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MEK: When terrorism becomes respectable

Department of State Public Notice ‎‏8050‏‎ dated September ‎‏21‏‎, ‎‏2012‏‎, reads thus:‎

In the matter of the designation of Mujahadin-e Khalq, also known as MEK, also known as ‎Mujahadin-e Khalq Organization, also known as MKO, also known as Muslim Iranian Students’ ‎Society, also known as National Council of Resistance, also known as NCR, also known as ‎Organization of the People’s Holy Warriors of Iran, also known as the National Liberation Army ‎of Iran, also known as NLA, also known as National Council of Resistance of Iran, also known ‎as NCRI, also known as Sazeman-e Mujahadin-e Khalq-e Iran, as a Specially Designated Global ‎Terrorist Pursuant to Section ‎‏1‏‎[b] of Executive Order ‎‏13224‏‎, as amended. Acting under the ‎authority of Section ‎‏1‏‎[b] of Executive Order ‎‏13224‏‎ of September ‎‏23‏‎, ‎‏2001‏‎, as amended ]"the ‎Order’] I hereby revoke the designation of the entity known as the Mujahadin-e Khalq, and its ‎aliases, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist pursuant to Section ‎‏1‏‎[b] of the Order. This ‎action takes effect September ‎‏28‏‎, ‎‏2012‏‎.

Hillary Rodham Clinton,Secretary of State

With this stroke of the pen, as it were, the United States removed from its global terrorist list an ‎organization—Mujahedin-e Khalq [MEK]—that had been listed since ‎‏1997‏‎. A shadowy outfit, ‎MEK’s delisting was the result of a full-court press by a bipartisan group of policy influentials, ‎including General Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff; Lee Hamilton, ‎former congressman from Indiana; Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico; General ‎Wesley Clark, former supreme commander of NATO; and Louis Freeh and Michael Hayden, ‎former directors of the FBI and CIA, respectively.

In a speech at a conference in February ‎‏2011‏‎, Governor Richardson urged that MEK should be ‎removed from the terrorist list : "This is a movement that doesn’t want any money. This is a ‎movement that doesn’t want weapons," Richardson declared. "This is a movement that just wants ‎to be allowed to roam, to do your democratic thing." Equally opaquely, General Shelton said at ‎the same event: "When you look at what the MEK stands for, when they are antinuclear, ‎separation of church and state, individual rights, MEK is obviously the way Iran needs to go."

‎On one level, the ostensible reason for the United States’ delisting is that the Iraq-based MEK is ‎a force in exile dedicated to removing the current regime in Tehran. As General Shelton added, ‎‎"By placing the MEK on the FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organizations] list we have weakened the ‎support of the best organized internal resistance group to the most terrorist-oriented anti-Western ‎world, anti-democratic regime in the region." In the zero-sum game of U.S.-Iran relations, there ‎appears to be, then, a certain logic to the move. It is illuminating, however, to take a closer look ‎at this movement, through the eyes of some individuals lesser known than the heavyweight list ‎that supports their cause, but who might just be in a position to know more about it. These would ‎include Ray McGovern, an ex-CIA operative, who said of the MEK: "Why the U.S. cooperates ‎with organizations like the Mujahedin, I think, is because that they are local, and because they are ‎ready to work for us. Previously, we considered them a terrorist organization. And they exactly ‎are. But they are now our terrorists and we now don’t hesitate to send them into Iran….for the ‎usual secret service activities: attacking sensors, in order to supervise the Iranian nuclear program, ‎mark targets for air attacks, and perhaps establishing secret camps to control the military locations ‎in Iran. And also a little sabotage."

Or, from Karen Kwiatkowski, formerly with the Department of Defense: "MEK is ready to do ‎things over which we would be ashamed, and over which we try to keep silent. But for such ‎tasks we’ll use them." (For both these quotes, see "US Government’s Secret Plans for Iran," by ‎Markus Schmidt, John Goetz, WDR TV, Germany, February ‎‏3‏‎, ‎‏2005‏‎).

And what exactly are these "tasks"? According to the State Department’s original statement ‎designating MEK as a terrorist organization (in ‎‏1997‏‎, when the Clinton administration was trying ‎to engage Iran), MEK instigated a bombing campaign, including an attack against the head office ‎of the Islamic Republic Party and the Prime Minister’s office, which killed some ‎‏70‏‎ high-ranking ‎Iranian officials, including Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, President Mohammad-‎Ali Rajaei, and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar. In addition, MEK assassinations ‎range in date and targets from U.S. military personnel and civilians in the ‎‏1970‏s (hence the ‎original terrorist listing) to, almost certainly, the killing of at least five leading Iranian nuclear ‎scientists in recent months.

Complementing the lethal violence of the MEK is the organization’s bizarre internal dynamic. ‎Elizabeth Rubin of The New York Times visited its Camp Ashraf headquarters in Iraq in ‎‏2003‏‎, ‎and, in the course of the drumbeat of support for de-listing, posted an article in the Times on ‎August ‎‏13‏‎, ‎‏2011‏‎, "An Iranian Cult and its American Friends." Herein she describes a—"cult" is ‎the only appropriate term—headed by a woman named Maryam Rajavi and her husband, ‎Massoud. What she relates is eerily reminiscent of the doomed Jim Jones cult in Guyana in the ‎‏1970‏s—"a fictional world of female worker bees…staring ahead as if they were working at a ‎factory in Maoist China….Friendships and all emotional relationships are forbidden. From the ‎time they are toddlers, boys and girls are not allowed to speak to each other. Each day at Camp ‎Ashraf you had to report your dreams and thoughts….After my visit, I met and spoke to men ‎and women who had escaped from the group’s clutches. Many had to be reprogrammed. They ‎recounted how people were locked up if they disagreed with the leadership or tried to escape; ‎some were even killed."

So far, this is only a Jim Jones situation—which is bad enough—in that the tragedy affected only ‎the cult’s members. But, as Rubin also reports:‎

During the Iran-Iraq war in the ‎‏1980‏s, the group served as Saddam Hussein’s own private militia ‎opposing the theocratic government in Tehran. For two decades, he gave the group money, ‎weapons, jeeps and military bases along the border with Iran. In return, the Rajavis pledged their ‎fealty.

In ‎‏1991‏‎, when Mr. Hussein crushed a Shiite uprising in the south and attempted to carry out a ‎genocide against the Kurds in the north, the Rajavis and their army joined his forces in mowing ‎down fleeing Kurds. Ms. Rajavi told her disciples ‘Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save ‎your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.’ Many followers escaped in disgust.‎

Rubin concludes: "MEK is not only irrelevant to the cause of Iran’s democratic activists, but a ‎totalitarian cult that will come back to haunt us."

All of which begs the pressing question: Why the policy reversal? And why now? There are at ‎least three reasons, from the pragmatic to the venal. First, MEK’s presence in Iraq has been a ‎growing source of tension between the host country’s Shia government and the United States. As ‎a ‎‏2009‏‎ Rand Corporation report ("The Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iraq: A Policy Conundrum") says:‎

From the early weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom [OIF] until January ‎‏2009‏‎, coalition forces ‎detained and provided security for members of the MEK, an exiled Iranian dissident cult group ‎living in Iraq. From the outset of OIF, the MEK was designate d a hostile force, largely because ‎of its history of cooperation with Saddam Hussein’s military in the Iran-Iraq war and its alleged ‎involvement in his suppression of the Shia and Kurdish uprisings that followed the Gulf War of ‎‏1991‏‎.‎

The Rand report goes on:‎

The coalition’s decision to provide security for a foreign terrorist organization was very ‎controversial because it placed the United States in the position of protecting a group that it had ‎labeled a terrorist organization. Among many resulting complications, this policy conundrum has ‎made the United States vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy in the war on terrorism.‎

The Nour Al- Maliki government in Iraq, therefore, wanted the MEK out; but only by offering ‎the prospect of de-listing could the Obama administration persuade its rogue protectee to leave ‎Ashraf peacefully, as it has now done, to be processed for resettlement by the UN High ‎Commissioner for Refugees.

Second, the dance with the MEK is a commentary on our lack of engagement with Iran, despite ‎early promises for such by President Obama. According to a blog posting of September ‎‏24‏‎, ‎‏2012‏‎, ‎by Leila Kashefi, a Washington-based Iranian-American human rights activist: "It has been ‎incredible to watch members of a designated terror group walk the halls of Congressional office ‎buildings, mingling with Hill staffers and representatives. ‘The only Iranians we see are the ‎MEK’, said one staffer."

Third—and this is the least salubrious factor in the de-listing—despite General Shelton’s ‎protestations to the contrary, the MEK both wants and gets money, and uses it strategically. ‎How exactly the group receives its support is a murky, perhaps impenetrable question. A report ‎by the UK daily, The Guardian ("Iranian exiles, DC lobbyists and the campaign to delist the ‎MEK," September ‎‏21‏‎ ‎‏2012‏‎) attributes this to "a formidable fundraising operation and campaign ‎to transform the MEK’s image led by more than ‎‏20‏‎ Iranian-American organizations 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." As the Financial Times summed up in a recent ‎editorial (Mujahedin mistake," September ‎‏25‏‎, ‎‏2012‏‎) "MEK has found the best friends money can ‎buy". (As a footnote, it goes without saying that neither of these press organs is typically ‎amicably disposed toward the Iranian regime.)

‎Others have been skeptical about the role of expatriate groups—citing their characteristic ‎frugality! Another, perhaps fanciful, explanation has been the largesse of Saddam Hussein ‎toward MEK in the ‎‏1990‏s, and shrewd stewardship of his funding. Or perhaps the multiple ‎aliases—self describing as "freedom fighters" or "democracy" activists—have diversified the ‎funding options. Whatever the nature of the money trail, according to the Guardian report, ‎‎"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." (Others who have ‎accepted fees include Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, and Rudy Giuliani, former ‎mayor of New York City. See, for example, "Iranian group’s big-money push to get off US ‎terrorist list," Christian Science Monitor, August ‎‏8‏‎, ‎‏2011‏‎.) Nor do these friends in court appear ‎overly concerned with a process of background checking: For Representative Dana Rohrabacher, ‎‎"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." [Guardian]

Finally, what are the consequences of the step to delist the MEK? In practical terms, the ‎liberation will enable the MEK to lobby the U.S. Congress for support in the same way as the ‎Iraq Liberation Act of ‎‏1998‏‎ allowed the Iraqi National Congress led by the exiled Ahmad ‎Chalabi to do so—a monumental policy error that led to the invasion of Iraq in ‎‏2003‏‎. In this ‎regard, history, as we know all too well, has a habit of repeating itself. Some ‎‏30‏‎-odd years ago, ‎we saw the mujahedin of another state as "allies" in a cosmic struggle. Welcome to the ‎Afghanistan of the Taliban, three decades on. It is the old adage "the enemy of my enemy is my ‎friend" taken to absurd extreme.

Lest there are doubts about the adverse ethical as well as policy consequences, consider the ‎response from the National Iranian American Council [NAIC], an organization opposed to the ‎current regime, dated September ‎‏21‏‎, ‎‏2012‏‎:‎

The NAIC deplores the decision to remove the MEK from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist ‎organizations. This decision opens the door for Congressional funding of the MEK to conduct ‎terrorist attacks in Iran, makes war with Iran far more likely, and will seriously damage Iran’s ‎peaceful pro-democracy movement as well as America’s standing among ordinary Iranians. The ‎biggest winner today is the Iranian regime, which has claimed for a long time that the U.S. is out ‎to destroy Iran and is the enemy of the Iranian people.‎

All in all, a sad saga—one of taking the moral low ground in pursuit of dubious policy objectives. ‎Let us give the last word to the Financial Timeseditorial, which sums it up rather well:‎

‎"The US government’s decision to take Mujahedin-e Khalq, the exiled Iranian organization, off ‎its list of terrorist groups is a vivid example of the influence of money and lobbying in ‎Washington. At worst it highlights the analytical fog that clouds many US policy heavyweights’ ‎view of Iran."‎

By David C. Speedie , Carnegie Council

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