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