For a group seeking the recognition and patronage of the United States, there’s possibly no worse place to be than on the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations. For Iranian exile group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), being officially labeled terrorists is a major hindrance to hefty political ambitions. But thanks to a multi-million dollar lobbying effort — including large payments to prominent former US government officials — and an astute remodeling of their image, they are on the cusp of being removed from that list.
If the MEK succeeds — a decision by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected any day now — it will be the culmination of a remarkable transformation; in a little under a decade, they’ve gone from a violent, cult-like, Marxist-Islamist group, with ties to Saddam Hussein and an anti-imperialist, anti-American agenda — to one described last month by a US Congressmen as "our friends".
The ambitions of the MEK don’t stop with their delisting though. What the group really wants is recognition and support for its claim to be the sole, legitimate, Iranian opposition. This claim is spectacularly false; the group has little to no public support within Iran. But that’s not standing in the way of the growing number of influential US politicians and political players embracing them.
The phenomenal lobbying and propaganda juggernaut of the MEK has already swept through Europe. After the recruitment of significant numbers of European parliamentarians to their cause, and dozens of court battles, they were delisted as a terrorist group in the UK and the European Union in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
Last year a Washington court ordered the State Department to reconsider the MEK’s status on the FTO list. The decision now lies with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and her deliberations have been against the backdrop of a fierce lobbying campaign, ramped up in the last eight months.
Key to this effort has been an impressive parade of former US government officials, wheeled out to support the group at MEK arranged press conferences in Paris, Washington and Brussels. More than 40 have appeared, with star recruits including former CIA head James Woolsey, President Obama’s former national security advisor Jim Jones, former Commander in Chief of US Central Command Anthony Zinni, president Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, Obama’s former director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, former mayor of New City Rudy Giuliani, and former Democrat presidential hopeful Howard Dean.
Investigations by Financial Times journalist Anna Fifield have revealed that dozens of these former officials have been paid handsomely for their appearances. Fifield reports "a sliding pay scale of $20,000 to $100,000 per speech, plus travel costs, and that four-speech packages were common". A former Pennsylvanian Governor Ed Rendell told Fifield he was paid $20,000 for an 11 minute speech.
The message delivered at these events follows a consistent narrative; it says that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program and is an imminent threat to the United States, that dialogue with the Iranian regime is futile, and the only solution is to delist and support the MEK who will take on and remove the Iranian regime. (Just how the MEK would "remove" the Iranian government is never made clear. Because they are at the same time arguing to be removed from the list of terrorists because they have renounced the use of violence, they clearly can’t advocate a violent overthrow.) The political wing of the MEK says it even has a provisional government in exile waiting for when "the mullahs are toppled", complete with a president, currently based in Paris.
(As I first reported for SBS’s Dateline program in 2006, the MEK has been a key player in promoting the belief that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, by publicising so called "intelligence revelations" — of which many have subsequently shown to be exaggerated or wrong. The MEK continues to assert Iran is developing a bomb, despite US intelligence assessments consistently saying there is no evidence of this.)
Contrary to MEK claims, the leaders of the Iranian opposition are not holding press conferences in Paris, rather, they are locked up in Tehran. The Green Movement is the name for the broad coalition of students, intellectuals, liberals, middle class, politicians, activists, and dissident clerics who took on the Iranian regime after the disputed Iranian Presidential elections of 2009. This is the group that most accurately represents the Iranian opposition. Its leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest since February this year. Thousands more of their supporters are languishing in Iranian prisons.
The MEK has played no real role in Iranian political or civic life for three decades. They were active participants in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, but soon fell out with the new Islamic government, and thousands of their members were brutally executed by the new regime. They fled Iran in the early 1980s and went to Iraq, where they formed a relationship with Saddam Hussein. In a move that sounded the death-knell for any lingering support they may have had in their home country, the MEK sided with Iraq against their countrymen during the brutal Iran-Iraq war. In Iran today, where people still openly grieve the hundreds of thousands of Iranian men and boys killed in this war, it is unfathomable to ever image the MEK being welcomed back.
Today the MEK — and its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — presents itself as an organisation with democratic and secular ideals. But many experts are sceptical the group has really shed its violent pedigree. Ray Takeyh, from think tank the Council on Foreign Relations says "terror has always been a hallmark of MEK’s strategy for assuming power". Within the region, the MEK is remembered for its craven act of brutally suppressing the 1991 uprising of Iraqi Shia and Kurds, on behalf of their benefactor Saddam Hussein. This operation was carried out by the current leadership of the MEK.
Testimony of numerous former members also throws into doubt claims of being a democratic organisation, with the MEK exhibiting many characteristics of a cult. According to these accounts, members are brainwashed into devotion of the group’s leaders, have been forced to cut family ties, divorce spouses, and give away children. Human Rights Watch has documented cases of psychological and physical abuse against MEK members who dared dissent.
You’d think that after the Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi helped goad the United States into its disastrous misadventure in Iraq, US politicians would be a little wary of dissidents bearing gifts. Chalabi — with his manufactured Iraqi "opposition group" the Iraqi National Congress — gave false assurances about the ease of "regime change", and wrongly asserted that Iraq was full of WMDs. The parallels with Chalabi and the MEK are striking.
But it appears the lure of a slick, cooperative, "opposition group" is once again proving irresistible. More than 100 members of Congress — both Democrat and Republican — are co-sponsors on a resolution to delist the MEK, and the number of former officials prepared to speak on their behalf is growing. While the MEK’s powers of persuasion are no doubt great — a report from independent research group RAND called them "skilled manipulators of public opinion" — it still raises the question of how can so many otherwise well-informed people overlook the obvious flaws and dubious background of the MEK?
When Inter Press Service journalist Barbara Slavin questioned Lee Hamilton — a former Chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and head of a major think tank — about his support for the MEK, he said he wasn’t aware of the cult-like nature of the group. Really?
Closer to the truth, is not that the MEK’s Western supporters don’t know, it’s that they don’t care. It’s as simple as the proposition that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The MEK is attractive because it offers to provide a neat solution to the problem of a belligerent Iran.
At a recent Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Democratic Congressman Bob Filner — one of the MEK’s biggest supporters in Congress — was told by an expert witness that the MEK had a "discursive ideology with violent elements". Filner replied, "So what, so what!" He went on to say, "I don’t care what religion they are, what ideology they have … these are our friends. We should be getting out of their way and delist them, and let them do what they can". When the witness — an academic — pointed out that the MEK is generally hated in Iran, Filner said: "I don’t agree … even if you’re right, so what?"
The Iranian people do care though. Representatives of the Green Movement are aghast at the growing American support for the MEK. From their point of view the MEK is one gigantic fraud; leading Green Movement figure Mohsen Kadivar accuses the MEK of "capitalising on US-Iran enmity to shed its terrorist designation and subsequently receive U.S. government funding". Even more critically, the Green Movement is warning that US support for the MEK could undermine the genuine, indigenous democracy movement within Iran. They’re afraid that if the MEK receives elevated status, then Iranian President Ahmadinejad and regime hardliners will deliberately connect the reviled MEK with the Green Movement, as a way of discrediting and further cracking down on all opposition within Iran.
The Green Movement — which advocates only non-violent resistance to the Iranian regime — is also sceptical of the MEK’s claims to have renounced violence, and fear any involvement of the MEK in Iran will lead to bloodshed. While supporters of the Green Movement revile Ahmadinejad, they recognise that there is no appetite at all in Iran for any more loss of life. One of the MEK’s key supporters in Washington, Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, only heightened these fears when he said of the MEK last month: "I will have to admit, that one of the things that attracts me to this movement is that it is willing to fight".
Hillary Clinton’s imminent decision on the MEK is clearly critical. It has the potential to impact the success or otherwise of the fledgling pro-democracy movement within Iran, a movement already under intense pressure from the brutality of the authoritarian Iranian government. The Green Movement has made it clear that they would regard any US support for the MEK, as a breach of trust between the Iranian people and the United States.
Even those operating from purely an American interest should realise — as the invasion of Iraq showed — that "regime change" is not as simple as dropping in a new government like some kind of food aid package. While the MEK is offering up an impressive sounding package, it is deeply flawed. Those who’d like to see a better government in Iran would be better placed to listen to the voices from within Iran — perhaps not as slick and cooperative as those heard at press conferences in Paris and Washington — but with a greater understanding of the complexities involved with real political change, and a genuine support base.
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