Asia-Pacific, Headlines, North America

US: Iranian “Terrorist” Group Courts Friends in High Places

Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Mar 1 2011 (IPS) - For years now, supporters of the Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) have lobbied in vain to have the organisation taken off the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list.

That day may now be approaching. A growing number of high- profile defence and foreign policy big-wigs – from former Central Command chief Anthony Zinni to former Congressman and think tank head Lee Hamilton – have given paid speeches either endorsing de-listing or questioning why the group remains on the list when it has not committed a known terrorist act for many years.

Last July, a federal appeals court in Washington ordered the State Department to review the designation. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the department would make a decision “as soon as we can”.

Ray Tanter, a National Security Council staffer under Ronald Reagan and founder of the Iran Policy Committee, a group that has sought MEK de-listing since 2005, said there have been six recent panels of high-profile individuals dealing with the topic: two in Paris, where the MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance, is headquartered; one in Brussels, seat of the European Parliament; and three in Washington organised by a group called Executive Action LLC.

Executive Action head Neil Livingstone, a former member of the Iran Policy Committee, said another panel might be organised soon on Capitol Hill.

“Iran-American cultural organisations” had approached him about doing the logistics for the meetings, he said, without giving specific names. He said he had not been involved in recruiting speakers or arranging payment for them but believed that it was time to revoke the terrorist designation.

“The list should have integrity,” Livingstone said. “It shouldn’t be used for political reasons.”

The group and its political wing were put on the list in 1997 as a signal from the Bill Clinton administration that it wanted to improve relations with Iran, which had just elected reformer Mohammad Khatami as president.

The Iranian government detests the MEK, whose name in Farsi means People’s Holy Warriors. Responsible for numerous acts of violence in the 1970s, including the assassination of six U.S. citizens, the MEK broke with the regime after the 1979 revolution when it lost a struggle for power. Its leader, Massoud Rajavi, fled first to Paris and then to Iraq, where he and his followers were embraced by Saddam Hussein.

Outside Iran, particularly in Europe, the group has a considerable number of sympathisers – many of them relatives of MEK members summarily executed by the Iranian regime in 1988. However, Iranians inside Iran intensely dislike the organisation because it fought on the side of Saddam during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which killed a quarter million Iranians.

After the war, the group mounted a number of spectacular bombings and assassinations in Iran, including the 1999 killing of Ali Shirazi, the deputy commander of the Iranian armed forces general staff and a former commander of Iranian ground forces during the Iran-Iraq war.

The group has not committed any violent actions in recent years. Its main base – at Camp Ashraf in Iraq – was captured by U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion. Its leaders insist they have renounced violence and support a democratic government for Iran that would renounce weapons of mass destruction.

Supporters of Iran’s Green Movement worry that de-listing the MEK now would hand a propaganda victory to the Iranian government, which is seeking to crush popular protests that began after disputed 2009 presidential elections.

“The government has been trying to taint the Green Movement as connected to the Mujahedin knowing that they have a bad reputation in Iran,” said Ahmad Sadri, an Iran scholar at Lake Forest College in Illinois. Sadri added that the MEK is a “personality cult” built around its leader, whose whereabouts are unknown, and his wife, Maryam, who is based outside Paris.

MEK members are obliged to remain celibate and subjected to intensive brainwashing, according to former members this reporter has interviewed. Some have alleged that they were kept at Camp Ashraf for years against their will.

Roberto Toscano, who served as Italian ambassador to Tehran from 2003 to 2008 and who is now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the group’s ideology is “a weird combination of Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism”.

“People know it’s a cult; people who get out have to be deprogrammed,” he said.

Zinni, who spoke before a Washington audience Jan. 20 – along with a star-studded bipartisan cast that included former national security adviser Jim Jones, former FBI director Louis Freeh and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson – said in an interview Tuesday that he was unaware of the group’s cultist aspects but still felt it should be taken off the State Department list if it disavowed terrorism.

“De-listing ought to be done much the way we handled the PLO and the IRA,” Zinni said in an interview.

He also said that the U.S. was responsible for the fate of more than 3,000 MEK members still at Ashraf even though the camp is now under Iraqi sovereignty.

Zinni, who famously inveighed against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was a fierce opponent of Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, seemed to have no similar compunctions about Iranian exiles.

“The Iranian community outside Iran has much more influence inside than the Chalabis of the world that we ended up supporting in Iraq,” he said.

Zinni said he had been paid his “standard fee” for speaking at the Iran event but would not say how much that was. He said he was never told what to say about the MEK, although he clearly knew the views of those sponsoring the event.

Hamilton, a former chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee who headed the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Center for 12 years until last fall, told IPS that he had also been paid “a substantial amount” to appear on a panel Feb. 19 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.

Hamilton appeared with Richardson, two former Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Walter Slocombe, former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Dell Dailey and ex-Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey.

At the event, Hamilton praised the group for providing information that led to the disclosure of a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, Iran in 2002. While Hamilton did not call for removing the MEK from the list immediately, he said he was “puzzled” by why the group remained so designated.

In the subsequent interview, Hamilton – who once had access to classified information – said, “I haven’t seen any reasons that are current” for the MEK to be branded as terrorist.

He also conceded, however, that he was not aware of the cult-like nature of the group.

“They presented me with a platform that was thoroughly democratic,” Hamilton said. “Were they misleading me? You always can be misled.”

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