An Iranian group’s lobbying campaign to get removed from the U.S. list of terror organizations looks to be a success. But what does that say about the state of politics in Washington?
It’s no secret how a group gets designated as terrorists in the eyes of the U.S. government. Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act enumerates the authorities of the secretary of state in listing a group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The act references the existing statutory definitions of terrorism, provides avenues for appeal of the classification, and otherwise lays out various processes for review.
Nowhere, however, does the act lay out the options for buying your way out of a designation. Luckily, the Iranian expat group Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK) soon to be "delisted" as an FTO, according to multiple reports, has provided us with a roadmap. But first, a little background.
The MEK, an anti-shah, Islamist, Marxist Iranian opposition group that fell afoul of the Islamic Revolution early on, was designated — put on the terrorist list — in 1997. It earned the designation fair and square, having been involved in numerous attacks, including the hostage-taking and murder of Americans, according to a State Department report. Indeed, it was at times more hardline than the Ayatollahs: The group reportedly condemned the new Iranian government’s decision to release the American hostages in 1980 as "surrender."
More recently, the MEK has restricted its attacks to Iranian nationals. Those curious can check out this lengthy FBI report for all the gory details. Suffice it to say that these erstwhile Marxists have proven themselves remarkably adaptable: The leadership moved with ease from the shah’s Iran, onward to France and, once ousted from Paris, to a congenial perch in Baghdad, where the MEK was reportedly involved in Saddam’s extermination campaign against the Kurds and repression of Iraq’s Shia.
But the world is now a different place — Saddam is gone and the MEK claims it has reformed. Certainly, the embassy takeovers and the anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric are gone. Now it appears that the MEK is merely a cult-like organization — intensely devoted to its leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi and virulently opposed to the Islamic Republic. Reports from former members suggest that followers require permission from the Rajavis to marry, that parents are separated from children, that communication with outsiders is banned, and that more senior followers are required to divorce to commit themselves more fully to the fight.
The State Department has long resisted efforts to remove the MEK from the terrorist list. As of 2004, the FBI had evidence that the group was still planning attacks against Iranian targets around the world. In addition — and this is no small caveat — successive secretaries of state in both Republican and Democratic administrations have recognized that delisting the MEK could throw a monkey wrench into efforts toward rapprochement with Iran. …
Setting aside the fact that the MEK worked hand in glove with other masterminds of the Islamic Revolution, Iranians are rightly wary of the fact that the MEK sided with the hated Saddam in his war against Iran. Indeed, the MEK has never appeared as the voice of democratic hope for the Iranian people, but merely a dictatorship in waiting. Washington, however, has been more suggestible.
The recent history of the MEK — also known in other guises such as the National Council of Resistance, the National Liberation Army, and the People’s Mojahedin of Iran — has featured various front groups that have lobbied aggressively for the removal of the MEK’s terrorist designation. These lavishly resourced groups have pursued a sophisticated and multi-dimensional campaign that reached from the state-by-state field offices to the toniest K St. lobbying shops. And their efforts have gained substantial momentum in recent years, leaning on former senior government officials and journalists to make their case.
On Capitol Hill, the MEK emphasizes its credentials as an opponent of the Iranian regime, allowing wannabe masters of the "great game" to imagine that this enemy of our enemy is our friend. Among Republicans and Democrats alike, there is seemingly little curiosity as to the MEK’s nature or its plans for Iran should it ever should come to power.
A who’s who of former government officials have led the way in advocating for the MEK in Washington’s corridors of power. There’s former New York City mayor and presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, President Barack Obama’s former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, and the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrat Lee Hamilton. There’s also Mitt Romney advisor Mitchell Reiss and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Who says bipartisanship is dead in Washington?
Is every one of these men and women a principled supporter of the MEK, dedicated to the liberation of Iran? Seems doubtful. As their own records in government will attest, most did nothing for the MEK when in a position to do so. The more likely explanation is that at least some of these folks have been persuaded with money, most of it coming in the form of speaking fees. And there is lots of it. Where does it come from? The FBI won’t tell those on Capitol Hill who have asked; the MEK insists the money is from its donors.
The ethics of accepting money for a speaking gig from a designated terrorist group is dubious — but if it’s happening through non-designated fronts, it’s likely to be legally kosher. On the other hand, the Washington Postreportedin July that some of these speakers are also taking part in regular briefings and negotiations regarding the fate of Camp Ashraf, the MEK camp inside Iraq that the government in Baghdad is disbanding.
According to State Department sources, participants in those calls were advocates on behalf of the MEK, and were being used to relay messages to and from the group. If so, these individuals were acting as unregistered foreign agents for the MEK. The law is specific on this question: Acting on behalf of a foreign organization without properly registering with the U.S. government is a crime. The Justice Department is reportedly investigating former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for his MEK ties, but few are sanguine the probe will go anywhere.
So what’s the lesson here? Pretty simple. Announce you’ve renounced terrorism. Buy a bunch of supporters. Lobby to get off the terrorism list. ET voila.
The tale of the MEK reflects poorly on all involved, from the State Department to Capitol Hill to undeclared lobbyists. Unfortunately, the designation of foreign terrorist organizations has become a highly politicized exercise in which some groups are designated for the right reasons (terrorism) and others are not labeled, despite clearly meeting the statute’s requirements. For example, the Haqqani network in Pakistan was only designated in September despite its long association with other terrorist groups and its own terrorist activities. At the very least, however, we will soon find out whether, freed of the opprobrium of its terrorist designation, the MEK will make any difference in our long-running battle with Iran. Somehow, I doubt it.
By Danielle Pletka, Foreign Policy