Former US four-star generals, intelligence chiefs, governors, and political heavyweights are calling for the US government to take the MEK off the terror list. Many of these former high-ranking US officials – who represent the full political spectrum – have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in support of the MEK.
A high-powered array of former top American officials is advocating removal from the US terrorist list of a controversial Iranian opposition group with a long anti-American history.
With a decision due within weeks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former US four-star generals, intelligence chiefs, governors, and political heavyweights are calling for the US government to take the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK/MKO) off the terror list.
Many of these former high-ranking US officials – who represent the full political spectrum – have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in support of the MEK.
They rarely mention the MEK’s violent and anti-American past, and portray the group not as terrorists but as freedom fighters with “values just like us,” as democrats-in-waiting ready to serve as a vanguard of regime change in Iran. Some acknowledge that they knew little about the group before they were invited to speak and were coached by MEK supporters.
Their efforts may be working: Knowledgeable officials say the millions of dollars spent on the campaign have raised political pressure to remove the MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list to the highest levels since the group – whose record includes assassinations of US military advisers and attacks on US diplomats – was one of the first to be put there in 1997.
"The people who are saying [the MEK] are no longer terrorists are also saying they are democratic," says John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran from 1979-1981, who was US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran until last year.
"The issue is, have [the MEK] changed their terrorist nature?" asks Ambassador Limbert. "If they say, 'We renounce terrorism,' I have no confidence in that. What is it in their past – or in their present – that leads you to have confidence in such a statement?"
Legal cases have seen the MEK removed from terror watch lists on procedural grounds in the UK and European Union in recent years. A decision on the US designation is now imminent; a federal appeals court in Washington last year ruled that the State Dept. had violated the group’s right to due process, because it had not been allowed to contest unclassified information used to justify its designation.
That information, submitted in autumn 2009, disclosed that “the MEK trained females at Camp Ashraf in Iraq to perform suicide attacks in Karbala” – a charge the group called “manifestly implausible” in court. It also included a US intelligence community assessment that the MEK “retains a limited capability and the intent to use violence to achieve its political goals.”
A detailed 2009 report, prepared for the US Department of Defense by the RAND Corp., notes further that the MEK has made "repeated requests ... to have its weapons returned" at Camp Ashraf, the military camp given to the MEK by Saddam Hussein, where 3,400 members remain, disarmed.
Former US officials taking part in MEK-linked events told the Monitor or confirmed publicly that they received substantial fees, paid by local Iranian-American groups to speaker bureaus that handle their public appearances.
The State Dept. official, who is familiar with the speech contracts, explains the mechanism: “Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,000 to speak for 20 minutes. They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say.”
"Top-level national security officials never heard about the MEK; it never rose to their level until now," says another US official. "So when MEK representatives show them a political platform comprised of the '15 greatest ideas of Western civilization,' it looks pretty compelling."
The contracts can range up to $100,000 and include several appearances. They sometimes explicitly state, according to the State Dept. official, that "We are not a front organization for the MEK."
The speaking events have created some extraordinary spectacles, including that of US heavyweights sharing the stage with the MEK's self-declared "president-elect" Maryam Rajavi. At a mid-June MEK rally in Paris, for example, Mrs. Rajavi was flanked by five rows of former top US and European officials. The noisy throng of thousands of well-orchestrated MEK supporters, draped in yellow vests and waving flags, banners, and balloons as clouds of confetti fell, looked like an American political convention.
Rajavi said the US had "shackled the main force for change in Iran through an unwarranted label," which had "acted as a barrier to Iranian people's freedom." The MEK leader called on the US government to "heed" senior former officials demanding delisting and "recognition of the Iran resistance."
Those former officials lined up in Paris to voice their support for the MEK, and to criticize Washington's Iran policy:
"How about we follow an Arab Spring with a Persian Summer?" asked Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, during his speech, as an American flag waved on the screen behind him. "We need regime change in Iran, more than we do in Egypt or Libya, and just as we need it in Syria."
It wasn't Mr. Giuliani's first time speaking at a pro-MEK event: “Appeasement of dictators leads to war, destruction and the loss of human lives,” Mr. Giuliani told a similar group of Iranian exiles in Paris last December. “For your organization to be described as a terrorist organization is just really a disgrace.”
Michael Mukasey, the former US attorney general, declared: "There is one organization and one alone, that stands for immediate democratic change in Iran, and that is the MEK."
Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff under George W. Bush, told the crowd the gathering was a "great reflection of support for the people of the MEK. It is truly time ... for the people all over the world who care about democracy to stand with the Iranian people and the MEK in the struggle for democracy."
Tom Ridge, the former US homeland security chief, also took the podium: “It’s an extraordinary honor for me, and a great privilege for my colleagues from the United States," Mr. Ridge said, “to have the opportunity…to work with an individual that we believe clearly is one of the most inspirational, great leaders of the 21st century: Viva Maryam!"
Rajavi has indeed inspired fanatical loyalty among some MEK members. Her brief arrest in France in 2003 on terrorism charges sparked a wave of self-immolations.
Her portrait – along with that of husband and co-leader Massoud Rajavi, who has been in hiding since 2003 – is as ubiquitous at Camp Ashraf as Saddam Hussein’s once was across Iraq. Every day at the camp, the MEK motto is heard: "Iran is Rajavi, Rajavi is Iran. Iran is Maryam, Maryam is Iran.”
Such praise therefore often features at MEK-linked events addressed by prominent Americans, mixed with other MEK talking points.
Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, hailed Rajavi in Berlin last March.
"Madame Rajavi does not sound like a terrorist to me; she sounds like a president," Mr. Dean said, gesturing toward the MEK leader from the dais. "And her organization should not be listed as a terrorist organization. We should be recognizing her as the president of Iran."
Mr. Dean confirmed to the Monitor that he received payment for his appearances, but said the focus on high pay was “a diversion inspired by those with a different view.”