What's up with all the MEK ads?

The Prospect takes on the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq ads playing nonstop during campaign coverage.

If you’ve been watching cable news lately, there’s a good chance that you’ve noticed some out-of-the-ordinary adverts. Namely, a 30-second spot done in the grainy style of a spy-thriller flashback calling for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident group, to be taken off the official U.S. terrorist watch list. It’s a conspicuous outsider in the typical ad roster filled with car commercials and cholesterol meds, which might have led some viewers to wonder, “What’s up with that?”

Ask and ye shall receive.

What does the MEK purport to be?

As tabloid editors who traffic in celebrity divorces and teen-idol feuds well know, there are two sides to every juicy story. In the words of the commercial mentioned above, the “MEK is Iran’s democratic opposition working for a nuclear-free Iran founded on human rights.” The ad employs cinematically ominous music and a narrator whose vocal stylings are more stress-inducing than a pelvic exam, all to great effect. It closes with pictures of U.S. politicians and officials who have publicly supported the group, along with the imperative, “Secretary Clinton, for democracy and freedom in Iran, delist MEK.”

This sentiment is well in line with how supporters of the MEK portray the group—as a political movement with freedom-fighting roots going back to the overthrow of the shah. The MEK didn’t mesh well with Iran’s new Islamic government, however, (Marxist leanings appear to terrify powerful imams just as much as they do senators from Wisconsin), and its members were booted from the country in 1981.

Most MEK loyalists moved into a camp on the Iran/Iraq border and were materially supported by Saddam Hussein until his ouster. Over the course of the last three decades, they have been linked to attacks on Iranian embassies abroad, along with assassinations within Iran itself.

How does the U.S. government characterize the MEK?

As a Foreign Terrorist Organization, the official bad-guy label that the group earned from the State Department in 1997, the U.S.’s feelings about MEK are pretty clear. According to the official State Department report listing the MEK as a terrorist organization, which was obtained recently by NBC news, the group’s actions during the Iranian revolution were anti-American: “As part of that struggle, they assassinated at least six American citizens, supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy, and opposed the release of the American hostages.”

Most recently, the MEK has been accused of coordinating with Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, in the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in January in the midst of busy downtown Tehran traffic.

Why is there talk of delisting?

In July 2010, a federal appeals court in D.C. ordered the State Department to reconsider the MEK’s place on the terrorist watch list. The court ordered the State Department to revise the MEK’s delineation as a terrorist group on the grounds that it was categorized without proper evidence brought by the government. The ruling mandated that Secretary Clinton come back with sufficient evidence and a ruling on the MEK designation within 180 days. Two years later, no such announcement has been made. In 2009, the European Union removed the MEK from its watch list.

The MEK sounds sketchy! How’d it get support from all those politicians in the pro-delisting TV ads?

The short answer is, to quote the inimitable Coolio, because of the “power and the money.”

Basically, through its Paris-based political wing, The National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), the MEK has been on a PR blitz as of late. The poster girl for the movement is Maryam Rajavi, who, along with her husband Massoud (whereabouts unknown—how glam!) runs the MEK’s operations. The current TV ad features her wearing a matronly suit and a purple hijab, smiling winningly for the cameras.

The quest for legitimacy in recent years has consisted of paying prominent U.S. political figures thousands of dollars to appear at pro-MEK speaking engagements. Payments are made through speaking agents with money from pro-MEK Iranian community organizations. Videos of Howard Dean, Patrick Kennedy, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and former National Security Adviser Jim Jones promoting the delisting of the MEK can all be found in the multimedia section of the NCRI’s website. Other delisting proponents are retired General Wesley Clark, former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and former Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson.

Mitchell Reiss, Mitt Romney’s special adviser on foreign policy is another Washington pol who has publicly advocated for the MEK over the years.

Should we be weirded out by this whole campaign?

Yes. Very much.

First of all, the MEK is not well liked by the majority of Iranians because of the numerous acts of violence it has committed within the country. This means that it’s not really a viable regime-change option—which is the reason Washington insiders have been lining up on behalf of the group.

More disturbing is the fact that the MEK is basically a cult. In a 2009 report on the group, the Rand Corporation characterizes the MEK’s practices as “cultic” and their recruitment tactics as “deceptive,” noting that the group practiced “near-religious devotion to the Rajavis…public self-deprecation sessions, mandatory divorce, celibacy, enforced separation from family and friends, and gender segregation.” It goes on to describe efforts to attract new members with false promises of employment and marriage, and the confiscation of passports once recruits reached the MEK stronghold.

In her 2011 opinion piece in The New York Times, Elizabeth Rubin, who spent an extended amount of time in Camp Ashraf, the MEK stronghold by the Iran/Iraq border, echoes these sentiments and expresses dismay at the support from U.S. officials. Her basis for concern came largely from the conditions she witnessed at the camp and the former MEK members with whom she talked: “Friendships and all emotional relationships are forbidden. From the time they are toddlers, boys and girls are not allowed to speak to each other. Each day at Camp Ashraf you had to report your dreams and thoughts.”

What do these commercials mean for primary-campaign season?

Combined with the machismo “bomb Iran” rhetoric that has been bandied back and forth in this year’s GOP race, the airing of the pro-MEK ad during marquee events like the GOP debates is part of a disturbing trend. There have been MEK advocates in Washington for years, namely the Iran Policy Committee led by Raymond Tantur, a Georgetown University professor and former staff member of the National Security Council, but the hawkish leanings of the group meant that it wasn’t really part of the mainstream discourse. The spate of appearances by high-profile, mainstream public officials from both sides of the aisle is a whole different story—it lends a loud microphone to the MEK and bestows legitimacy by osmosis; coasting off of the reputations and connections of their paid supporters in Washington is a shrewd move by the group, one that could very well pay dividends.

Ramped-up talk about Iran from GOP candidates, including Romney, who lacks any real foreign-policy experience (the Olympics don’t count), coupled with the clever pro-MEK ad campaign could mean a softening of ground when it comes to public opinion of the group. There’s nothing like good polling numbers to sway a candidate with an immature foreign policy. After all, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, a cable ad is sure to pack a punch.