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Terrorists or Fall Guys?

The MEK puzzle.

May 7, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 32 • By LEE SMITH
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The Treasury Department has issued subpoenas to the speakers’ agencies of 11 prominent former U.S. officials, including a governor of Pennsylvania, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and director of Homeland Security, who have given speeches on behalf of the Mujahedin e-Khalq, or MEK. Treasury’s action is meant to find out whether Ed Rendell, Hugh Shelton, Tom Ridge, and others have taken money from an outfit designated by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

Photo of women rallying in support of MEK

MEK supporters protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. visit, September 2011


However, the nub of the case is whether the MEK merits the designation. The former officials contend that the group of Iranian exiles based in Iraq hasn’t used violence in over a decade and doesn’t fit the State Department’s definition of a foreign terrorist organization. The last time the MEK waged an operation against Americans was in the mid-1970s, and in recent years it willingly handed its weapons over to U.S. troops at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Neither, say its advocates, does the MEK qualify as a threat to U.S. national security, especially given that the organization provided the Bush administration with intelligence regarding Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz.

The MEK has taken its case to court. On May 8, it will ask the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, to order the secretary of state to act within 30 days on the removal of the FTO designation. State has already delayed its decision for almost two years.

To some, it appears that it was precisely this public campaign that annoyed the Obama administration, which on this reading responded by unleashing the Treasury Department on former U.S. officials. The timing is suggestive: Even though many of the former officials speaking out for the MEK have been at it for more than a year, it was days after what was said to be an especially contentious meeting between lawyers for the MEK and the State Department that the Treasury started issuing subpoenas.

The advocates for the MEK haven’t mysteriously gone soft on terrorism. Rather, the MEK and Washington story is one of bureaucratic stasis, the petty exercise of power, and the repeated failures of U.S. policymakers in their dealings over three decades with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The MEK, which is part of a coalition called the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and identified in U.S. court documents as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, was an anti-shah student movement founded in the mid-’60s. Its ideology was a mixture of revolutionary internationalist anti-imperialism, Marxism, Islam, and a uniquely Persian blend of mysticism and metaphysics privileging sacrifice and suffering. In the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the MEK sided with the Khomeinists for a time. But within two years, the MEK and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps were at war with each other.

Whether Iran’s current ruling order fears the MEK because this onetime ally poses a threat to the regime is a matter of dispute. The reality is that their enmity is shaped by the nature of the conflict they waged against each other—not a civil war but a fratricidal struggle, with hundreds killed on both sides. Some MEK cadres fled to Iraq and others to France, where the government in Paris set the precedent for what would soon become a habit of Western policymakers—cracking down on the MEK at the behest of Tehran, in exchange for expected concessions from the Islamic Republic.

In 1986, Hezbollah was holding hostage nine French nationals in Lebanon, and in an effort to get Iran to secure their release, France expelled MEK leader Massoud Rajavi. Iran’s Lebanese proxies freed only two hostages, but that didn’t stop France from going back to the well. In 2003, according to the former editor of the Journal du -Dimanche, French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin sought concessions for the French energy giant Total S.A. and flexibility on the nuclear issue and in exchange agreed to round up hundreds of MEK members in France, on charges later summarily dismissed by a French counterterrorism court.

Since the mid-’80s, Tehran had been lobbying Western governments to designate the MEK a terrorist organization, and in 1997 its work paid off in Washington. Mohammad Khatami had just been elected president of Iran, and as a sop to a man deemed moderate by the standards of the Islamic Republic, the Clinton administration agreed to list the MEK as an FTO.

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