Lindsey Graham returns donation to Iranian exile group
Masood Abooali contributed $2,600 in August to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s reelection campaign. The next month, the Iranian-American received a refund, along with a terse explanation: The campaign was “uncomfortable” with some of his associations and had rejected his contribution.
Abooali, a 56-year-old engineer who lives in Northern Virginia, left Iran 30 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen. He said in an interview he’s a former political prisoner — detained three times for a total of two years — of the regime in Iran that came to power in its 1979 revolution.
He’s also a supporter — but, he emphasized, not a member — of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, known as the MEK, a leftist group of Iranian exiles pushing for the overthrow of the regime.
Last year, the State Department removed the MEK from its list of designated terrorist organizations after a number of defense heavyweights spoke out on the group’s behalf, including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Frances Townsend, who was a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.
For his part, Abooali said his “past is clear of any violence or any activity against the United States, which I am proudly a citizen of.”
“I’m a hardworking family man concerned for my family that I left behind, concerned for my mother who I haven’t seen in 30 years,” he said, explaining that he contributed to Graham’s reelection campaign because of the South Carolina Republican’s hard-line stance on sanctions against the Iranian government and his denunciation of its human rights abuses.
“To me,” Abooali added, “the politics of appeasement is hurting us.”
Graham is very much a hard-liner on the issue. The outspoken member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who faces several conservative primary challengers back home, is pressing for stepped-up sanctions against the Islamic Republic even as the Obama administration works to clinch a deal to curb the country’s nuclear program.
Graham’s push for tougher sanctions — an issue that could become a sticking point this week with the Senate expected to take up its annual defense authorization bill — has won him the backing of a number of supporters of the MEK.
His roster of donors last quarter includes two names that match those listed as having signed a 2011 letter urging then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to overturn the group’s terrorist designation. Others match the names of those listed as having commented in support of the group in online forums or signed pro-MEK petitions.
Each of the contributions was refunded.
“During routine due diligence by campaign staff, it was discovered that a few donors had associations the campaign was uncomfortable with,” said campaign spokesman Tate Zeigler, who declined to provide further details.
“In an abundance of caution,” he said, “the contributions were refunded.”
Last quarter, the Graham campaign sent refunds to 24 donors totaling $44,825 according to its latest filings with the Federal Election Commission. But not all of the refunds were because of the contributors’ associations, Zeigler said. A “significant number” were because the donors “had exceeded their federal limit.”
In all, Graham’s campaign hauled in $1.2 million in the past quarter and has raised $6.2 million this election cycle. His recent donors include the political action committees for a number of top defense contractors — Raytheon, General Atomics and BAE Systems, among others — along with a personal contribution from former President Bush.
Abooali said he had no hard feelings over his rejected contribution, noting that Graham never asked for his support. He also said he would donate again to “any politician who takes sides with the Iranian people” and works to strengthen sanctions against the regime.
Earlier this year, Abooali contributed to two other Iran hawks, giving $2,600 to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and $1,000 to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Neither campaign reported sending Abooali a refund, nor did either respond to questions about whether they have concerns about accepting donations from a supporter of the MEK.
The State Department revoked the group’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization in September 2012, saying its decision was based on three factors: The MEK had renounced violence, its members hadn’t committed any “confirmed acts of terrorism” in more than a decade and it had cooperated in “the peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf,” a refugee camp in Iraq where thousands of members of the MEK had lived in exile since the 1980s.
“The department does not overlook or forget the MEK’s past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil in 1992,” a senior State Department official said last year, speaking to reporters on background.
The decision came after a lobbying blitz — complete with television ads, speaking gigs and columns in a number of major newspapers — urging Clinton to overturn the terrorist designation, which dated to 1997.
Last year, for example, Ridge co-wrote a pro-MEK op-ed with retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton and former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island.
“The regime in Tehran views MEK as an existential threat because MEK strives to replace the unelected, clerical regime with a liberal democracy that champions a non-nuclear Iranian future, equal rights for women and minorities, and a free press,” they wrote in the op-ed, published online by Fox News.
“But,” they continued, “the major opposition to the mullahs is being prevented from realizing these dreams of freedom for the Iranian people because both Iran and the U.S. designate them as a terrorist organization.”
Austin Wright, Politico