The New York Times, among other news organizations, published a remarkable story over the weekend: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has purportedly sent to Congress a classified letter indicating her intent to remove the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq organization (MEK or MKO) from the list of designated terrorist organizations. (The English spelling of the organization is inconsistent, and is sometimes seen as Mojahedin-e Khalq or other variants. It is also sometimes referred to as the People's Mujaheddin Organization of Iran (PMOI).)
Such a list is authorized by Section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), codified at 8 U.S.C. § 1189. That section of law was inserted into the INA in early 1996 after a variety of terrorism-related outrages in the years preceding the amendment, such as the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Members, associates, and affiliates of listed organizations are subject to criminal prosecution for material support of a terrorist organization and also to deportation and exclusion from the United States.
The first list was published in the Federal Register some months after Section 219 came into being, and the MEK was among the first organizations to be listed, in 1997.
The MEK was a Marxist organization formed to oppose the regime of the Shah of Iran — and the United States, which supported the Shah in ways both obvious and covert. From the start, violence formed a part of its strategy and tactics, as is evident even from their organizational logo, which depicts a raised arm bearing a rifle crossed with a sickle.
During the 1970s, leading up to the Shah's deposition, MEK operatives engaged in, and claimed credit for, a series of bombings and assassinations that included six Americans, some of whom were military officers posted to Iran in a diplomatic capacity. The violence was calculated to destabilize society and undermine the regime. Imagine their surprise then, when the Iranian revolution in 1979 gave birth to a hardline Islamic Republic that had no use for godless communists. Forced to flee the country, the MEK made a devil's bargain for sanctuary — the devil in this case being embodied by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. From the safety of Iraq, they engaged in a series of cross-border violent acts against the ayatollahs; no doubt Saddam derived great pleasure in using the MEK to figuratively shove his thumb into the eye of his regional nemesis.
MEK cadres even fought on the side of Iraq during the long-enduring and shockingly murderous Iran-Iraq war from 1980-1988, in which over half a million soldiers and civilians from both sides were killed.
But that was not all they did; apparently there were other strings attached to their Faustian bargain with Saddam. Many credible human rights groups, analysts, and scholars believe that they also acted as a kind of mercenary killing force on the regime's behalf in Saddam's brutal campaigns against suspect domestic ethnic groups — the Kurds in the north of Iraq, and the Shi'a "marsh Arabs" in the coastal waterways of south Iraq — and even of viciously abusing the organization's own dissident members.
The MEK claims to have abandoned violence and disarmed in the early 2000s. This appears to have occurred about the same time that the U.S. military was engaged in "shock and awe" carpet bombing preparatory to invading Iraq and, ultimately, disarming the Baathist regime's military. Looked at from this perspective, the MEK's claim of disarmament appears to be necessity draped in virtue's clothing and nothing more. What choice did they have, post-invasion, faced with overwhelming American military force?
According to the Christian Science Monitor, in 2004 — substantially after the MEK "change of heart" — the FBI reported, using "data corroborated by French and German wiretaps — that MEK cells in the United States, Europe, and Camp Ashraf were 'actively ... planning and executing acts of terrorism.'"
How did they manage to stage this coup of being "de-listed"? The answer seems to lie in three things we in modern American society are all too familiar with: a savvy intermingling of
- politics, and
- public relations
First came the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — a front group that appears to have the same function that Sinn Fein did when the Irish Republican Army was most active (and violent). You know the type, populated by men and women in business suits, speaking in well-modulated tones, sounding like the voice of reason. The NCRI also took advantage of a provision in Section 219 that permits filing of a federal lawsuit to have an organization removed from the list. They did so. As late as 2009, the State Department's own filings in the case to sustain the listing asserted that the MEK had trained women at Ashraf to conduct suicide attacks in the Iraqi city of Karbala, holy to Iraqi and Iranian practitioners of Shi'a Islam.
So why has this happened?
The NCRI, with a strong presence in our nation's capital, has relentlessly raised funds, which it was smart enough to use to hire well-paid, politically connected public relations consultants, including former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former national security adviser James Jones, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and Rudolph Giuliani. (Remember him? The man-who-would-be-president and mayor of New York City during the nation's most significant terrorist attack.) Some prominent members of Congress have also stood behind the MEK. The Christian Science Monitor published a 10-page special report in August 2011 outlining the big names of both political parties (and the big money) involved in this burnishing of the group's reputation. It is well worth taking the time to read the report, which serves as both primer and indictment on the corrupting influence of money on even such fundamental matters as our national security interests.
It would seem that big money and big influence are having their way. Of course, there is the added benefit that, just as with Saddam, there is that extra little bit of satisfaction at kidney punching the Islamic Republic by de-listing the MEK. And who knows what additional shadowy deals have been struck? The organization has exhibited a surprising ability to survive and even prosper in the worst circumstances, and has of course also shown its willingness to engage in devil's bargains. But is it worth it to the United States?
I have serious misgivings about the current course of action. This is a bloody-minded, bloody-handed organization with a past history of assassination and involvement in ethnic cleansing, murder, and human rights abuses on a large scale.
Does the United States really think it can adopt its own extremist organization, domesticated and house-trained like a well-mannered pet to be used against Iran, without consequence? That's the equivalent of trying to tame a crocodile. Treat it as kindly as you like, feed it choice chicken carcasses daily, and even give it exclusive access to your backyard pool. There is every reason to believe that, sooner or later, when you reach your hand out to pat that ugly snout, it's going to snap down and sever it from your wrist. It's in the beast's nature.