Seeking to understand Islamic State, Congress hears from foe of Iran

A controversial foe of the Iranian government sought to tie the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group to the regime in Iran before Congress on Wednesday — a link that President Obama and many foreign policy experts have rejected but one that has gained traction on Capitol Hill as Obama continues nuclear talks with Iran.

A House foreign affairs subcommittee’s decision to invite Maryam Rajavi, a longtime leader of Mujaheddin-e Khalq, had generated objections before the hearing. The exile group, also known as MEK, was listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department as recently as 2012 and had been known to ally itself with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against Tehran.

But since the group formally renounced violence, the most aggressive U.S. foes of the Iranian regime have embraced MEK as an ally. With Wednesday’s hearing on the Islamic State, that alliance has been extended to discussions of the Sunni extremist group now attracting the attention of lawmakers as it wreaks havoc in the Middle East.

“The mullahs’ regime is not part of the solution to the current crisis,” Rajavi said, referring to the Iranian government. “It is indeed the heart of the problem.”The regime in Tehran is the “godfather” of the Islamic State, she said, adding that “the ultimate solution to this problem is regime change by the Iranian people and resistance.”

At a Senate hearing last month, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said it was a grave mistake to link the Shiite regime in Iran with the Sunni-led Islamic State. In fact, he said, the group has given the United States reason to make common cause with Iran.

“They want us to destroy ISIS; they want to destroy ISIS,” Kerry said, using an alternative name for the group. “ISIS is a threat to [Iran]; it’s a threat to the region.”

Rajavi testified as president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, MEK’s political affiliate. She appeared before the subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade via video link from Paris.

Her appearance prompted another scheduled witness, former State Department counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin, to withdraw.

“Congress can invite anyone it wants to testify, but I don’t understand why a group with a history like this should be accorded this treatment,” Benjamin, now a Dartmouth College scholar, said in an e-mail, citing MEK’s role in Iran’s 1979 revolution, and international terror attacks to which the group has been linked.

He asserted that MEK is chiefly interested in overthrowing the Iranian regime. “The notion that it has any particular insights into ISIS is absurd,” he said.

Shaylyn Hynes, a spokeswoman for the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), said Rajavi was invited to testify on the basis of her “personal knowledge of the prejudices inherent in radical Islamist ideology” as well as her knowledge of the plight of MEK members living as refugees at a Baghdad camp.

Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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