MEK using boldfaced names in bid to get off terror list

Among the foreign countries and overseas organizations that hire people to advocate for them in ‎Washington, D.C., one doesn’t expect to find a group that’s listed on the U.S. government’s ‎roster of foreign terrorists. But the Mujahedin e-Khalq — a cult-like Iranian group whose killing ‎of U.S. officials landed it on the terrorist list in ‎‏1997‏‎ — has been paying hundreds of thousands ‎of dollars to a high-profile team of former Members of Congress, political notables and ex-‎administration officials as part of its push to get itself removed from that very list.‎

Indeed, over the past two years, boldface names such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, ‎former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Democratic National Committee Chairman ‎Howard Dean and retired Gen. James Jones, who was President Barack Obama’s first national ‎security adviser, have been paid as much as ‎‏$30,000‏‎ a speech to praise the MEK as a democratic ‎opponent of the regime in Tehran. Convinced of the group’s current commitment to human ‎rights, these and other luminaries rarely mention its assassinations of U.S. military advisers before ‎the ‎‏1979‏‎ Islamic revolution in Iran and its alliance with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against ‎Tehran afterward.‎

‎“There is one organization and one alone that stands for immediate democratic change in Iran, ‎and that is the MEK,” Mukasey told a Paris rally a year ago. Others who have spoken in support ‎of the group at events in Washington, Brussels, London and Berlin are Andrew Card, who was ‎President George W. Bush’s chief of staff for five years; Anita McBride, a chief of staff to first ‎lady Laura Bush; former State Department Director of Policy Planning Mitchell Reiss and former ‎Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.‎

‎“We’re familiar with that passage ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Ridge said at a ‎Washington event last July. “That is what the MEK stands for.”‎

It is illegal to provide direct assistance to terrorist groups. But those making speeches on behalf ‎of the MEK are booked and paid by speakers’ bureaus, which in turn are paid by MEK ‎supporters in the United States, who get their money from sources outside the United States.‎

The group enjoys support from Republicans and Democrats in the United States, and from Israel ‎and Saudi Arabia. Some critics of the MEK have compared the group’s lobbying effort to the ‎campaign for legitimacy by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite who won the support of the Bush ‎administration and many in Congress as the leader of the democratic opposition to Hussein. ‎Chalabi helped spread what turned out to be false stories of the dictator’s nuclear weapons ‎program, which Bush used to justify the ‎‏2003‏‎ invasion of Iraq.‎

The MEK’s removal from the terrorist list would give the group greater legitimacy and permit its ‎members to raise funds openly in the United States after years of legally questionable fundraising ‎by supporters and front groups. And the two-year lobbying campaign may be bearing fruit. Last ‎month, the Obama administration took the first preliminary steps, behind the scenes, toward ‎delisting the MEK. The State Department is said to favor the move on the condition that the ‎group — which says it has renounced violence — evacuates a base in Iraq that it once used for ‎cross-border raids into Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to make a ‎decision after the last of some ‎‏3,400‏‎ residents of the base, called Camp Ashraf, relocate to a new ‎transit camp at Baghdad’s main airport.‎

But experts on Iran warn that doing what the MEK wants could have serious repercussions. ‎Delisting the group would anger the FBI, which says the MEK was planning terrorist attacks ‎long after its stated renunciation of violence. Indeed, many Iran experts believe the recent spate ‎of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists was carried out by MEK operatives working for ‎Israel. Delisting would also complicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program among six major ‎powers and Tehran, which also regards the MEK as a terrorist organization. And it would ‎undercut Iran’s nonviolent, democratic opposition, which unsuccessfully challenged the ‎country’s clerical rulers during the “Green Revolution” in ‎‏2009‏‎.‎

‎“The MEK, with its violent history, is exactly what the Iranian regime needs to legitimize its ‎violence against the peaceful opposition,” Maziar Bahari, an Iranian activist who was jailed ‎during the ‎‏2009‏‎ demonstrations, told a Washington audience last August.‎

A History of Violence

The Mujahedin e-Khalq (in English, the People’s Holy Warriors) was founded in ‎‏1963‏‎ in Iran, ‎mixing Islam with communist ideology and calling for the violent overthrow of the country’s ‎pro-American leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. From ‎‏1973‏‎ to ‎‏1978‏‎, the group claimed ‎responsibility for the killings of six U.S. military advisers and an American oil executive in the ‎country. The group also played a major role in the infamous November ‎‏1979‏‎ seizure of the ‎American Embassy in Tehran, repeatedly calling for the execution of the hostages during the ‎subsequent ‎‏14‏‎-month ordeal.‎

But after the revolution, the group fell out with Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah ‎Khomeini. In ‎‏1981‏‎, Khomeini banned the group, which fled to Iraq. The MEK then formed an ‎alliance with Hussein, who provided the group with weapons and a military base at Camp ‎Ashraf, north of Baghdad.‎

From there, the MEK staged deadly raids across the border during the ‎‏1980-1988‏‎ Iraq-Iran war, ‎claiming credit for killing hundreds of Iranians, as well as a series of violent attacks on Iranian ‎diplomats overseas. In one MEK bombing, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali ‎Khamenei, permanently lost the use of his right arm. Hussein also used MEK forces to help crush ‎the Iraqi Kurdish uprising after the ‎‏1991‏‎ Persian Gulf War.‎

When U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq in ‎‏2003‏‎, Camp Ashraf came under their control. ‎The MEK’s Paris-based leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, who had renounced violence in ‎‏2001‏‎, ordered their followers in Iraq to surrender their weapons. But a ‎‏2004‏‎ FBI report said ‎wiretaps of MEK members in Los Angeles, Paris and Berlin determined that “the MEK is ‎currently actively involved in planning and executing acts of terrorism.”‎

Former MEK members have described the group as a cult that promotes unquestioning obedience ‎to the Rajavis. They say the group demands celibacy, takes away members’ children and ‎pressures couples to divorce so they can devote their lives to the MEK. In ‎‏2003‏‎, several members ‎of the group self-immolated to protest the arrest of the Rajavis, who were quickly released. A ‎‏2009‏‎ report prepared by the RAND Corp. for the Pentagon said “nearly ‎‏70‏‎ percent of the MEK ‎population at Camp Ashraf have been recruited through deception and kept there against their ‎will.”‎

The group earned some notoriety in ‎‏2005‏‎ when it claimed credit for tipping off the United States ‎about Iran’s uranium enrichment activities at Natanz. But Iran experts say Israel, which has close ‎ties with the MEK, was the source of that information and used the group to disclose it. The ‎group’s purported role in uncovering part of Iran’s nuclear program and its public embrace of ‎secular democracy have earned it friends in Washington, particularly among neoconservatives ‎and security figures.‎

Those who have given paid speeches calling for the delisting of the MEK include former CIA ‎chiefs James Woolsey, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, ‎former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Marine Commandant James Conway, and two former ‎chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace and Hugh Shelton. “The current Iranian regime ‎does not need to be modified, does not need to be changed. It does not need to do anything but ‎be replaced. And it needs to be replaced by the resistance movement led by the MEK,” Shelton ‎told the Paris rally.‎

The MEK’s lobbying campaign has also attracted a growing number of senior Democratic ‎figures. In addition to Dean, paid speakers include Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic ‎Representative from Indiana and former co-chairman of the Sept. ‎‏11‏‎ commission, former ‎Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.‎

The campaign has already won bipartisan support in Congress. Backers of the MEK’s efforts ‎include both House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Bob Filner ‎‎(D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I know the MEK ‎supports a secular, democratic, non-nuclear Iran,” Filner told a BBC interviewer in April. “We ‎should be helping them in every way we can.”‎

Decision Looming

The State Department says any decision by Clinton on delisting the MEK now depends on the ‎willingness of Camp Ashraf’s remaining residents to depart. The United States is working with ‎the United Nations to resettle them in third countries. But around ‎‏1,200‏‎ MEK members at the ‎camp are resisting departure out of fear they’ll be returned to Iran.‎

‎Diplomats say a decision by Clinton to take the MEK off the list would not go down well in ‎Tehran. Iranian officials often accuse western governments of hypocrisy for sheltering MEK ‎members while condemning Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas. A decision to delist might ‎cause Iran to harden its position on its nuclear program at the next round of negotiations with the ‎United States and five other world powers, which are pressing Iran to give up its stockpile of ‎‏20‏‎ ‎percent enriched uranium in return for lifting an embargo on civilian airline parts. Iran is ‎demanding a lifting of all sanctions in return for giving up the stockpile.‎

Karim Pakravan, an Iranian-born economist at DePaul University, notes that the MEK has ‎managed to portray itself to Congress as a legitimate Iranian opposition group “by an effective ‎campaign of propaganda and thinly disguised bribes to marquee political names on both sides of ‎the aisle.” Writing in an online forum on Iran, Pakravan says delisting would allow the MEK “to ‎use its massive foreign-financed war chest to try to crush all the other Iranian voices in the ‎United States and establish itself as THE democratic alternative to the Islamic Republic of Iran ‎in the eyes of a corrupt and naïve U.S. Congress. Such an outcome would be indeed a tragedy ‎for the democratic forces in Iran.” U.S. officials say Clinton will make her decision no more than ‎‏60‏‎ days after the last person is out of Camp Ashraf. But while a decision to keep the group on ‎the terrorist list is still possible, the secretary’s linking of her decision to the camp’s evacuation ‎makes it unlikely she will decide against delisting if the relocation is successful. The European ‎Union and Britain have delisted the MEK in recent years.‎‎‏-215180-1‏‎.html