December 16, 2017

Reality Check: Understanding the Politics Behind the MEK’s Terrorist Designation

The Huffington Post
March 31, 2010

By Ali Safavi, Member of Iran’s Parliament in Exile; President of Near East Policy Research

The Mujahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK) has figured prominently in policy equations between Tehran and Washington since at least 1985. As recently as June 2007, in talks with the United States over Iraq’s security, the Iranian regime’s ambassador to Baghdad pressed the issue of the MEK and the presence of some 3,400 of its members in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, as one of the most sensitive items on the meeting’s agenda.[1]

Aside from the unsubstantiated and bogus allegations against the MEK — essentially fabricated by Iran’s notorious Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and recycled by Tehran’s foreign apologists over the past two decades — the issue of MEK’s resorting to armed action against military targets in Iran until summer of 2001 has been cited by some Western government agencies, including the US Department of State, as evidence to invite the designation of the group as “terrorist.” [2]

There is ample evidence to suggest, however, that the terrorist designation of the MEK by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union had little if anything to do with the nature or conduct of the organization itself, the realm in which the legal criteria of the designation resides. Instead, the label was from the outset politically motivated and a byproduct of the policy of rapprochement with Tehran pursued both by the US and the EU. This suspicion was further confirmed when in 2008 and 2009, the UK[3] and the EU[4], respectively, were forced by their highest courts of law to remove the MEK from their watch lists after wrongly accusing the MEK of terrorism.

At least up until the post-June 2009 election uprisings that swept Iran, many foreign policy circles in the West surmised that the Iranian regime had become a “permanent feature” of the Middle East, and thus rejected the idea of regime change as a palatable policy option, proposing instead rapprochement. That approach, however, exacted a price vehemently demanded by Tehran: labeling the MEK, Tehran’s arch nemesis, as terrorist. Indeed, as British officials involved in the matter acknowledged, “Any decision that… the PMOI should be deproscribed would… undoubtedly be viewed in Iran as a calculated move to interfere in Iranian affairs and destabilise the regime.”[5]

Realpolitik and unsubstantiated claims, however, are not sufficient to justify a terrorist designation. Governments, no doubt, have a right to protect their citizens against the scourge of terrorism, but they are required by law to provide necessary and adequate evidence and factual material to legitimately back a terrorist designation. In the particular case of the MEK, convincing evidence has never been provided. This was clearly demonstrated during the 2006-08 court proceedings in the UK and the EU, where the tribunals, after an exhaustive review of both classified and unclassified materials, not only rejected as “perverse”[6] the terrorist designation of the MEK, but also chastised government agencies for making a mockery of the rule of law in favor of ulterior political motives.[7]

The official legal justificatory grounds for the MEK’s terror label, in addition to its pre-2001 actions inside Iran, include allegations that the organization has an “Islamic-Marxist” ideology (against which I tried to offer convincing evidence in part I of Reality Check posted here on March 2), “supported” the 1979 taking of Americans hostage in Tehran,[8] “killed” several American military and security advisors in Iran in the early 1970s,[9] and was involved in the “suppression” of Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds in 1991.[10]

Before addressing those specific charges and providing a narrative of the different phases of the MEK’s struggle against the clerical regime since 1979, making an effort to shed light on the provenance of the MEK’s designation in the United States and Europe is critical to understanding whether or not the MEK is in fact a terrorist entity. In the next installment, I will discuss the specific incidents of violence involving the MEK in years past. Readers are welcome to comment on these posts or ask for further clarification.

MEK: Origins of the Terrorist Designation 

“[There] was White House interest in opening up a dialogue with the Iranian government. Top Administration officials saw cracking down on the [MEK], which the Iranians had made clear they saw as a menace, as one way to do so.” ~ Martin Indyk, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in the Clinton Administration
The allegation of terrorism levied against MEK by the US Department of State has its roots in the Iran-Contra (Irangate) scandal of the mid-1980s, when in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by the Iranian regime’s proxies, the Department issued a statement accusing the MEK of “continu[ing] to employ terrorism and violence as standard instruments of their politics.”[11]

If at the time it was unclear as to why the Department of State would so suddenly and strongly lash out at the leading opponents of a regime which the US had been consistently describing as the most active state sponsor of international terrorism, the release of the Tower Commission Report two years later solved the mystery. That report cited a letter by an Iranian go-between, Manouchehr Ghorbanifar, to his US counterpart as saying that one of the nine demands of the Iranian regime from the US was the “(issuance) of an official announcement terming the Mujahedin-e Khalq Marxist and terrorist.”[12]

When the deal with Tehran fell through, the Department of State reversed course and began to formally meet with the MEK, even at the height of the organization’s armed resistance against the clerical regime. [13] In a testimony before the House Europe and the Middle East Subcommittee in April 1987, Assistant Secretary Richard Murphy explained the reasons for that volte face by saying: “I don’t want to overstate our knowledge of the organization… I will very freely admit there were gaps in our knowledge about the organization… We have met with the Mujahedin organization here in Washington… They are a player, and they are hurting in Iran…. We are not boycotting them.”[14]

A decade later, after Mohammad Khatami — wrongly perceived by some in the US as a “moderate” influence within the ruling establishment — became the Iranian regime’s President, the Department under Secretary Madeleine Albright formally designated the MEK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) on October 8, 1997. Highlighting the political motivations of the move, the very next day, a senior Clinton administration official told the Los Angeles Times, “The inclusion of the People’s Mujahedin was intended as a goodwill gesture to Tehran and its newly elected president, Mohammed Khatami.”[15]

In September 2002, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the Clinton Administration, Martin Indyk, told Newsweek, “[There] was White House interest in opening up a dialogue with the Iranian government. Top Administration officials saw cracking down on the [MEK], which the Iranians had made clear they saw as a menace, as one way to do so.”[16]

Four years later, the Wall Street Journal wrote, ” In 1997, the State Department added the MEK to a list of global terrorist organizations as ‘a signal’ of the U.S.’s desire for rapprochement with Tehran’s reformists, says Martin Indyk, who at the time was assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs. President Khatami’s government ‘considered it a pretty big deal,’ Mr. Indyk says.”[17]

The same paper wrote after the MEK’s victory in its legal battle in the UK in 2008, that, “Iranian officials for years have made suppression of the MEK a priority in negotiations with Western governments over Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues, according to several diplomats who were involved in those talks.”[18]

Notwithstanding the fact that MEK supporters were shut out of the political debate about Iran’s future because of a bogus label, what has been most disturbing in these developments has been the successive administrations’ one-sided and unseemly obsession with sending “goodwill gestures” to a regime that has proven itself as a strategic threat to both Washington and the international community. This obsession denigrated into a blatant kowtow when the Department of State acquiesced to Tehran’s main demand of blacklisting the regime’s arch nemesis, the MEK, in a foolhardy attempt to extract concessions from the mullahs. Needless to say, the policy ramifications of the designation went far beyond the MEK, giving free reins to the murderous rulers in Tehran to crackdown on dissidents at home under the pretext of fighting against terrorism.

The windfall gains of the policy of rapprochement appeared to continue for the Iranian regime even through the George. W. Bush years.

In January 2009, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice overruled the recommendation of the Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism and rejected the MEK’s petition to revoke its designation. The New York Times later wrote, “In the Bush administration’s final days, the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, Dell L. Dailey, pushed to have the People’s Mujahedeen removed from the list… Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state at the time, decided to keep the group on the list.”[19] That decision, according to media reports, was prompted by a change of heart in the Bush administration, reflected in a decision to negotiate directly with the Iranian regime over the nuclear issue as well as the desire to establish a US interest section in Tehran.

Across the Atlantic, the MEK’s blacklisting in the UK and the EU was also heavily grounded in similar political (and economic) considerations. In an interview with the BBC radio in 2006, then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitted that the UK designation of MEK was the result of demands made by the Iranian regime. Mr. Straw said, “The very first meeting I ever had with an Iranian Foreign Minister Colonel [Kamal] Kharazi, now over four years ago, I expressed very serious concern about Iran’s continued support for these terrorist organizations at the same time as they were demanding actually successfully of me when I was the Home Secretary that we should ban a terrorist organization MEK that was working against Iran.”[20]

The same year, 35 members of the British Houses of Common and Lords brought a legal challenge against the MEK’s proscription in the UK before the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, POAC, the specialized tribunal tasked exclusively to review terrorist designations in the UK. In the course of the proceedings, a number of classified documents, later unclassified by the Court, revealed the truth about the ulterior political aims behind the MEK’s designation in the UK.

In one such document, a witness statement submitted to POAC, Benjamin James Fender, a senior Foreign Office and Commonwealth official, made reference to “possible adverse foreign policy consequences were the PMOI [MEK] to be deproscribed.”[21] He added, “The present Iranian regime puts a priority on tough legal and political measures against the PMOI.”[22]

Mr. Fender went on to say, “Iranian Ministers and officials have chosen to discuss the PMOI with their counterparts from the UK and other EU Member States on countless occasions. These exchanges have often taken place in the context of discussions on UK/Iran or EU/Iran relations, terrorism in Iraq…. We have therefore been prepared to exchange information with Iran about PMOI activity in the UK, Iran and Iraq, and to discuss our policy towards the group… There was also the belief that reassuring Iran of our intention to apply the law against the PMOI (among other steps in a variety of fields) would help foster the atmosphere of confidence that would be needed for a successful negotiation.”[23]

The Foreign Service official also reiterated that “continued proscription” of the MEK would demonstrate to the Iranian side that “UK’s … efforts are not contrary to Iranian interests but rather something from which Iran benefits.”[24] He also made the startling revelation that, “During the autumn of 2002 and the spring of 2003, the Iranians were keen to understand the Coalition views on Iraq and possible military action, including how that might affect the PMOI. They expressed concern about the possibility of PMOI attacks on Iran during any military campaign. UK officials reassured their Iranian counterparts that we would take the problem of the PMOI in Iraq seriously.”[25]

These very “assurances” to a regime that would later plan and fund the murder of American and British soldiers were part of a quid pro quo with Tehran that prompted the unprovoked bombing of MEK camps by the US and the UK [26] during the invasion of Iraq. The air strikes led to the death of dozens of MEK members, including a number of women, despite MEK’s publicly and officially declared position of neutrality in the 2003 Iraq war.

The MEK’s terrorist designation by the European Union was also the result of pressure by the Iranian regime and the UK. When the EU compiled its own list of terrorist organizations in 2001, Tehran pressured the EU Presidency, held by Belgium at the time, to blacklist the MEK. Belgium, however, refused to do so. In an interview with the Belgian daily La Libre, Foreign Minister Louis Michel warned, “All necessary measures must be taken so that the fight against terrorism is not mistaken with the fight against obtrusive opposition. And this danger really exists….”[27].

However, when Spain took over the EU Presidency in January 2002, it bowed to pressure from Tehran and designated the MEK. In October 2002, in an interview with the state-run daily, Entekhab, Spanish ambassador to Iran boasted, “As you are aware, Spain was the EU rotating President for the first six months of 2002. There were three issues that Iran wanted to address with the EU. When Spain held EU’s Presidency, the two sides were able to resolve these differences. One of the major issues was including the People’s Mujahedin Organization in the list of terrorist groups by the EU.”[28]

Two weeks later, the official Iranian News Agency, IRNA, added, “Analysts point out that this year the EU took several major steps to improve ties with Iran: it put the MKO [MEK] group-let on its terrorist list…”[29]

This “major” issue was even brought up during the sensitive negotiations between the so-called European Troika (France, Germany and Britain) and the Iranian regime on the nuclear dossier. In a document outlining an EU offer to Tehran to persuade it to abide by the September 18, 2004 resolution of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Troika pledged that in return for Iran’s compliance with the offer, they “would continue to regard the MEK (Iranian resistance group) as a terrorist organization.”[30]

In this way, the story of the MEK’s designation, fraught with acknowledgments by officials themselves, reveals how Washington, Brussels, and London decided to blatantly trampled upon even their own laws and values in order to comply with Tehran’s “priority on tough legal and political measures against the MEK.” Completely absent from the picture for any unbiased observer is the MEK’s true goals, beliefs and deeds, distorted through a sophisticated misinformation campaign designed to demonize the group in order to justify dancing with the wolves in Tehran.

Meanwhile the Iranian regime reaped the benefits of having the hands of its biggest enemy tied in the West, suppressing its opponents inside Iran, advancing its export of fundamentalism and terrorism and accelerating its nuclear weapons program.

So, in addition to the legal fiasco, concrete developments of recent memory would suffice to convince even the most ardent advocates of pragmatism inside the Beltway that the policy of rapprochement with Tehran has failed. With the MEK having been already delisted in the UK and the EU, this awareness would necessitate that the remnants of that failed policy also be dispensed with in the US. As such, it is high time for the Obama administration to untie the hands of one of the most serious oppositions to the Iranian regime. That is a reality check Washington cannot afford to ignore, if not for the Iranian people, then for its own citizens who are being threatened by a hostile regime eager to get its hands on a nuclear bomb.

Endnotes:
[1] Jay Solomon and Neil King Jr., “Two Agendas: Why Iran, U.S. Stand Far Apart: Tehran Seeks End to Bid to Destabilize Regime; Washington Wants Insurgent Backing in Iraq to Stop,” The Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2007.
[2] US Department of State, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2008”, Ch. 6, Terrorist Organizations, April 30, 2009, http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122449.htm
[3] The United Kingdom removed the MEK from the Proscribed Organizations List on June 23, 2008. See David Stringer, “Britain Removes Iran Opposition Group From Terror List,” The Associated Press, June 23, 2008. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2004479589_apbritainiran.html?syndication=
[4] The European Union followed suit on January 26, 2009. See Philippa Runner, “EU Ministers Drop Iran Group From Terror List,” EUOBSERVER, January, 26, 2009. http://euobserver.com/9/27472
[5] Benjamin James Fender, Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Second Witness Statement to Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, POAC, p. 4, June 25, 2007.
[6] LORD ALTON OF LIVERPOOL & OTHERS (People’s Mojahadeen Organisation of Iran) v. SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE HOME DEPARTMENT, Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission (POAC), Judgment, para.360, p. 144, November 30, 2007, http://www.siac.tribunals.gov.uk/poac/Documents/outcomes/PC022006%20PMOI%20FINAL%20JUDGMENT.pdf
[7] Case No: 2007/9516, IN THE SUPREME COURT OF JUDICATURE COURT OF APPEAL APPLICATION FOR PERMISSION TO APPEAL FROM THE PROSCRIBED ORGANISATIONS APPEALS COMMISSION AND IN THE MATTER OF THE PEOPLE’S MOJAHADEEN ORGANISATION OF IRAN, “The Secretary of State for the Home Department v. Lord Alton of Liverpool and Others”, judgment handed down on May, 27, 2008. Para 57, p. 23: “It is a matter for comment and for regret that the decision-making process in this case has signally fallen short of the standards which our public law sets and which those affected by public decisions have come to expect.” http://www.bailii.org/cgibin/markup.cgi?doc=/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2008/443.html&query=The+and+Secretary+and+of+and+State+and+for+and+the+and+Home+and+Department+and+v.+and+Lord+and+Alton+and+of+and+Liverpool+and+Others&method=boolean
[8] US Department of State, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2008”, op. cit.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Hearing at the United States House of Representatives, before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, July 24, 1985. Assistance Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Richard Murphy, testified before the Subcommittee. At the session’s close, he proceeded to read an unsolicited statement about the MEK into the record. His statement read in part: “They [Mujahedin] are militantly Islamic, anti-democratic, anti-American, and continue to employ terrorism and violence as standard instruments of their politics.” This rather abrupt burst of accusations startled the committee members. The Subcommittee Chairman Lee Hamilton surprisingly asked, “You had a section in there on the People’s Mujahedin Organization in Iran. Why do you do that at this time?” Mr. Murphy, replied, “… In this case, I was presented with an issue which the country director involved felt had been inadequately addressed.”
[12] Tower Commission Report, the Full Text of the Presidential Special Review Board, John Tower, Chairman, Edmund Muskie and Brent Scowcroft, members, Bantam Books, New York 1987, page 360.
[13] David B. Ottaway, “U.S. Meets With Iran Opposition Group,” The Washington Post, April 22, 1987. The Post wrote, “The State Department has been meeting with representatives of an Iranian opposition group the department twice has warned Congress about, saying the group has a terrorist history and is strongly anti-American and Marxist. Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy told the House Foreign Affairs Middle East subcommittee yesterday that ‘we meet, we have met’ with the Mujaheddin-e Khalq or People’s Mujaheddin Organization ‘here in Washington’, and described the group as ‘a player’ in Iran today.”
[14] Hearing at the United States House of Representatives, before the Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, April 21, 1987. Assistance Secretary of State Richard Murphy testified before the Subcommittee.
[15] Norman Kempster, “U.S. Designates 30 Groups as Terrorists,” Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1997.
[16] Michael Isikoff, “Ashcroft’s Baghdad Connection” Newsweek, September 26, 2002, http://www.pepeace.org/current_reprints/16/Ashcrofts_Bagdhad_Connection.htm.
[17] Andrew Higgins and Jay Solomon, “Strange Bedfellows- Iranian Imbroglio Gives New Boost To Odd Exile Group,” The Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2006. www.iranpolicy.org/ipcInTheNewsArchive.php?id=1&type=1
[18] Marc Champion, “Iranian Dissidents Win U.K. Ruling,” The Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2008. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121018399158474335.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
[19] Mark Mazzetti and Mark Landler, “Iranian Dissidents’ Fate in Iraq Shows Limits of U.S. Sway”, The New York Times, August 2, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/world/middleeast/02policy.html
[20] British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, interview with BBC Radio 4, Today Program, February 1, 2006.
[21] Benjamin James Fender, op. cit. p. 4.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid., pp. 3-4.
[24] Ibid., p. 3
[25] Ibid., p. 7
[26] David S. Cloud, “U.S. Bombs Iranian Fighters On Iraqi Side of the Border,” The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2003. Available at: http://www.neareastpolicy.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=21&Itemid=30
[27] Louis Michel, Belgian Foreign Minister, interview with La Libre, Brussels, November 10, 2001.
[28] Entekhab daily, October 28, 2002.
[29] Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, November 11, 2002.
[30] Preparatory text for European proposals on Iranian nuclear program, Agence France Presse, October 21, 2004

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