Last Thursday in Washington D.C., a prominent group of former government officials gathered for a panel on Iran. Among them were a former National Security Adviser, a former CENTCOM Commander, a former Democratic Senator, a former Democratic Presidential candidate, a former Republican Attorney General, a former Republican Homeland Security Secretary, a former CIA Director and a former FBI Director. Almost to a man — and they were all men — they expressed support for a group considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
The panel, organized by a consulting firm called Executive Action, LLC, was called “Iran’s Nuclear, Terrorist Threats and Rights Abuses: After Engagement and Sanctions, What?” and the group in question is the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, also known as the MEK.
Getting the MEK off the United States’ list of terrorist organizations has become a top priority for “members of Congress, former Bush administration officials, and Iran experts touting an overtly anti-regime policy,” according to The Christian Science Monitor. Last month, TPM reported how former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey flew to Paris to speak at an MEK event.
“Appeasement of dictators leads to war, destruction and the loss of human lives,” Giuliani told the crowd there. “For your organization to be described as a terrorist organization is just really a disgrace.”
At last week’s panel, a pair of prominent Democrats — former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) — and several national security experts added their voices to the pro-MEK chorus. The panelists argued that delisting the MEK would show the Iranian government that the U.S. is serious, and that delisting would, like sanctions, fall in a productive middle ground between unfruitful diplomatic talks and outright military force.
“Does it make sense that we continue to ostracize, label opponents of the regime as terrorists, when the facts say otherwise,” Torricelli, who moderated the event, said in his opening statement. “Is it even possible to oppose a terrorist state, and be a terrorist yourself?”
Former Attorney General Mukasey argued that delisting the organization “would show that we recognize MEK as a group that is dedicated to restoring freedom in Iran,” and said the MEK was “interested only in bringing to their country the same benefits of freedom that we have.”
“This is a nascent, an important movement,” former CENTCOM Commander Anthony Zinni said, adding that the U.S. needs to “quit resisting reaching out and grabbing the hand of the opposition.”
Richardson, who once served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, advocated for the use of sanctions, but said, “that has to be combined with new approaches to talk to the Iranian people — one is through the MEK group. At least give them some credibility, and talk to them, and find ways that we work together.”
Richardson also called for “protecting the rights of those at the camp,” referring to Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s base in Iraq, which has been the subject of debate since the U.S. invaded in 2003, and was recently attacked. He then added: “That was something that I was not aware of until this morning.”
James Woolsey, former CIA Director, stressed the importance of acting now against the regime in Iran.
“It is not 1933, it’s 1938,” he said.
Gen. James Jones, who was Obama’s National Security Adviser until last fall, spoke at length about Iran policy, but, unlike the other speakers, his remarks made no mention of the MEK.
In his closing statements, Torricelli said “the listing of the MEK as a terrorist organization by the United States government is wrong.” He went on:
It is wrong as a matter of law, it is contrary to the facts, it is interfering with the rights of American citizens to be heard, and it is contrary to American foreign policy. And having expatriate groups of Iranians from around the world organize, as is their right and their responsibility, to bring to the country of their ancestors’ birth a responsible government. I call upon Secretary Clinton, who I consider a dear friend and one of the finest leaders in the history of our country, to do what she knows is right, end the policy and end it now.
Torricelli received a standing ovation from the crowd, which included many Iranian-Americans.
MEK support is not new in Washington. When the MEK’s leader Maryam Rajavi was arrested in France in 2003, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) were among those who protested publicly. ”There is a move afoot among Pentagon hard-liners to use them as an opposition in the future,” an anonymous Bush Administration official told The New York Times at the time. And in 2009, 120 House members backed a resolution calling on President Obama to prevent the relocation of MEK members from Camp Ashraf in Iraq. But the latest panel boasted the most high-profile officials to come out in support of the group.
So what is the MEK? The State Department website states that the group “advocates the violent overthrow of the Iranian regime and was responsible for the assassination of several U.S. military personnel and civilians in the 1970’s.” When it was founded by students in the 1960s, the group’s philosophy blended Marxism and Islam, and it later developed a strong feminist bent. In fact, according to The New York Times, the MEK became for a time the “only army in the world with a commander corps composed mostly of women.” Membership is in the several thousands, with large pockets in several European capitals. About 3,400 live at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, where they have been declared “protected persons” under the Geneva Convention — a status that does not apply to members living outside the camp. [Update: The State Department’s list of terrorist organizations included a mention of the “protected persons” status until 2008, but the 2009 list makes no mention of it.]
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the group fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1981, the MEK attempted to overthrow the regime, which responded by arresting and targeting group members. In a subsequent bombing campaign, the MEK managed to kill Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, President Mohammad-Ali Rajaei, and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar. One bomb cost current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei the use of his right arm. Popular sentiment in Iran turned against the MEK, and the group fled, first to France, and then, in 1986, to Iraq, where they were offered safe haven by Saddam Hussein.
Hussein armed the MEK with tanks and other heavy military equipment, and deployed “thousands of MEK fighters in suicidal, mass wave attacks against Iranian forces” during the Iran-Iraq war, according to the State Department. In 1991, Hussein used the MEK to crack down on Iraqi Shia and Kurds. ”Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” MEK leader Maryam Rajavi commanded her troops at the time, according to The New York Times. During the rest of the 1990s, and through 2001, the MEK was engaged in various anti-Iranian attacks and operations, and it received millions of dollars in Oil-for-Food program subsidies from Hussein. None of the speakers at last week’s panel mentioned the MEK’s prior ties with Hussein.
The State Department states that the MEK maintains “the capacity and will” to commit terrorist acts across the world. But the members living at Camp Ashraf agreed to be disarmed in 2003, and surrendered two thousand tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery pieces. And the group’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which maintains offices in several capitals, says its goal is to establish a “pluralist democracy” in Iran. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the MEK “has had little success luring new recruits and is composed mostly of its founding members.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com