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United Press International May 31, 2005

Group on U.S. terror list lobbies hard

By Angela Woodall

Washington, DC, May. 31 (UPI) -- U.S. lawmakers and former military officers are backing Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group, despite its inclusion on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and its role in the killing and wounding of U.S. military personnel and civilians in the 1970s.

Supporters acknowledge the status of the group, once funded by deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, as well as its role in the killings of U.S. military personnel and civilians in the 1970s in Iran when it was allied with Ayatollah Khomeini, but say the MEK has shed its past activities and is a potential ally against the theocratic regime in Iran.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, responded in a written statement saying he supports the MEK because it is an "asset to U.S. intelligence" and "the most reliable source of information for the region."

In recent years the MEK's political branch, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has provided information about Iran's nuclear facilities, which the Bush administration contends are being used to secretly make nuclear weapons.

Tancredo's press secretary, Carlos Espinosa, said it is not "too unusual" for members of Congress to support a group listed as a foreign terrorist organization, citing Sen. Ted Kennedy's support for the Irish Republican Army as an example.

"Are these guys saints? No." Espinosa said. But, "if there's a problem, it's that the MEK is on the list."

Other lawmakers who have expressed support for the MEK, including Robert Filner, D-Calif., did not return repeated calls for comment.

The Council's Washington office has now been shut down and the organization is banned in the United States because of its affiliation with the MEK.

MEK leader Maryam Rajavi has suggested her group as an alternative to Iran's revolutionary regime -- with Rajavi taking the place of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. She has offered to head a transition government for six months, after which elections will be held, according to news accounts.

But, said Iran expert Mohamed Hadi Semati, the MEK has no support from Iranians inside the country. Semati, a political science professor at the University of Tehran and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said he had no doubt the MEK would be resisted if it tried to take over the government in Iran because the group had "killed a lot of innocent people."

"They would be killed instantly if they tried to go inside Iran," he said, recalling that in 1987 the Iranian army and security forces fended off the MEK after its members tried to invade the country during the war with Iraq. At the time, the group was financed by Saddam.

In contrast, the Iran Policy Committee, a Washington think tank of former U.S. officials that specializes in Iran policy and favors the removal of the group from the terror list, said the move would "send a signal to the Iranian rulers that their days are numbered." In a written statement to questions about the MEK, the IPC called the organization the "best organized, most credible Iranian opposition group" that stands for a democratic, secular republic in Iran.

Meanwhile, Rajavi is confined to MEK's base in France after she and 150 supporters were arrested there on suspicion of plans to attack Iranian embassies and assassinate former members working with Iranian intelligence services in Europe, according to news and think-tank reports. The MEK has been on the European Union's list of terrorist organizations since 2002.

Despite her confinement, Rajavi used a satellite link to address an April 15 convention in Washington, during which she called on all Iranians to unite toward achieving democratic change in Iran. At the same event, the Iranian-American National Convention, former military officials, Army Col. Kenneth Cantwell and Capt. Vivian Gembara praised the People's Mujahedin of Iran (another name for the MEK) and urged the Bush administration to remove it from the terrorist list, according to a news release from the event. It was not clear who sponsored the convention, however, and calls to the convention contact number were not returned.

In the past, Washington has had mixed results with the strategy of relying on opposition groups for intelligence or assistance in thwarting a regime.

Most recently, the U.S. reliance on intelligence from Iraqi exile and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi proved to be unwise. Chalabi and the INC were sources of intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability now widely believed to be false.

Tancredo acknowledges the risk, according to Espinosa, who said everything the MEK has told Washington about Iran -- that Iran moved nuclear equipment to another undisclosed military location -- has been "100 percent true."

"Call them what you want, but they not liars," Espinosa said.

However, the information provided by the MEK to Washington was passed on to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said during a Nov. 17, 2004, news briefing. Ereli said the State Department was not in a position to evaluate the credibility of the report and had no contact with the MEK, which he called a terrorist organization.

The State Department classification of foreign terrorist organizations is based on past terrorist attacks, as well as the capacity or intent to carry out terrorist attacks in the future -- terrorism meaning as planned, politically motivated violence against civilian targets by non-state groups, according to a 2005 fact sheet by the department's counter-terrorism office.

The group landed on the list after decades of armed opposition to the Iranian regime. The MEK's strikes on Iranian targets did not target civilians but put them at risk because it routinely aimed its attacks at government buildings in crowded cities, according to a report by GlobalSecurity.org, a group that tracks global security issues. It is unclear how many civilians were killed as a result of MEK attacks.

The MEK is adamantly opposed to the Shiite Islamist regime in Iran and has sought to overthrow it since 1981, though they were originally allied in the movement to oust the autocratic, pro-Western Shah Reza Pahlavi (MEK members supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, in which 52 Americans were held hostage, according to a GlobalSecurity.org report).

However, the MEK staged an armed uprising against the revolutionary regime led by Khomeini after the group was marginalized from power. Following a brutal crackdown by Iranian security forces, the MEK was expelled from Iran and fled to France.

In 1987 Saddam offered the MEK refuge, funding and arms, which it then used to stage attacks on the Iranian regime -- also at odds with Saddam. In addition, the MEK assisted Saddam in suppressing the 1991 Iraqi and Kurdish uprisings in Iraq, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

Over the years the MEK has softened its Marxist-Islamist doctrine and recently renounced terrorism but has acquired notoriety because of its use of women fighters, whose devotion to Rajavi and her husband, Massoud, has taken on the aura of cult-worship, with vows of devotion and celibacy, according to a 2003 New Yorker Magazine profile. In 2003, 10 members and sympathizers set themselves on fire to protest the arrest of Rajavi in France.

A recently released report by Human Rights Watch details how the MEK's "ideological revolution" entailed the detention, severe beatings and torture of members who criticized the group's policies or requested to leave the organization. One man, Mohammed Hussein Sobhani, told Human Rights Watch investigators he was held in solitary confinement for 8-1/2 years.

Others were held in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq after being handed over by the MEK for detention outside of its own camps, the report said.

The official U.S. position is that the MEK is a foreign terrorist organization, not a group for regime change, said a State Department official. In 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed the classification after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the State Department had to give the MEK a hearing to rebut the charges.

The State Department has no plans to remove the group from its list but will be reviewing the case yearly, the official said. Once on the list, representatives and members of the organization that are not citizens are barred from entering the United States and can be expelled in some cases. Putting a group on the list is supposed to isolate it. Also, groups are blocked from receiving support or resources, and their assets are frozen.

Legislation is currently pending in the House that would make funds available to individuals and groups that oppose the regime in Iran. The MEK is not likely to see any of this money until its status changes.

Meanwhile, as Rajavi is being kept in France, the remaining 3,500 MEK followers are under the protection of U.S. and coalition forces in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, near the Iranian border.

When U.S. troops toppled Saddam's regime in Iraq, the group became the responsibility of the Pentagon. They are now considered refugees and protected persons under the 4th Geneva Convention, which protects non-combatants during an armed conflict.

MEK followers have surrendered their weapons and been handed over to the Iraqi government, said Lt. Col. Guy Rudisill, public affairs officer for the detainee operations in Iraq. More than 300 were returned voluntarily to Iran, he said during a telephone interview. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Iraqi human-rights office and the U.N. refugee agency have been given the task of deciding the ultimate status of the remaining members and where they should go.

 


Copyright 2005, United Press International