,” Fried said. “But it has been frustrating to deal with constantly shifting demands, many demands. We find that U.S. Embassy and State Department and the UN will work to resolve problems and, a la whack-a-mole, you find that new ones – you’re constantly presented with new ones.”
By Eric Lach