An official in U.S. President Donald Trump’s Cabinet and at least one of his advisers gave paid speeches for an Iranian exile group that killed Americans before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ran donation scams and saw its members set themselves on fire over the arrest of their leader.
Elaine Chao, confirmed this week as Trump’s transportation secretary, received $50,000 in 2015 for a five-minute speech to the political wing of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, previously called a "cult-like" terrorist group by the State Department. Former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani also was paid an unknown sum to talk to the group, known as the MEK.
More than two dozen former U.S. officials, both Republican and Democratic, have spoken before the MEK, including former House Speaker and Trump adviser Newt Gingrich. Some have publicly acknowledged being paid, but others have not.
While nothing would have prohibited the paid speeches, they raise questions about what influence the exiles may have in the new administration.
Already, a group of former U.S. officials, including Giuliani, wrote a letter to Trump last month encouraging him to "establish a dialogue" with the MEK’s political arm. With Trump’s ban on Iranians entering the U.S., his administration’s call this week to put Iran "on notice" and the imposition of new sanctions on Friday, the exile group may find his administration more welcoming than any before.
A potential alliance with the MEK would link the U.S. to a group with a controversial history that has gone against American interests in the past by supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran. After fleeing Iran, the MEK joined forces with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It later exposed details of the clandestine nuclear program run by Iran, which views the MEK as its sworn enemy.
"The Mujahedeen have backed the winning horse. They are going to have some at least entree into the administration," said Ervand Abrahamian, a professor at the City University of New York who wrote a book on the MEK. "I think it weakens the U.S. because the more they have access to the administration, the more people in Iran are going to be scared of anything the U.S. does."
"THE AYATOLLAH MUST GO"
The MEK long has cultivated a roster of former U.S. and European officials to attend its events opposing Iran’s clerically-run government. It pays for the appearance of many.
Standing before a cheering crowd of MEK supporters in Paris in 2015, Giuliani didn’t disappoint.
"The ayatollah must go! Gone! Out! No more!" Giuliani shouted in a speech as American flags waved behind him on giant screens.
"I will not support anyone for president of the United States who isn’t clear on that slogan behind me. What does it say? It says regime change!"
Giuliani has acknowledged being paid for his appearances at MEK events. However, he hasn’t filed a government disclosure form since his failed 2008 Republican presidential bid, so it’s unclear how much the MEK has paid him in total. Giuliani did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment sent through his aides.
As Guiliani spoke in Paris, behind him were a host of other former officials on stage, including Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. A former director of the Peace Corps and a labor secretary under President George W. Bush, Chao gave a much more subdued speech focusing on women’s rights.
"While discrimination against women (has) been outlawed in other countries, Iran has been legalising it," Chao said. "While other countries are empowering women, Iran has been penalising them."
Chao had a seat of honor at the Paris event next to Maryam Rajavi, the "president-elect" of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the MEK. She received a $50,000 honorarium from the MEK-associated Alliance for Public Awareness, according to a report she filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.
Chao received another $17,500 honorarium for a March 2016 speech she gave to the Iranian-American Cultural Association of Missouri, which MEK opponents also link to the exile group. Chao did not respond to requests for comment.
Gingrich has also spoken to the MEK before, including at a gala in 2016, although it is not clear whether or how much he was paid. Gingrich could not be reached for comment. The White House also had no comment.
The MEK welcomes the incoming Trump government, as "some people within this administration" plan to change American policies toward Iran, said Mohammad Mohaddessin, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of its political arm.
"The core of the policy that we are advocating is to be tough with the Iranian regime, to not ignore its crimes against the Iranian people," Mohaddessin told the AP.
The U.S. Treasury briefly investigated the MEK’s practice of paying American politicians in 2012. A Treasury spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment about the status of that probe.
"THE KILLING OF TWO AMERICANS, THIS WAS WORK OF MOVEMENT MUJAHEDEEN"
The MEK was formed by radicalised university students in 1965. It embraced both Marxism and the idea of an Islamic government after the violent overthrow of the American-backed shah. Their name, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, means "the People’s Holy Warriors."
The group at one point successfully infiltrated the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, according to a State Department report. And a series of bombings attributed to the MEK accompanied visits by presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to Iran, including one to target an American cultural center.
In 1973, MEK assailants wearing motorcycle helmets shot dead U.S. Army Lt. Col. Lewis L. Hawkins, the deputy chief of the U.S. military mission to Tehran, as he walked home from work.
In 1975, gunmen attacked a car carrying two American airmen, killing them. Hours later, American consular officials received a call claiming the attack for the MEK in revenge for Iran executing prisoners.
"This was work of Movement Mujahedeen of Iran," the caller said, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable.
In the three years that followed, the MEK killed three American employees of defense contractor Rockwell International and a Texaco executive.
"The Mujahedeen are xenophobic," a once-secret 1981 CIA assessment on the group said. "Anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism provide cornerstones for the policies."
The MEK, which now describes itself as being "committed to a secular, democratic, non-nuclear republic" in Iran, blames a Marxist splinter faction of the group for killing the Americans.
After joining in the Islamic Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the MEK quickly fell out of favour with Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The MEK declared war on Iran in June 1981. Within days, a bomb exploded at the headquarters of the Khomeini-directed Islamic Republican Party in Tehran, killing at least 72 people. Both Iran and the CIA attributed the attack to the MEK, which never claimed responsibility for it.
A series of assassinations and attacks followed as MEK leaders and associates fled to Paris. Later expelled from France, the MEK found haven in Iraq amid its grinding, bloody war with Iran. Heavily armed by dictator Saddam Hussein, MEK forces launched cross-border raids into Iran.
After Iran accepted terms of a United Nations cease-fire in 1988, the MEK sent 7,000 fighters over the border. The attack further alienated the group from average Iranians.
The MEK says it renounced violence in 2001. But the U.S. Army’s official history of the Iraq invasion in 2003 says MEK forces "fought against coalition forces" for the first weeks of the war, something the MEK denies.
Fourteen U.S. soldiers were killed and at least another 60 wounded escorting MEK members on supply missions, according to a RAND Corp. report prepared for the office of the U.S. defense secretary. The MEK itself became a target of violence, and in September 2013 at least 52 members were shot dead.
Thousands of MEK members were ultimately resettled in Albania.
After siding with Saddam, the MEK’s popularity in Iran plummeted. To boost its ranks, the group increasingly began targeting Iranians applying for visas abroad in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, promising them work, aid in moving to Western countries and even marriage, according to RAND.
"Most of these ‘recruits’ were brought into Iraq illegally and then required to hand over their identity documents for ‘safekeeping,"’ RAND said. "Thus, they were effectively trapped."
The MEK also forced its members to divorce their spouses and separated parents from their children, which the State Department described as "cult-like characteristics." The MEK dictates how much its members sleep, giving them busy-work tasks and controlling what outside news they consume, according to RAND and Abrahamian, the university professor.
For years, MEK leader Massoud Rajavi, the husband of Maryam Rajavi, hasn’t been seen publicly and is presumed to have died, Abrahamian said. MEK members call him the "Hidden Imam" who will return to Earth as a messiah, Abrahamian said.
When French police arrested Maryam Rajavi in 2003 as part of a terrorism investigation, MEK members responded by lighting themselves on fire in Paris and other European cities. The MEK denies it is a cult.
Over the years, the MEK has been targeted in a series of investigations around the world for running charity scams.
An FBI probe found MEK members hustled travelers arriving to Los Angeles International Airport, asking them to donate after showing them binders of photographs of disaster or torture victims. The money instead went to banks in Belgium, France, Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to "support MEK operations and activities, including terrorist activities," a 2007 indictment against seven members said.
In Britain, authorities dissolved a charity in 2001 allegedly associated with the MEK that had made an estimated 5 million pounds a year. Its investigation found some donors "were misled into believing they were personally sponsoring individual children when this was not in fact the case."
In the 2003 raids in France, police found $1.3 million, mostly in $100 bills, at MEK-affiliated properties.
Mohaddessin, the MEK foreign policy chairman, blames the investigations on a concerted misinformation campaign carried out by Iran. The Islamic Republic has imprisoned and executed the group’s members for years.
"These allegations are absolutely false," Mohaddessin said. "There are many cases that were fabricated by the Iranian regime and their agents."
Iran also has alleged the MEK receives foreign support. After the assassination of four nuclear scientists, Iran accused Israel of training and equipping MEK fighters who committed the killings. The MEK called the accusation "absolutely false" at the time, while Israel declined to comment.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia increasingly has shown support for the MEK as it faces off with Iran in wars in Syria and Yemen. The kingdom’s state-run television channels have featured MEK events and comments. Prince Turki al-Faisal, the nation’s former intelligence chief, even appeared in July at an MEK rally in Paris.
"I want to topple the regime too," the prince said to cheers.
"SKILLED MANIPULATORS OF PUBLIC OPINION"
From protests at the United Nations to their Paris rallies, the MEK has proven over the years to be effective at getting attention.
RAND in 2009 called the group "skilled manipulators of public opinion." A U.S. diplomatic cable from February of that year released by WikiLeaks described their "extravagantly hospitable, exaggeratedly friendly, culturally-attuned manner." The cable also mentioned that the MEK had "a history of using intimidation and terrorism for its ends," which Mohaddessin called an allegation from the Iranian regime.
The MEK’s success in getting former U.S. officials behind them could be seen in a letter dated Jan. 9 sent to Trump just days before his inauguration.
"We repeat the call for the U.S. government to establish a dialogue with Iran’s exile resistance," read the letter, signed by Giuliani and others.
However, exile groups haven’t always been proven to be reliable American allies in the Middle East. Exiled Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, for instance, heavily lobbied the administration of President George W. Bush to invade by pushing false allegations of weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
But while the MEK continues to pay former U.S. officials for their time, the family of the American lieutenant colonel killed in 1975 has filed a $35 million federal lawsuit in Colorado against the group and Iran.
The reason for the lawsuit, Lt. Col. Jack Turner’s family says, is simple: "Unlike the U.S. hostages, our father never had the chance to come home."
By Jon Gambrell,