Among the foreign countries and overseas organizations that hire people to advocate for them in Washington, D.C., one doesn’t expect to find a group that’s listed on the U.S. government’s roster of foreign terrorists. But the Mujahedin e-Khalq — a cult-like Iranian group whose killing of U.S. officials landed it on the terrorist list in 1997 — has been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a high-profile team of former Members of Congress, political notables and ex-administration officials as part of its push to get itself removed from that very list.
Indeed, over the past two years, boldface names such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and retired Gen. James Jones, who was President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser, have been paid as much as $30,000 a speech to praise the MEK as a democratic opponent of the regime in Tehran. Convinced of the group’s current commitment to human rights, these and other luminaries rarely mention its assassinations of U.S. military advisers before the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and its alliance with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against Tehran afterward.
“There is one organization and one alone that stands for immediate democratic change in Iran, and that is the MEK,” Mukasey told a Paris rally a year ago. Others who have spoken in support of the group at events in Washington, Brussels, London and Berlin are Andrew Card, who was President George W. Bush’s chief of staff for five years; Anita McBride, a chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush; former State Department Director of Policy Planning Mitchell Reiss and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
“We’re familiar with that passage ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Ridge said at a Washington event last July. “That is what the MEK stands for.”
It is illegal to provide direct assistance to terrorist groups. But those making speeches on behalf of the MEK are booked and paid by speakers’ bureaus, which in turn are paid by MEK supporters in the United States, who get their money from sources outside the United States.
The group enjoys support from Republicans and Democrats in the United States, and from Israel and Saudi Arabia. Some critics of the MEK have compared the group’s lobbying effort to the campaign for legitimacy by Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi Shiite who won the support of the Bush administration and many in Congress as the leader of the democratic opposition to Hussein. Chalabi helped spread what turned out to be false stories of the dictator’s nuclear weapons program, which Bush used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The MEK’s removal from the terrorist list would give the group greater legitimacy and permit its members to raise funds openly in the United States after years of legally questionable fundraising by supporters and front groups. And the two-year lobbying campaign may be bearing fruit. Last month, the Obama administration took the first preliminary steps, behind the scenes, toward delisting the MEK. The State Department is said to favor the move on the condition that the group — which says it has renounced violence — evacuates a base in Iraq that it once used for cross-border raids into Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to make a decision after the last of some 3,400 residents of the base, called Camp Ashraf, relocate to a new transit camp at Baghdad’s main airport.
But experts on Iran warn that doing what the MEK wants could have serious repercussions. Delisting the group would anger the FBI, which says the MEK was planning terrorist attacks long after its stated renunciation of violence. Indeed, many Iran experts believe the recent spate of assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists was carried out by MEK operatives working for Israel. Delisting would also complicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program among six major powers and Tehran, which also regards the MEK as a terrorist organization. And it would undercut Iran’s nonviolent, democratic opposition, which unsuccessfully challenged the country’s clerical rulers during the “Green Revolution” in 2009.
“The MEK, with its violent history, is exactly what the Iranian regime needs to legitimize its violence against the peaceful opposition,” Maziar Bahari, an Iranian activist who was jailed during the 2009 demonstrations, told a Washington audience last August.
A History of Violence
The Mujahedin e-Khalq (in English, the People’s Holy Warriors) was founded in 1963 in Iran, mixing Islam with communist ideology and calling for the violent overthrow of the country’s pro-American leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. From 1973 to 1978, the group claimed responsibility for the killings of six U.S. military advisers and an American oil executive in the country. The group also played a major role in the infamous November 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran, repeatedly calling for the execution of the hostages during the subsequent 14-month ordeal.
But after the revolution, the group fell out with Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1981, Khomeini banned the group, which fled to Iraq. The MEK then formed an alliance with Hussein, who provided the group with weapons and a military base at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad.
From there, the MEK staged deadly raids across the border during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, claiming credit for killing hundreds of Iranians, as well as a series of violent attacks on Iranian diplomats overseas. In one MEK bombing, Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, permanently lost the use of his right arm. Hussein also used MEK forces to help crush the Iraqi Kurdish uprising after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
When U.S. forces invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003, Camp Ashraf came under their control. The MEK’s Paris-based leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, who had renounced violence in 2001, ordered their followers in Iraq to surrender their weapons. But a 2004 FBI report said wiretaps of MEK members in Los Angeles, Paris and Berlin determined that “the MEK is currently actively involved in planning and executing acts of terrorism.”
Former MEK members have described the group as a cult that promotes unquestioning obedience to the Rajavis. They say the group demands celibacy, takes away members’ children and pressures couples to divorce so they can devote their lives to the MEK. In 2003, several members of the group self-immolated to protest the arrest of the Rajavis, who were quickly released. A 2009 report prepared by the RAND Corp. for the Pentagon said “nearly 70 percent of the MEK population at Camp Ashraf have been recruited through deception and kept there against their will.”
The group earned some notoriety in 2005 when it claimed credit for tipping off the United States about Iran’s uranium enrichment activities at Natanz. But Iran experts say Israel, which has close ties with the MEK, was the source of that information and used the group to disclose it. The group’s purported role in uncovering part of Iran’s nuclear program and its public embrace of secular democracy have earned it friends in Washington, particularly among neoconservatives and security figures.
Those who have given paid speeches calling for the delisting of the MEK include former CIA chiefs James Woolsey, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Marine Commandant James Conway, and two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Peter Pace and Hugh Shelton. “The current Iranian regime does not need to be modified, does not need to be changed. It does not need to do anything but be replaced. And it needs to be replaced by the resistance movement led by the MEK,” Shelton told the Paris rally.
The MEK’s lobbying campaign has also attracted a growing number of senior Democratic figures. In addition to Dean, paid speakers include Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic Representative from Indiana and former co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
The campaign has already won bipartisan support in Congress. Backers of the MEK’s efforts include both House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “I know the MEK supports a secular, democratic, non-nuclear Iran,” Filner told a BBC interviewer in April. “We should be helping them in every way we can.”
The State Department says any decision by Clinton on delisting the MEK now depends on the willingness of Camp Ashraf’s remaining residents to depart. The United States is working with the United Nations to resettle them in third countries. But around 1,200 MEK members at the camp are resisting departure out of fear they’ll be returned to Iran.
Diplomats say a decision by Clinton to take the MEK off the list would not go down well in Tehran. Iranian officials often accuse western governments of hypocrisy for sheltering MEK members while condemning Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas. A decision to delist might cause Iran to harden its position on its nuclear program at the next round of negotiations with the United States and five other world powers, which are pressing Iran to give up its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium in return for lifting an embargo on civilian airline parts. Iran is demanding a lifting of all sanctions in return for giving up the stockpile.
Delisting also would be poorly received by Iran’s pro-democracy opposition. During the 2009 protests, the MEK tried to align itself with the demonstrators, but members of the Green movement disavowed any connection to the group, which is widely reviled in Iran as a traitor because of its alliance with Hussein.
Karim Pakravan, an Iranian-born economist at DePaul University, notes that the MEK has managed to portray itself to Congress as a legitimate Iranian opposition group “by an effective campaign of propaganda and thinly disguised bribes to marquee political names on both sides of the aisle.” Writing in an online forum on Iran, Pakravan says delisting would allow the MEK “to use its massive foreign-financed war chest to try to crush all the other Iranian voices in the United States and establish itself as THE democratic alternative to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the eyes of a corrupt and naïve U.S. Congress. Such an outcome would be indeed a tragedy for the democratic forces in Iran.” U.S. officials say Clinton will make her decision no more than 60 days after the last person is out of Camp Ashraf. But while a decision to keep the group on the terrorist list is still possible, the secretary’s linking of her decision to the camp’s evacuation makes it unlikely she will decide against delisting if the relocation is successful. The European Union and Britain have delisted the MEK in recent years.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.