Bolton vs. Zarif on MEK

by Massoud Khodabandeh

When Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to the airwaves during his visit to the UN in New York, particularly for an interview with Fox News, a frisson of surprised anticipation swept the American political polity. How was it possible that Iran, the pariah nation, not only had the audacity to enter the lion’s den, but from there to lecture the lion on its dirty behavior!

Of course, this is a spat that Iran cannot easily win. What mattered most was that Zarif did not go for the throat of the lion but instead those who are pulling its chain. In short, he accused a “B team”  of actively working to wage war on his country. And he singled out National Security Advisor John Bolton for supporting the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a group that believes in fomenting violent regime change in Iran.

A goaded Bolton went on Fox News to reply. But instead of answering Zarif’s accusations, Bolton merely blamed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for taking the MEK off the U.S. terrorism list in 2012. This was fantastic hubris. Bolton himself supported the MEK all the time it was on the list, attending rallies and taking speakers’ fees worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Bolton’s accusations against Clinton do not hold water. He, along with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, started the war with Iraq partly on the pretext that Saddam Hussein supported terrorist groups, including the MEK, as an instrument of his foreign policy. Bolton was also on board with Rumsfeld when the United States unilaterally granted Protected Persons status to the MEK even while it was recognized a terrorist entity—in direct violation of international law.

With the election of President Obama in 2009, newly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was left to clear up the mess Bolton and the cabal of neoconservatives created in Iraq. One of those problems was continued U.S. support for the MEK (which the United States designated a terrorist entity in 1997). With the help of a new tough negotiator in the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, Clinton set about finding a peaceful resolution to the standoff between the sovereign Iraqi government and the unwanted and parasitic MEK.

Clinton searched for third countries to absorb the MEK. But the MEK, enjoying the backing of anti-Iran regime change pundits in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States (including Bolton), dug in its heels and refused to be disbanded. In the end, only the dependent NATO ally Albania agreed to take the group’s members. Clinton authorized $10 million for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to transfer the MEK to Albania. She paid another $10 million for the establishment of a de-radicalization institute in Tirana to first deal with the MEK as preparation for handling returning Islamic State families. Another $10 million languishes in the account of the U.S. embassy in Tirana, money to rehabilitate the MEK members into normal society that Bolton and his cabal blocked.

All this was written into an agreement between the governments of Iraq, the United States, and Albania along with the UNHCR and the MEK. At that time this author was working as a consultant to the Iraqi government on security issues, including the safe containment and deportation of the MEK. I was relieved when the Obama administration found a safe and above all a peaceful solution to the threat posed by the MEK to the security of Iraq. I was pleased to find in this agreement specific steps toward humanizing individual MEK members and restoring them to normal life and their families.

As someone familiar with the MEK, John Bolton must then and is certainly now fully cognizant of the beneficial elements of this agreement. Yet, almost as soon as President Trump was elected, the de-radicalization project was put on hold, allowing the MEK over the next year to regroup and reactivate its anti-Iran activities. With the support of Bolton, former Senator John McCain, Rudi Giuliani, and a whole cast of minor cheerleading warmongers, the MEK has constructed a purpose-built closed training camp in Albania in which the members are kept as modern slaves to serve the MEK’s propaganda and terrorist agenda.

Before 2016, Iran did not have a diplomatic presence in Albania. Its embassy there dealt primarily with economic and cultural relations. But in 2018, the Albanian government of Edi Rama expelled two newly arrived Iranian diplomats at the behest of the Trump administration. John Bolton boasted about the achievement. Due to overt US support for the MEK, Iran drew its front line not in the Middle East but on the edge of the EU.

Now, with the Iranian foreign minister boldly speaking to the media inside the United States, Bolton has been reduced to deflecting rather than rebutting his accusations. Bolton’s master plan for a war against Iran has not only backfired but prompted Tehran to redraw its front line once again, this time in Washington, DC itself.