Several prominent former lawmakers, government officials and military leaders have added their names to the growing list of political heavyweights backing an Iranian opposition group currently considered a terrorist organization by the State Department. The group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq or MEK, has a history of support in Washington. But a recent series of events organized by a group called Executive Action, LLC, has brought in some surprisingly marquee names. At an event in Washington D.C. on Saturday, several of those speakers argued that the MEK is critical to any chance of regime change in Iran.
Among the new faces: former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton (D), who once chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; Ambassador Dell Dailey, who was the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism from July 2007 to April 2009; General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009; and not one, but two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe and ex-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) also spoke.
The State Department’s website states that during the 1970s, “the MEK staged terrorist attacks inside Iran and killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians working on defense projects in Tehran,” but the decision to place the group on the U.S. terror list in 1997 has been described as a nod to Iran’s then-new reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. (The group now blames the killing of U.S. citizens on a splinter group that usurped the MEK name.) Still, it remains unclear what popularity the MEK maintains inside Iran, where many remember how the group fought for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.
At the event on Saturday, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C., speakers called on President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to remove the MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, saying the designation hampers the group’s ability to organize and operate.
Speakers also called for the protection of the 3,400 MEK members who reside in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Despite their ties to Hussein, MEK members in Iraq agreed to a ceasefire and surrendered their weapons after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and were eventually consolidated at Ashraf. Since the transfer of power, Ashraf appears to have gotten caught in a diplomatic no-man’s zone between the governments of Iraq, the U.S. and Iran, and residents have been subject to attacks by Iraqi forces and other privations.
The MEK says it renounced violence several years ago, and several speakers on Saturday praised MEK leader Maryam Rajavi’s 10-point platform for Iran, which calls for universal suffrage, separation of church and state, and a country that is nuclear free. The MEK’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has voted Rajavi President-elect.
At the Mayflower, Ambassador Dailey spoke about the “awful humanitarian conditions” at Camp Ashraf and about the importance of removing the MEK from the terror list. He said international pressure must be maintained on the government of Iraq, so that the increased sovereignty of the country does not occur “at the expense of the residents of Camp Ashraf.”
Dailey said that the State Department is “continuing to reconsider its efforts in retaining the PMOI on the Foreign Terror Organization list,” and said that “for Iraq and the United States, members of Camp Ashraf and the PMOI are the best counterbalance to Iranian terrorist and nuclear aggression.” Dailey praised the group for its contacts, insights, cultural awareness, and a past record of providing information about Iran.
“No other internal or external organization has been this productive in obtaining such information, we should not let it fall idle,” he said. “To best make this Iranian opposition effective, the United States must revoke the terror designation.”
Former Rep. Hamilton spoke about the “extraordinary difficulty” that the United States has had in dealing with Iran over the years, and about Iran’s push to build a nuclear program. “I understand that much of the information that we have in this country with respect to the Iranian nuclear program comes from you, and from those that you know well,” Hamilton told the audience, which included many Iranian-Americans.
“We all know the complexity of this problem, the difficulty of it,” he said, adding. “What do we do about it?”
For one, Hamilton said the Iraqi government must live up to its commitment to protect those who live in Ashraf. “I’ve talked to several of you in recent days about that situation,” he said, “You have educated me a good bit on what has gone on there.” Hamilton said sanctions on Iran must be tightened, and loopholes closed. And Hamilton called for “support for the opposition in Iran.”
Of the MEK specifically, Hamilton admitted that “I’m one of those people that Bill [Richardson] referred to in his remarks, that has not paid enough attention to this issue.”
“From where I stand now, I’m really puzzled,” he said. “I do not understand why the United States has kept the MEK on the terrorist list for all these years. I have had access to classified information, I know some things may have happened in the past, but I just don’t understand why.”
He called it a “factual question” about the conduct of the MEK, and said he was “not aware of any facts that require the MEK to be on the terrorist list.”
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton said the time for change in Iran is “now.” Shelton was among the speakers who brought up the recent unrest in Egypt. He said he was concerned about the “fundamentalist, or radical element” that is present in Middle Eastern countries, and said he feared the Iran regime sees an opportunity to exert greater influence in Egypt and the region. Therefore, while “all of us are excited about the Egyptian people now being out from under what turns out to be a very oppressive leader,” Shelton said he was concerned about where the Egyptian government will go from here, and what will become of its relationship with the West and the U.S.
What was key in Egypt, Shelton said, is that the Army refused to side with Mubarak. In Iran, meanwhile, he said the only people who don’t want change in Iran are the people who are armed and in control. “In Iraq we had this very same issue,” Shelton said. “It was very difficult for them to make that change until we intervened.”
“Iran’s issue is compounded by the fact that the largest organized resistance to Iran’s current regime has been put on the FTO list, the MEK,” he said. He called for that “mistake” to be “rectified immediately,” and said that the “MEK is obviously the way that Iran needs to go.”
“The MEK is not a perfect organization, they’ve made mistakes — so have we,” he said. “But I think the MEK, when you look out into the big picture, they provide hope for the Iranian people that far exceeds anything that we or our allies can offer, excluding direct intervention, at this point.”
Gen. Peter Pace, the 2nd former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak at the event, said that the U.S. has had enemies turn into friends in the past: Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan. Countries change, he said, and Iran will. But for now, Iran is a threat “to the region, to Europe and to the United States.” He warned that the current regime obtaining a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable.”
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