Jasmin Ramsey / Al Jazeera – 2011-08-12 22:34:55
WASHINGTON (August 5, 2011) — Something strange is happening in Washington. In August, the Obama administration is expected to announce whether it will keep the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), an exiled Iranian group that killed American civilians and officials in the 1970s, on its foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) list.
Known for its cult-like behavior, the MKO fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s regime against its own country during the bloody Iran-Iraq war. This is one reason why it has almost no Iranian support, even if it refers to itself as the “most popular resistance group inside Iran” on its official website. It does, however, enjoy the backing of several U.S. heavyweights with high national security credentials.
George W. Bush’s attorney general Michael Mukasey has described MKO members as “courageous freedom fighters.” President Barack Obama’s former national security advisor, General James L. Jones, gave a speech at a MKO conference dominated by non-Iranians. Their events have also been attended by former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
MKO supporters point to the humanitarian issues at its headquarters in Camp Ashraf near the Iran-Iraq border as the reason for their advocacy. But it also has a “parliament in exile” called the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) with a “president-elect” named Maryam Rajavi who intends to rule Iran for a â€œtransitional periodâ€ after the government is “overthrown.”
The calls to protect Camp Ashraf have merit, but the Obama administration is being simultaneously lobbied to delist a FTO with a known anti-Iran agenda, thereby upsetting the already delicate political balance between Iran and the U.S.
The president does not want to be accused of being soft on Iran while it is pounding its chest in Iraq, but succumbing to the MKO’s well-organized lobbying effort will further harm U.S.-Iran relations. Since the FTO list is seen as a diplomatic weapon rather than a national security tool, the delisting of the MKO will be read in Iran as an escalation in hostilities and force President Obama into a position that is not his own.
From Iran to Iraq
For an organization that has been attempting to cultivate alliances with officials on both sides of the Atlantic for years, the MKO began as a radical, anti-Western, anti-monarchist movement in the 1960s. Its mix of Islamic ideology and Marxist analysis attracted young, educated Iranians, and with other anti-monarchist groups it helped overthrow the pro-American regime.
Among its myriad victims in Iran were three American civilian contractors, an incident the State Department would later cite as a reason for its terrorist designation. In 1979, the MKO also supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
It was the first group to conduct a suicide bombing in Iran, and it carried out a series of assassinations and bombings that left many Iranian officials dead. The state department lists an MKO attack in April 1992 on 13 Iranian embassies in different countries as proof of “the group’s ability to mount large-scale operations overseas.”
In 1981, the MKO leadership fled to Paris and many of its surviving members went to Iraq in 1986. Policy analyst Vali Nasr told PBS’s Frontline that that during this period the MKO acted “as an arm of Iraqi intelligence against Iranian operatives in Iraq, against Shi’ites and against the Kurds.”
According to a 2009 report by the RAND Corporation, while the MKO denies killing Kurds, MKO press reports “quote Rajavi encouraging MKO members to ‘take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’.” The report also states a “substantial number” of members who “were lured to Iraq under false pretenses â€¦ particularly with respect to its cult behavior — and many have been forced to remain against their will.”
Well-armed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the MKO tried to invade Iran in the last stage of the Iran-Iraq war. According to Abrahamian, this may have been because it was their last chance to take Iranian territory before a ceasefire made it impossible to do so.
When I asked former high-ranking member Masoud Banisadr how he thought this might have affected the Iranian perception of them, he told me members were trained to believe that “95 or 99 percent of Iranians supported them.” But when they entered the Iranian city of Eslamabad, they realized that everyone had fled in fear of them. “We had been told that Iranians would welcome us with roses and we never really asked why that didn’t happen.”
From “Fighters of the Peopleâ€ to a “Cult”
Banisadr, 57 years old, has written a memoir about his life in the MKO until his departure in 1996 — an event he attributes to â€œluckâ€. He said mind control was a normal occurrence at Camp Ashraf: “I remember being forced to attend a speaking session lasting for 3 days. In total I think we got around 2 hours of sleep a night.”
He was also forced to leave his family. “They told us to imagine sleeping with the corpses of our spouses. Not to think that they had been dead for a long time, but just long enough so that the body was still warm.”
Camp Ashraf is closed to most outsiders, but in 2005 Human Rights Watch released a report describing the “mass divorce” that was imposed on Banisadr and all other members and “abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave” to “lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.” The former MKO members interviewed also reported “two cases of deaths under interrogation.”
MKO advocates do not take criticism lightly; they are known to discredit their critics by smearing them, disseminating misinformation in the U.S. and Europe. According to a 2004 FBI report, the MKO brands “former members and witnesses as Iranian government agents.” This information is then “often picked up by Western Intelligence agencies as factual information and is disseminated as intelligence.”
As with the MKO’s inner workings, questions also arise from its reported ties to Israel and its advocates. In 2006, the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck suggested that the verified MKO intelligence provided to the U.S. about Iran’s Natanz nuclear site was given to them by the Israelis.
Legal or Political?
According to Slavin, the reason Iran hawks and pro-Israel supporters have come out in support of the MKO is because of the old Washington mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But she says that’s not a good enough reason to delist them: “You have to look at the nature of this organization. It’s like saying you support Nazis because you don’t like communists.”
National Iranian American Council research director Reza Marashi, who worked for the Bush administration’s Iran desk, said, “It’s like the ‘anything but Obama’ attitude turned onto the regime. They look at the six inches in front of their face and don’t look beyond that. You’d think they’d learn their lesson from Iraq.”
But strategic reasoning may not be the sole concern motivating this advocacy: some of the MKO’s prominent supporters have also reportedly received massive payments for speaking at their events.
The New York Times reported that Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler, who has been trying to negotiate with the group, guessed that “about a million dollars was spent” on MKO lobbying “over the last six months.” When he asked how much retired General Clark received, adding that â€œhe doesn’t get out of bed for less than $25,000,” one member replied that the group’s advocates were not “doing it for the money.”
To the question of how this can be legal, Shayana Kadidal, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights said the transaction may have been done through a lobbying organization, and to be held criminally liable, the government needs to show that you knowingly provided aid to an FTO. “Proving liability simply because there was a transaction could be difficult,” he said.
But in January, law professor David Cole wrote that Mukasey, Giuliani, Ridge and Frances Fragos Townsend could have committed a crime simply by vocally supporting the MKO’s cause in Paris. While proving liability is again the issue, the Patriot Act’s material support law makes it a felony to support an FTO by engaging “in public advocacy to challenge a group’s ‘terrorist’ designation or even to encourage peaceful avenues for redress of grievances,” wrote Cole.
According to Chase Madar, a lawyer specializing in U.S. terror laws, the application of this law is highly selective. “It will be applied very strictly to, let’s say, the Holy Land Foundation in Texas, whose leadership is in jail for raising money… but not when it comes to former government officials.”
Madar also says that there would be no legal obligation for the U.S. to protect Camp Ashraf simply because they were taken off the FTO list and “can’t see what good it would do.” He says that the kind of attention this case has received on Capitol Hill suggests it has more to do with political concerns than with legal or humanitarian ones: “This is all part of a pattern in Washington among neoconservatives and neoliberals that America has a duty to shove political change down Iran’s throat.”
U.S. Policy in the Middle East
MKO supporters’ talk of facilitating “democratic change” in Iran through a group that does not have support there recalls memories of the UK-U.S. engineered coup against the government of Mohammad Mossaddegh, who is still revered by Iranians as their first democratically-elected prime minister.
Even the Bush administration had ignored neoconservative entreaties to delist the MKO, which would make it strange for Obama to adopt a position that his predecessor found too risky. The humanitarian concerns at Camp Ashraf are legitimate, but they could be resolved through the assistance of organizations like the ICRC and UNHCR. To conflate this issue with the decidedly political question of delisting may only exacerbate the already fragile U.S.-Iran relations.
In 2009, Obama earned much praise for admitting U.S. responsibility in the 1953 coup against Mossadegh, even if he has failed to follow it up with a genuine move towards rapprochement. Despite the three decades of intransigence, however, the position is far from intractable. But any possibility of a thaw in relations might indefinitely evaporate should Obama take the MKO off the FTO list.
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