Joanne Stocker is an American journalist and the executive editor of the 'defensepost'. Her reports are mainly focused on terrorism, the Middle East and international relations. Joanne has investigated an Iranian terrorist group, the Mujahedin e-Khalq organization (MEK a.k.a MKO, NCRI, PMOI, etc.), for nearly a decade and now she has responded to a number of questions about the group in an interview with Habilian Association. Following is the full text of Habilian's interview with Joanne Stocker.
Habilian: How did you become interested in investigating the Mujahedin-e Khalq organization as a journalist? How do you describe the MEK after years of research about the group?
JS: I started studying the MEK around 2010. I was working on a report about the death penalty in Iran and became interested in the disconnect between what the group was claiming about its members’ activities and what I was hearing from Iranians who said they have little support inside Iran. I would characterize the MEK in general as an extremist opposition group. Its members’ ideologies probably vary as much as those within any organization but they publicly present a fairly united front as a group seeking to overthrow the Iranian government.
Habilian: How much does the US rely on the information about Iran received from the MEK? Does the US government trust groups such as the MEK?
JS: To understand how the US relies on information about Iran from the MEK, we should talk about the branches of government.
There has been an active lobbying effort of both houses of Congress since the MEK was on the US terror list, so lawmakers have always been in direct contact with the group and of course received information from them. At the presidential level, they didn’t seem to have much influence when Barack Obama was president, but they held public events and press conferences about Iran’s nuclear activity while the JCPOA was being negotiated.
President Trump’s closest advisors are directly in touch with the MEK and have advocated for them for years, and I think it’s fair to say that the MEK's influence within the White House is strong. A week before Trump took office, Rudy Giuliani and more than a dozen other ex-officials wrote a letter encouraging him to “establish a dialogue” with the NCRI, and statements made about Iran’s activity and the nuclear agreement are in line with the MEK’s position.
Their support comes from both Republicans and Democrats and both conservatives and liberals/leftists oppose them, so it’s not a partisan issue. This is because MEK has been presented to Americans as the only Iranian opposition group, so their influence on the public is unparalleled. Iran has no diplomatic presence in the US and even opposition figures who are more aligned with the former monarchy do not have a wide public reach, so there is no counter message to the MEK.
That said, most Americans aren’t looking to the MEK for information – they will hear it from the media, or Congress, or the White House.
Habilian: The United States made a great effort to find a country to accept the MEK members on its soil. John Kerry had spoken of $ 50 million paid to Albania to take in the MEK members. Why is a group like the MEK so interesting to the US? How do you think Iran adversaries could use the group in Albania?
JS: The MEK is interesting to the US because it opposes the Iranian government – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The situation in Iraq and Albania came about because when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, American soldiers protected the residents of Camp Ashraf from what I believe was a real threat of violence. Originally there was a suggestion to bring the Ashraf residents to the US, but that was not popular, so the Obama administration had to find a country that would take them. Along with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), they got Albania to agree.
It is worth noting that some people, especially women, left the MEK once they arrived in Albania.
To be clear, the US donated about $20 million to the UNHCR to help the agency relocate the MEK members. There was a report a few years ago that the US offered $50 million to Albania to help with resettlement but I haven’t seen any evidence that it actually happened.
Habilian: You recently appeared in an MSNBC TV program and somehow revealed some parts of a list including the names of prominent US political figures who have received money from the MEK. Has the US treasury department or the US justice system ever reacted to such donations from a current or former terrorist group?
JS: The donations from people in or associated with the MEK to US politicians wasn’t illegal because it didn’t violate US campaign donation laws. As far as I know those small donations have never been investigated by anyone but myself and other reporters I worked with.
The US Treasury Department did briefly investigate payments to US officials and former officials to speak at MEK rallies while they were still on the terror list. The MEK maintains that the Treasury Department found there was nothing improper and that they never paid an individual American. That may be true because they paid through other groups.
For example, we know that John Bolton was paid $40,000 to speak in Paris last year because he had to disclose this information now that he is part of the US government. The group that paid him is called Globe Events. He also disclosed $20,000 in speaking fees paid by the US Foundation for Liberty, in both April and September 2017. That group is accepted to be tied to the MEK.
Habilian: While out of the office, some U.S. politicians such as John Bolton and Rudy Guiliani participate in MEK meetings and openly advocate for the group. But as soon as they take office, apparently they cut their ties with the group. Are they being careful about having ties with an infamous organization?
JS: I think some politicians accepted speaking opportunities because they were paid well. They may not have agreed with the MEK’s ideology or their intent to overthrow the government of Iran – some seem to not have known exactly what they were supporting. Ex-officials can make a nice profit from speaker fees to all sorts of events, so this would be totally normal for them, and doesn’t mean they support the MEK.
Last year, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao disclosed that she was paid $50,000 by the Alliance for Public Awareness and another $17,500 by the Iranian-American Cultural Association of Maryland for speeches in 2015 and 2016, but the transportation department said that she was speaking in favor of "democracy and women's rights in the Middle East," not "at MEK events.”
As a government official, Bolton would also have to disclose how much he was paid if he spoke at more events, and he may not want to give the impression that the US government is itself supporting the MEK. But Guiliani doesn’t have a government position – he is the president’s personal lawyer and therefore a private citizen and not required to make financial disclosures – and he was at the Paris conference last weekend. Other current politicians like Senator John Cornyn have gone to Albania to meet Maryam Rajavi.