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Iranian exiles, DC lobbyists and the campaign to delist the MEK

US policy change on banned Iranian group came after extraordinary fundraising operation to transform its Images

To the US government, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK) was a terrorist group US policy change on banned Iranian group came after extraordinary fundraising operation to transform its Imagesalongside al-Qaida, Hamas and the Farc in Colombia. The MEK landed on the list in 1997 with American blood on its hands and by allying itself with Saddam Hussein along with a long list of bombings inside Iran.

But the organisation is regarded very differently by a large number of members of Congress, former White House officials and army generals, and even one of the US’s most renowned reporters, Carl Bernstein. They see the MEK as a victim of US double dealings with the regime in Tehran and a legitimate alternative to the Iran’s Islamic government.

That difference is in no small part the result of a formidable fundraising operation and campaign to transform the MEK’s image led by more than 20 Iranian American organisations across the US. These groups and their leaders have spent millions of dollars on donations to members of Congress, paying Washington lobby groups and hiring influential politicians and officials, including two former CIA directors, as speakers.

In a highly sensitive political game, MEK supporters have succeeded in pressing the state department into removing the group from the list of terrorist organisations after winning a court order requiring a decision to be made on the issue before the end of this month. But its supporters were forced to tread a careful path so as not to cross anti-terrorism laws.

Only a few years ago, the US authorities were arresting pro-MEK activists and freezing the assets of front groups for "material support for a terrorist organisation". Now members of Congress openly praise the group in apparent contradiction of the anti-terrorism legislation many of them supported. Nearly 100 members of the House of Representatives backed a resolution calling on the US government to drop the MEK from the terrorist list.

At the forefront of the campaign are several Iranian American organisations across the US. They are:

• The Iranian American Society of Texas. It paid more than $110,000 in fees last year to a Washington lobby firm, DiGenova & Toensing, to campaign for the lifting of the ban on the MEK and the protection of its supporters still in camps in Iraq.

The Texas group’s president, Ali Soudjani, has personally donated close to $100,000 to members of Congress and their political campaigns over the past five years because, he told the Guardian, of their positions on the MEK and Iran. Among the beneficiaries were Ted Poe, a member of the House foreign affairs committee, and Sheila Jackson Lee, who have been vocal supporters of delisting the MEK. The pair appeared at a House event at Congress earlier this year also attended by Soudjani at which Poe gave support to the MEK in calling for "freedom-loving Americans [to] support a regime change in Iran". Jackson Lee described the group as the "voices of freedom". Soudjani also gave to John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Obama Victory Fund.

• Colorado’s Iranian American Community. One of its leaders, Saeid Ghaemi, paid close to $900,000 of his own money to a Washington lobby firm, DLA Piper, for its work to get the MEK unbanned, the protection of its members in Iraq and human rights issues. Ghaemi’s brother, Mehdi, who is president of the Colorado group, paid $14,000 to fly a member of Congress, Bob Filner, to meet MEK leaders in Paris and attend the group’s rallies. In the weeks before Filner spoke at an event in support of delisting the MEK last year he was the recipient of several thousand dollars in donations from Iranian Americans living outside his district.

• The Iranian American Community of Northern California. It paid $400,000 over the past year to a Washington lobby group, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, to work on Capitol Hill to work for the removal of the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organisations. The company assigned several former members of Congress to the account. The IACNC has also organised events in support of unbanning the MEK with appearances by Ros-Lehtinen and other prominent members of Congress as well as former White House officials.

Its director, Ahmad Moeinimanesh, has made personal financial donations to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chair of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee even though her congressional district is on the other side of the country in Florida, as well as to her reelection committee. She has accepted more than $20,000 in political contributions from activists who support the MEK’s delisting.

The IACNC’s registered address is at a photocopying shop in Albany, California, owned by Behnam Mirabdal who has made financial donations to Ros-Lehtinen and Dana Rohrabacher, a subcommittee chairman who is among the most vigorous proponents of unbanning the MEK.

• The Iranian Society of South Florida (ISSF). The group came to the notice of US authorities eight years ago as one of the sponsors of a fundraiser in Washington ostensibly to help victims of the Bam earthquake which killed 30,000 people. The FBI concluded it was a front for raising funds for the MEK.

The ISSF’s president and vice-president, Bahman Badiee and Akbar Nikooie, have for years made regular donations to Ros-Lehtinen. The Florida congresswoman boasts on her website of receiving an award from the ISSF.

Nikooie also spent at least $130,000 in 2009 to pay a lobby firm, DLA Piper, to promote "human rights" in Iran, including pressing for the unbanning of the MEK in the US. Badiee contributed $3,200 to Ros-Lehtinen. He gave $2,000 to congressman Mario Diaz-Balart in March the day after he made a speech in Congress in support of the MEK.

The principal lobbyist on the account was the former leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, who a decade ago wielded considerable power and played a major role in the Republican takeover of Congress. He went on to head the Tea Party-supporting group, Freedom Works.

Armey used his relationship with sitting members of Congress five years ago to press them to urge the then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to unban the MEK and to support legislation that would effectively have resulted in US sponsorship of the group. He also lobbied the Pentagon, the White House and the state department in support of unbanning the MEK.

• The California Society for Democracy in Iran. Its founder and president is Nasser Sharif who has called for the US government to "engage the Iranian people and their organized resistance". Sharif is listed as donating thousands of dollars to Rohrabacher and Filner.

Sharif called the MEK’s banning an "injustice" in an article in the Orange Country Register in which he quotes Rohrabacher in support of his cause. He has organised events at which the speakers include Ros-Lehtinen, Rohrabacher, Filner and Poe.

Several of the groups also poured money into persuading leading politicians and former administration officials to speak on behalf of unbanning the MEK. Among those who have addressed meetings arranged by the Iranian American Community of Northern California are the former Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean; the former FBI director, Louis Freeh; the ex-attorney general, Michael Mukasey; and Tom Ridge, the former homeland security secretary. They have been joined by members of Congress including Ros-Lehtinen, Poe and Jackson Lee.

Sharif’s California Society for Democracy in Iran has organised meetings at which John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN; Andrew Card, President George W Bush’s chief of staff; Mukasey, Ros-Lehtinen, Rohrabacher and other members of Congress have spoken. Several prominent former officials have acknowledged being paid significant amounts of money to speak about the MEK. The former Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell, has accepted more than $150,000 in speaking fees at events in support of unbanning the MEK.

Among others who have spoken in support of delisting the group are two former CIA directors, James Woolsey and Porter Goss. Some speakers have been flown to Paris and Brussels.

The US authorities have at times scrutinised efforts in support of unbanning the group, including launching investigations in to whether they breached laws against financial dealings with banned organisations or legislation barring material support for terrorism.

Three years ago, seven people in California pleaded guilty to "providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation", and a parallel conspiracy charge, after fundraising for the MEK. Among other things the seven admitted to raising several hundred thousand dollars in collections at Los Angeles airport and other public locations in the name of a charity, the Committee for Human Rights.

Following an investigation by the FBI’s joint terrorism task force and the convictions, the US attorney’s office said "the CHR was simply a front organisation for MEK fund-raising operations in the United States" and that the money was going in part to support the group’s "terrorist activities".

"We cannot allow any terrorist organisation to fundraise on our shores or to steal money from our own citizens so that they can finance their own terrorism operations," said the prosecuting US attorney, Thomas O’Brien.

In 2004 Bush administration officials examined whether a fundraising event at a Washington DC convention centre, ostensibly on behalf of victims of the Bam earthquake, was in fact a cover for collecting money for the MEK. The organisers, the Iranian-American Community of Northern Virginia, described the $35 a head event as a "night of solidarity with Iran" and a "referendum for regime change in Iran".

Among those paid to speak at the event was Richard Perle, at the time a defence adviser to the Bush administration and a strong advocate of invading Iraq. Perle later said he was unaware of any connection to the MEK.

The organisers claimed the money was going to the Red Cross but even before the event was held the Red Cross said it did not want the proceeds because the fundraiser was political. The FBI concluded that the Iranian-American Community of Northern Virginia was a front for the MEK and the treasury department froze the funds raised by the event.

Those groups cosponsoring the fundraiser included several that the FBI described as MEK front organisations or as linked to prominent supporters. These included Iranian Society of South Florida, the Iranian-American Society of Texas and Colorado’s Iranian-American Community.

The Iranian-American Society of Northern Virginia is now defunct.

Soudjani pointedly said that the money was not intended to support the MEK but it’s unbanning "in the name of freedom and justice".

"The MEK is supporting a free Iran. That is what we are supporting," he said.

Sharif makes a similar argument.

"None of us are involved in illegal activities. All we’re doing is bringing the issue to the attention of members of Congress," he said.

Asked if his donation to Filner, who has a district about 2,500 miles from where Sharif lives, was because of his position on Iran and the MEK, Sharif said that it was.

"Yes. If you see members of Congress with a good position on Iran, you can support them. This is a voluntary thing. Members of the community do this. If they feel like members of Congress have a good position in supporting these issues they are willing to support those members of Congress".

Moeinimanesh and several other leaders of Iranian American organisations did not respond to questions. Neither did Ros-Lehtinen and other members of Congress did not respond to questions. But Rohrabacher did speak to the Guardian.

The California congressman said he is comfortable accepting donations from MEK supporters.

"If they want to contribute to me because I believe strongly in human rights and stand up in cases like this, that’s fine. I don’t check their credentials," he said.

Rohrabacher said he is not concerned at potentially being at odds with the law.

"When you have a person or an organisation that has been legally labelled something that is not just then you should take that label off. It doesn’t undermine efforts to label terrorists when they are indeed committing acts of terrorism," he said.

The congressman also denounced the treasury investigation of payments to speakers in support of the MEK.

"It seems to be me this is an example where somebody’s challenging a government policy and the government is trying to intimidate those who don’t believe in the policy into closing their mouths. Because someone is advocating a certain position, and it goes against government policy, it doesn’t mean the government should start focussing on them and try to find something they can hurt them with. That’s a damper on freedom of speech," he said.

Chris McGreal in Washington

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