Obama's terrorist-list blunder

The MEK decision is also a classic example of how domestic politics can derail high-stake ‎diplomacy, with the fate of international security hanging in the balance.

The French diplomatic genius Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said: "It was worse than a ‎crime; it was a mistake." This is perhaps the best way to describe the US State Department's ‎recent decision to take the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) off its notorious list of ‎‏52‏‎ foreign ‎terrorist organizations. It was yet another setback in the negotiations between Iran and the West ‎on the former's nuclear program. ‎

It is one of those cynical moves that will only exacerbate an already unfavorable diplomatic ‎atmosphere, suffering from a dearth of goodwill and mutual trust. Iran and the US are already ‎stuck in a dangerous game of chicken: Washington is pressing its advantage by increasingly ‎tightening the noose around Iran's ‎ economy, while Tehran is relentlessly pushing the boundaries ‎of its nuclear-enrichment capabilities toward a fait accompli. Both sides are in essence locked in a ‎precarious form of brinkmanship, bringing the world closer to a devastating confrontation. The ‎Persian Gulf has been witnessing increased military tensions in recent months, with both the US ‎and Iran fortifying their military presence and stepping up their military activities.‎

Meanwhile, sanctions have been biting into Iran's increasingly vulnerable economy, embittering ‎the Iranian population toward the West, especially the US. Instead of reaching out to the Iranian ‎people, as he repeatedly promised, US President Barack Obama is not only imposing what can be ‎termed in international law as collective punishment, but also accommodating an organization ‎that most Iranians identify with treachery and deceit.‎

Obviously, the current deadlock could only be broken through sustained and meaningful ‎diplomacy. However, diplomatic efforts have been in a protracted state of hiatus, with the ‎Iranians postponing any major agreement until the US overcomes its cyclical diplomatic handicap ‎‎- the inability to make a decisive and lasting concession until the conclusion of the presidential ‎election.‎

The MEK decision is also a classic example of how domestic politics can derail high-stake ‎diplomacy, with the fate of international security hanging in the balance. To secure his re-election ‎bid, President Obama is trying hard to look tough on Iran. But what Obama ignores is how his ‎short-term political calculations may carry long-term risks vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear issue.‎

An ambivalent decision

The delisting of the MEK came ahead of a court-ordered October deadline, with US Secretary of ‎State Hillary Rodham Clinton sending a classified document to Congress earlier, detailing her ‎department's position on the matter.‎

In ‎‏1997‏‎, the State Department placed the MEK on its Foreign Terrorist Organizations List for its ‎history of terrorist activities, especially against US citizens in the ‎‏1970‏s. However, ironically, ‎Washington protected the MEK members in Iraq's Camp Ashraf after toppling Saddam Hussein, ‎the organization's main patron. Later, when the group came under increasing pressure - ahead of ‎US troop withdrawal - by the Tehran-backed government in Baghdad, Washington opposed any ‎violent crackdown on the camp, while exploring means to transfer MEK members elsewhere. ‎Finally, amid a logistical headache and rising political noise, Washington transferred some of the ‎‏3,000‏‎-strong MEK militia to Camp Liberty, a former US military base near Baghdad ‎International Airport. ‎

The State Department justified its delisting of the MEK on the grounds that the organization has ‎publicly renounced violence, cooperated in the closure of Camp Ashraf, and has shunned ‎terrorism for more than a decade.‎

Crucially, the move came in the midst of continuous vilification of Iran as an imminent nuclear ‎threat that should be met with force, a narrative enthusiastically espoused by a wide spectrum ‎ranging from hawkish Republicans in the US Congress to pundits in the mainstream media as ‎well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his powerful friends in the Israel lobby ‎in the US). Netanyahu has already called for an explicit "red line" against Iran's nuclear program, ‎coaxing Washington to place the military option squarely on the table. ‎

However, it is not clear whether Washington actually sees the MEK as a possible asset and a ‎viable ally in the event of direct confrontation with Iran as the window for a diplomatic ‎compromise rapidly narrows. The delisting was perhaps just an effort to annoy Tehran or, more ‎important, to appease the anti-Iran establishment amid the current US presidential election ‎campaign. ‎

For its proponents, the recent move was just a logical extension of a broader Western ‎accommodation of an organization that claims to represent the "legitimate democratic opposition" ‎in Iran. Britain delisted the MEK back in ‎‏2008‏‎ and the European Union a year later. The group ‎has significant presence in such places as Paris, which hosts its headquarters, and has staged ‎major rallies in the French capital. ‎

Maryam Rajavi, the organization's Paris-based leader, welcomed the US move by stating: "This ‎has been the correct decision, albeit long overdue, in order to remove a major obstacle in the path ‎of the Iranian people's efforts for democracy." ‎

Anti-Iran hawks in the US hardly held back their enthusiasm. Republican Representative Dana ‎Rohrabacher expressed his joy with the decision, because he believes "the MEK are Iranians who ‎desire a secular, peaceful and democratic government", while Ted Poe, Republican member of ‎the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, described the decision as "long ‎overdue". ‎

The decision is a culmination of years of lavish and aggressive lobbying by the MEK - boosted ‎by growing support from rich Iranian-American exiles opposed to the regime in Tehran - directed ‎at (current and former) top US officials and leaders from both the Democratic and Republican ‎camps.‎

The MEK spent US‏$1.5‏‎ million alone to hire three leading Washington lobby firms. It channeled ‎millions of dollars in "speaking fees" to sympathetic American officials and leaders who graced ‎the MEK's high-profile events, rallies and campaign gatherings calling for the State Department ‎to delist the organization.‎

The list of top-notch supporters is astonishing. The former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, ‎Ed Rendell, has been among the group's biggest beneficiaries, reportedly receiving up to ‎‏$150,000‏‎ in speaking fees. For the Republican chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign ‎Affairs, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the figure stands at around ‎‏$20,000‏‎. Former presidential ‎candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties, namely Bill Richardson, Howard ‎Dean and Rudolf Giuliani, have also joined the fray.‎

With the speaking-engagement fees running in the territory of ‎‏$15,000-$30,000‏‎, former top ‎security/intelligence officials, namely ex-Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh, ‎former Central Intelligence Agency directors Porter Goss and James Woolsey, and Obama's ‎former national security adviser General James Jones, have lent their support too. Even Wesley ‎Clark, a former North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander, is among the elite supporters.‎

What is clear is that the Obama administration has found it increasingly difficult to ignore an ‎organization that has astutely exploited growing cynicism against Iran, staged numerous rallies ‎and vigils outside the State Department, organized huge sit-ins in congressional hearings, and ‎rallied the support of leading US figures. The administration has finally succumbed to the ‎pressure. But this domestic concession could carry significant costs in the broader multilateral ‎efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear conundrum.‎

Potential diplomatic fallout

In the initial years of the Islamic Revolution, its supporters had to contend with the MEK, an ‎organization founded on an eclectic Marxist-Islamist-nationalist ideology, as a major rival in ‎determining the fate of the new Islamic Republic. After all, during the ‎‏1979‏‎ revolution, the MEK ‎was among the major players within the broad coalition of forces that deposed the Shah. After a ‎series of violent confrontations in the immediate post-revolutionary years, a severely weakened ‎MEK lost whatever measure of popular legitimacy it enjoyed when it sided with Saddam ‎Hussein against Iran during the eight-year "imposed war" (Jang-e-Tahmili).

After its expulsion from Iran, much of its paramilitary capability was concentrated in Iraq, under ‎the generous sponsorship of the Baathist regime. So it practically lost any significant presence ‎within Iran. The MEK is an organization with few to no roots within Iran's political landscape, so ‎it is not clear how it could play a critical role in changing that landscape and/or Tehran's nuclear ‎posture to America's advantage. This is precisely why successive US administrations have instead ‎reached out to reformist elements within Iran, never seeing the MEK as a viable ally.‎

It must be noted that Washington's ‎‏1997‏‎ decision to include the MEK in the list of terrorist ‎organizations was part of its nascent diplomatic outreach to the newly empowered reformist ‎government in Tehran under president Mohammad Khatami. After all, inclusion of groups in the ‎Foreign Terrorist Organization list has been generally arbitrary, simply tuned to America's short-‎term strategic interests.‎

In recent years the Obama administration, at least rhetorically, sided with Iran's so-called Green ‎Movement - a loose network of forces composed of certain reformist leaders and disenchanted ‎sections of the society - that formed the backbone of post-election protests in ‎‏2009‏‎. However, ‎there have never been institutionalized channels of communication between Washington and ‎Iran's leading reformists. So it seems that accommodating the MEK is somehow a desperate ‎effort to build ties with alternative Iranian elements explicitly opposed to the regime.‎

Yet there may have been even more concrete reasons. Reports suggesting increased intelligence ‎and security cooperation between the MEK on the one hand and Israeli and US agencies on the ‎other in recent years provide the strongest hint behind Washington's decision to delist the group.‎

In ‎‏2002‏‎, an MEK-affiliate group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, revealed a laptop ‎containing confidential information about Iran's burgeoning enrichment activities in Natanz and ‎Arak. Since the MEK does not possess an independent and credible intelligence-gathering ‎capacity, it is widely believed that Israeli intelligence agencies were behind the leaked ‎documents. The revelation marked the beginning of a decade of tense nuclear negotiations ‎between Iran and world powers, which precipitated a severe set of sanctions and repeated threats ‎of military intervention against Tehran.‎

In April this year, leading investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that back in ‎‏2005‏‎, the ‎Nevada-based Joint Special Operations Command trained "Iranians associated with the MEK" as ‎part of the George W Bush administration's broader "global war on terror". Commentators have ‎also suggested that various Western intelligence agencies, especially Israel's Mossad, have been ‎working closely with the MEK in a "shadow war" ranging from sabotage against Iran's key ‎military and oil facilities to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotage of nuclear ‎installations.‎

Understandably, the Iranian authorities immediately lashed out against Washington's decision to ‎delist one of its most long-standing nemeses. Iran holds the MEK responsible for at least ‎‏12,000‏‎ ‎deaths, including high-profile members of the regime in the early years of the revolution. Iranian ‎state television accused the US of double standards by supporting "good terrorists" who serve its ‎interests by working against Iran and its nuclear program. The Iranian Foreign Ministry warned ‎that the decision would put on the US "responsibility for past, present and future terrorist ‎operations by this group", just as Rajavi expressed her hopes that the delisting "will lead to the ‎expansion of anti-regime activities within Iran".‎

Negotiations on the nuclear program are already in bad shape. Despite repeated overtures by ‎Tehran - from decreasing enrichment activities to the ‎‏3-5%‏‎ territory, to shipping out its stockpile ‎of high-enriched uranium, and opening up of its whole nuclear infrastructure for inspection - to ‎resolve the standoff, the Obama administration has repeatedly refused to meet Iran's two basic ‎demands: (‎‏1‏‎) An unequivocal recognition of Iran's enrichment rights under the Non-Proliferation ‎Treaty (NPT); and (‎‏2‏‎) reversal of unilateral sanctions battering Iran's entire economy.‎

Obama's accommodation of the MEK will further undermine its nuclear diplomacy toward Iran. ‎It will do nothing but strengthen the hands of Iranian hardliners - at the expense of pro-‎diplomacy pragmatists - who have called for a withdrawal from the NPT, an increase of ‎enrichment levels to ‎‏60%‏‎, and preparations for a military confrontation with the West.‎

Beyond regime insiders, the Obama administration has also alienated ordinary Iranians and ‎opposition elements who detest the MEK and view the latest move as another cynical ploy to ‎retard Iran's scientific progress and bring the country to its knees.‎