Why Are Some U.S. Politicians Trying to Remove an Iranian ‘Cult’ From the Terror List?

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The two leading figures of Iran’s opposition Green Movement – presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi are under arrest as the regime cracks down on any effort to emulate the Arab world’s democracy rebellions. But Iran’s opposition may be in store for another blow – this time, at the hands of those in Washington who profess to support their cause.

A newly fashionable foolishness in Washington is public advocacy by leading establishment figures on behalf of Iran’s Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), which has since 1997 been on the State Department’s list of foreign terror organizations. It may be a radical group founded from a mix of Marxist and Islamist ideas, which the State Department says killed Americans working in Iran in the 1970s and which served as an adjunct to Saddam Hussein — and it may function as a cult, according to the RAND Corporation, with many members forced to remain in the organization against their will — but the campaign to take it off the State Department’s “terrorist” list unites longtime neocon ideologues, former U.S. military and security officials, Republican presidential hopefuls and now a growing number of senior Democratic foreign policy mavens.

And it appears to be well-funded, with a number of the speakers at the campaign’s keynote events admitting to having been paid to show up, most recent among them, former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, a respected foreign policy grey-beard.

The MEK was created in the mid-1960s to fight the Shah of Iran. Although it participated in the revolution of 1978/9, it broke with the Islamists and went into armed opposition as they took over, launching a number of terror attacks inside Iran. It was welcomed into Iraq by Saddam Hussein as a proxy force against his enemies in Tehran, establishing its main military base at Camp Ashraf in eastern Iraq. The MEK fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iran in the brutal war that raged from 1980-1988, a fact that has forever damned it in the eyes of millions of Iranians — even those who are willing to challenge the current regime.

When the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003, the fate of the MEK became an American problem. While the Bush Administration, in line with the terrorist designation and commitments to Iran, undertook to close the camp, it hedged on the issue as more hawkish elements in and around the Administration lobbied furiously for the MEK to be supported as a proxy force to wage war against Iran — you know, just like Saddam had done. The MEK claims to have renounced violence in 2003, and has been lobbying to have its “terrorist” status changed in the West — an effort that succeeded in Europe in 2009 when it was removed from the EU equivalent of the State Department’s list. Camp Ashraf remains open, however, although the Iraqi government has demanded its closure — although as U.S. influence declines, an Iran-friendly Iraqi government could move against it.

That’s one of the concerns animating the sudden show of sympathy for the group in Washington. Another is frustration at the failure of U.S. efforts thus far to compel Iran to relinquish its nuclear program – and a desire to seek regime change on the cheap. And then there’s also clearly a smart lobbying effort on behalf of the MEK, whose membership is believed to number between 5,000 and 10,000, and its political wing, the Paris-based National Council of Resistance.

At a recent event, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who was President Clinton’s U.N. Ambassador at the time the MEK was added to the “terrorist” list, said Iranians’ “thirst for freedom and democracy” required that it be taken off the list. Former Joint Chiefs chairman General Hugh Shelton said that the MEK was “the largest organized resistance to Iran’s current regime” and urged that it be immediately removed from the list. “MEK is obviously the way that Iran needs to go,” he added.

Speaking at an event in Paris last December along with former Bush cabinet member Tom Ridge and GOP presidential hopeful Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Homeland Security czar Michael Mukasey called the MEK “a moderate, secular and democratic political organization as well as the largest and most organized opposition group in Iran.” And last month, former New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli chaired a panel urging the Obama Administration to embrace the MEK, that included former CENTCOM chief Anthony Zinni, former Obama National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones, and President Bush’s former U.N. ambassador, the arch-hawk John Bolton. Even more bizarre was Torricelli’s “by any means necessary” logic when he asked, last month, “Is it even possible to oppose a terrorist state, and be a terrorist yourself?”

The answer, for grownups, is yes, it is quite possible. Terrorism is not simply an epithet applied to those we don’t like; if the term is to have any meaning at all it has to have an objective definition — and typically, in international forums, that definition involves the systematic directing of violence against non-combatants in pursuit of political goals. And by that measure, the MEK has engaged in acts of terrorism — although there’s certainly a case to be made that throughout history, groups that have engaged in terrorism have later become part of the political process in their countries.

But the problem with Washington’s new MEK fantasy is that — like its fascination with the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi who nine years ago convinced American leaders that their troops would be greeted by Iraqis with “sweets and flowers” — it is failing to notice the obvious: Just as the CIA used to joke that Chalabi was far more influential along the Potomac than he was along the Tigris, so are the new crowd of MEK converts ignoring the fact that the MEK is detested not only by Iran’s regime, but also by the very opposition movement that has challenged the regime in the streets.

When the Green Movement took to the streets took to challenge the regime in the wake of Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election,  the regime sought to portray the MEK as behind the movement, in order to discredit it in the eyes of ordinary Iranians.

Former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi was having none of it, branding the MEK a “hypocritical and dead organization”. Fellow Green Movement leader Zahra Rahnavard, wife of Mir Hussein Moussavi, was even more forthright in an interview with a Farsi news outlet last year: “This government has tried to revive the MEK by associating it with the Green Movement, which again is a very funny notion because the Green Movement is a people’s movement that is alive and dynamic and holds a very red wall between itself and the MEK.”

Tehran-based journalist Jason Rezaian  writes that the hostility is based on the MEK having fought for Saddam Hussein in a war that left hundreds of thousand of Iranians dead or maimed. It’s regarded in the same way that Americans view John Walker Lindh. “There are still thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians completely willing to speak openly about their attitudes on the 2009 election,” Rezaian writes, “but good luck finding a single person who is pro-MEK.”

“Sitting here in Tehran,” he continues, “the mere thought of the MEK becoming a legitimate contributor to the policy dialogue on Iran is laughable, except to those of us who would actually like to see an end to the more than three decades of animosity between the U.S. and Iran, and hope for a productive future relationship through real diplomacy. To us — and we are much stronger in number than the MEK could ever hope to be — the idea is insane, heartbreaking and reprehensible.”

That view is echoed by Michael Rubin in Commentary magazine, proving that not all neocons share the enthusiasm of some for the MEK. “There is no doubt that the [MEK] has targeted Americans, and no amount of slick public relations should erase that. During my time in Iran, it was clear that while Iranians respect the United States and have little good to say about their own government, they all detest the [MEK]… One thing is certain: embracing the [MEK] is the surest way to make anti-American the 65 million Iranians who dislike their government and dislike theocracy.”

Rubin is also skeptical of the roots of the current campaign to legitimize the MEK: “If American officials call for the delisting of the MKO, that is their right. For an honest debate on the issues, however, they should acknowledge the honorarium or consulting fees they receive from the group.”

Given President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s own propaganda efforts to link Iran’s domestic opposition to the MEK, though, it’s hard to imagine he’d have any problem with Washington embracing the group.