Small band of Iranian exiles gets lots of attention in U.S.

In Washington, there are very few issues that unite Republicans and Democrats. One is support for Israel and condemnation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet the story of how an exiled Iranian dissident group secured bipartisan support from a host of heavyweight Washington insiders and fought its way off of the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations illustrates how power is wielded in Washington, and how former officials continue to influence American foreign policy.

The Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and People’s Holy Warriors, inspires fierce passion among its followers, deep skepticism among its critics, and more than its fair share of conspiracy theories. With its shadowy past, shifting ideologies and deep pockets, the MEK has been called “the most powerful lobby you’ve never heard of.” It has evolved from killing Americans to courting them — and supporting the Iranian Revolution to becoming its sworn enemy.

Violent History

The MEK was one of two Marxist guerrilla student groups formed in the 1960s to topple Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran.

Photos: Larry Luxner

Iranian-American activists protest in Washington, D.C., in June 2009 demanding protection for members of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) in Camp Ashraf. The MEK says the Iraqi government periodically attacked the camp, where some 3,000 MEK members have since been moved to another camp near Baghdad after being taken off the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

“They played an important role in bringing down the Shah,” said John Ghazvinian, a historian who is working on a book about the history of U.S.-Iranian relations. “But they fell out of favor and [Ayatollah] Khomeini condemned them as hypocrites. He called them the ‘Hypocrites of the People’ and said you can’t be Marxists and Muslims at the same time.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, the group committed acts of terrorism against the Islamic theocracy, killing scores of Iranians, plus six Americans. In perhaps their most notorious attack, MEK operatives blew up the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party in 1981, killing more than 70 prominent Iranian politicians, including members of parliament, clerics and cabinet ministers. Two months later, they killed the prime minister and newly elected president.

“That massive campaign of terrorism turned Iranian people completely against them,” said Ghazvinian.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the group was given refuge by Saddam Hussein, and it mounted attacks on Iran from within Iraqi territory and joined Hussein’s brutal crackdown on the Kurdish rebellion. The State Department placed the MEK on its list of designated terrorist groups in 1997 for a “swath of terror” that targeted Americans and killed thousands of Iranians. But the group, which in the last decade has renounced violence, was removed from the State Department’s terrorist list in September 2012 after an intense lobbying campaign involving dozens of prominent American officials, including former directors of the FBI and CIA, generals and prominent politicians, most of them recently retired.

Limbo at Liberty

The U.S. military disarmed the MEK after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reportedly securing their cooperation in exchange for a pledge to protect them at Camp Ashraf. The group provided intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program — some charge that the information was funneled to them by Israeli intelligence — and began to win allies in the Department of Defense by sounding the right notes about democracy, women’s empowerment and freedom of speech.

Since control of Camp Ashraf was returned to Iraq in 2009, more than 100 MEK members have been killed, allegedly by Iraqi security forces with ties to Iran. MEK supporters believe that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is deliberately targeting their group, now about 3,200 strong and located in the former Camp Liberty near Baghdad, acting on orders from the Iranian regime, which still views them as traitors.

The bulk of MEK members moved to Liberty (also called Camp Hurriya) last year, reportedly as a condition for being taken off the State Department’s terrorist list. (From there, U.N. and State officials hope to resettle them in third countries.)

About 100 members remain at Camp Ashraf, where 52 people were killed in a Sept. 1 attack that the MEK blamed on Iraqi security forces (a separate rocket attack on Camp Liberty in late December reportedly killed three people). The circumstances of the Ashraf attack remain murky. Nevertheless, the deaths sparked outrage in various quarters of Washington.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) decried what he called a “massacre.” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, demanded that Iraq do more to find the seven members who were allegedly taken hostage during the attack. Both suggested withholding U.S. weapons sales to Baghdad until it cooperates. Marc Ginsberg, former U.S. ambassador to Morocco under the Clinton administration, evoked the memory of John F. Kennedy and his advocacy for refugees to push President Obama to help the Iranian dissidents. Reporter James Morrison of the Washington Times’s Embassy Row column has written about the MEK no fewer than a dozen times last year alone.

Beltway Cause Célèbre

The plight of these 3,000 stranded Iranians has certainly taken up an inordinate amount of bandwidth in Washington, as strange bedfellows offer a full-throated defense of a group that has been described by critics and former members as a cult.

The MEK is part of an umbrella coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a Paris-based “parliament in exile” led for decades by Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud (Maryam is now the main figurehead). Interestingly, feminism is part of the group’s ideology, and the MEK is “the only army in the world with a commander corps composed mostly of women,” according to Elizabeth Rubin, a former Council on Foreign Relations press fellow.

Critics though say the group is hardly a beacon of democracy and women’s rights. Defectors have accused it of being a totalitarian cult that forced its members to divorce and stay celibate (so they could focus on fighting Iran) and confess their sexual fantasies in public. The MEK counters that many former members are really Iranian agents out to tarnish them.

Despite its opacity and relative obscurity, analysts agree that the MEK has been able to punch above its weight in Washington. The bipartisan roster of prominent supporters includes: R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss, both former CIA directors; Louis J. Freeh, the former FBI director; President George W. Bush’s homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, his attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey, and his chief of staff, Andrew Card; former National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones; former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton; former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell; former House Speakers Dennis Hastert and Newt Gingrich; and former Vermont Governor and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean, among many others.

“You had people who had made their names as terrorism fighters in the Bush administration offering to speak on behalf of the MEK, which was on the terrorist list at the time, for $10,000,” said Jeremiah Goulka, a writer and former analyst at the Rand Corp. who was the lead author of a lengthy 2009 report on the MEK. (The MEK took issue with the report, hiring a crisis communications firm to publish its own rebuttal. Goulka says he spent a year researching the report in the United States and in Iraq, along with its co-authors, and stands by it.)

Many on the MEK’s list of prominent supporters were indeed paid by the group to deliver speeches, sometimes reportedly charging up to $40,000 per speaking engagement. Rendell told the Washington Post that he was paid more than $150,000 in expenses. The MEK also recruited journalists as speakers. According to ProPublica, the group paid Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame $12,000 and Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, $20,000.

A number of the MEK’s high-profile supporters spoke on its behalf while it was still designated as a terrorist group, often through speaker agencies or third-party Iranian-American organizations. According to news reports, the Treasury Department investigated Rendell’s receipt of money from the MEK but apparently declined to pursue the matter.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon, pointed out that numerous Muslims inside the United States “have been prosecuted for providing ‘material support for terrorism’ for doing far less than these American politicians are publicly doing on behalf of a designated terrorist group.”

An Iran analyst who works for a major think tank in Washington, D.C., but didn’t want to speak for attribution because he feared a backlash from MEK supporters, said that the MEK’s well-funded lobbying campaign, which included full-page ads in prominent newspapers as well as high-powered advocacy, was what got them off the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.

“They are paying a lot of influential people big sums of money to come and speak at their events, and I think that’s had an impact,” he said. “They’re a marginal actor on the Iran issue, but they garner support because they spend a lot of money.”

Hired Guns?

How does a group of Iranian dissidents, most of them stranded in a refugee camp in Iraq, afford millions of dollars to advertise and pay big-name politicians to make speeches? A story in NBC News from February 2012, citing unnamed U.S. officials, asserted that the MEK was financed by Israeli intelligence, which also reportedly used MEK operatives to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. The MEK issued a statement denying the allegations.

Ghazvinian thinks the MEK-Israel connection is credible.

“The Israelis have a long history of using the MEK as a sort of foil,” the historian said. “In 2002, when the allegations about Iran’s nuclear programs hit the headlines, they were presented to the world as having come from the MEK, but they probably came from Israel. The revelations were handed to the MEK because the Mossad didn’t want to be obvious. Better to present the information as coming from this ‘Iranian opposition group.’ It made it look to the world like it was Iranians blowing the whistle, but that was probably not what happened.”

Goulka said he wasn’t sure if the MEK would risk getting involved in covert activities like the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists because, at that time, the group was making a major push to get off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

Despite being on that list, Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, reported in 2012 that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) trained MEK operatives at a secret site in Nevada beginning in 2005. A JSOC spokesperson denied the report.

Still, suspicions linger that the group hasn’t completely left its militancy days behind it and is being recruited as a proxy to fight Iran, much like it was by Saddam Hussein years ago.

‘American Honor’

The MEK declined numerous interview requests, but in an interview with The Diplomat, Howard Dean said that he wasn’t under any illusions about the MEK’s past — or the present-day humanitarian situation it finds itself in. Dean acknowledged being paid by the MEK to make speeches at their conferences over the years but declined to say how much he received, insisting that it was only his “normal speaking fee.” But he said that he would be a supporter of the MEK regardless of whether they paid him.

“That’s what really annoys me about journalists,” he said, referring to insinuations in the media that he was paid by the MEK in exchange for his support. “What they say is, because I gave a speech for the MEK, therefore my argument doesn’t mean anything…. I was never paid to speak on their behalf. I was paid to speak at their conferences and I say what I damn well please, which is what I always do. There’s a lot of snideness and assumptions. If you think we can all be bought by speaking fees, that’s your privilege.”

Dean alleged that many supposedly nonpartisan Iran analysts in the United States are actually on the Islamic Republic’s payroll, and he insisted that there was an “Arabist rump” at the State Department that was soft on Iran and unhelpful to the MEK. He also maintains that senior American military commanders convinced the MEK to disarm after the invasion of Iraq and promised them protection.

“Thirty-one hundred unarmed people get herded into what has turned into a prison camp — we talked them into that. We thought it was the best way to get them out of Iraq in one piece,” he told us. “Since then, the State Department has done very little to keep them safe. They are in danger every single day. They’re being abused every day.”

The group was issued identity cards, but it’s unclear how U.S. officials could pledge to protect MEK members, knowing that U.S. troops wouldn’t be in the country indefinitely. Dean maintained that retired U.S. Army Col. Wes Martin or retired Brig. Gen. David Phillips could verify what was promised to the MEK. The Diplomat learned that both are now members of the U.S. Foundation for Liberty, a nonprofit group that appears to be working on behalf of MEK members in Iraq. The foundation did not respond to a request to make Phillips or Martin available for an interview.

The State Department appointed a senior advisor, Jonathan Wine, to help resettle those in Camp Hurriya, and the United Nations has been in the process of determining their refugee status. Albania has agreed to take about 200 MEK exiles, but no other country has stepped forward to accept any others. Dean says Washington should organize an airlift to bring the 3,100 remaining members to the United States, where he believes they should be allowed to stay permanently as refugees.

“It’s a matter of American honor,” he argued. “Are we willing to let 3,100 now civilians die? I don’t think that would preserve American honor.”

But if the State Department is reluctant to issue visas for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to help Americans during those wars, it’s doubtful Washington would bring over 3,000 Iranians that up until fairly recently were officially deemed terrorists. Moreover, Ghazvinian warned that action could derail sensitive talks with Iran on the nuclear issue.

“At a time when we’re possibly about to make headway with Iran in the nuclear negotiations, it strikes me that giving asylum to 3,000 MEK is quite possibly the dumbest thing we could do,” he said. “Even dumber than adding new sanctions.”

MEK’s Chances Back Home

Yet some neoconservatives and avid supporters of Israel on the left hold the group up as a possible democratic alternative to the clerical regime in Iran. But Iran scholars and analysts say that notion is wishful thinking.

“The MEK is a lot like Ahmed Chalabi was for Iraq,” said Goulka, referring to the Iraqi dissident accused of trumping up intelligence on Iraq’s phantom weapons of mass destruction to goad the United States into war.

The Iran analyst who spoke to The Diplomat on background said that hardcore opponents of Iran have reflexively backed the MEK, without knowing much about the group.

“There’s a tendency to support any group that opposes the Islamic Republic without delving very deep into what that group stands for,” he said.

Goulka’s report for Rand alleged that the MEK leadership engaged in cult-like practices after leaving Iran.

“Families were broken up, there was mandatory divorce, there is mandatory celebratory,” he said. “They separate friends. They tell family members back home in Iran that members were killed by the regime, so they don’t try to get in touch. They keep diaries of their sexual thoughts and then discuss them. They’re publicly jeered for having them but if they deny having them, they are criticized because they must be lying.”

In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report alleging that the MEK engaged in serious human rights abuses from 1991 until February 2003, prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, including “prolonged deprivation of liberty and torture.”

Elizabeth Rubin of the New York Times Magazine visited Camp Ashraf just after U.S. forces invaded Iraq. “After my visit, I met and spoke to men and women who had escaped from the group’s clutches. Many had to be deprogrammed. They recounted how people were locked up if they disagreed with the leadership or tried to escape; some were even killed,” she wrote.

The State Department itself once had harsh words for the group. In a 1994 report to Congress, it said that co-founder Massoud Rajavi “fostered a cult of personality” around himself and that “internally, the Mujahedin run their organization autocratically, suppressing dissent and eschewing tolerance of differing viewpoints.”

Massoud Rajavi himself hasn’t been seen publicly in more than a decade, only adding to the enigma of the MEK. Regardless, both the State Department and the European Union seemed to have changed their tunes about the Iranian exile group, removing it from their respective terrorist lists.

But Ghazvinian, who has spent time in Iran recently to conduct research for his book, says the group has scant support in Europe and North America, and virtually none in Iran.

“The MEK is the one thing that most Iranians of any political persuasion can agree on,” he said. “They are viewed as traitors to their country.”