State Dept. Still Reviewing Terrorist Designation of Iranian Opposition Group As Bipartisan Support for That Group Grows

By Penny Starr | March 24, 2011 | 2:34 AM EDT

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) is the lead sponsor of a House resolution urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to remove the Iranian group MEK from its list of terrorist organizations. ( Starr)

( – The wave of popular revolts against repressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa has given new impetus to a campaign for the administration to legitimize an Iranian movement that wants to unseat Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey was among a group of senior public figures who spoke at a conference in Washington, D.C. last week, seeking the removal of the Iranian opposition group known as the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. They also urged help for thousands of exiled Iranians belonging to MEK, who are holed up in Camp Ashraf in Iraq’s Diyala province.

“Events have a way of overtaking even the most urgent rhetoric, and even the best framed legal and policy arguments and events in the Middle East and North Africa in recent months and weeks have done precisely that,” Mukasey told the event.

“Authoritarian regimes have been toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and even Muammar Gaddafi in Libya has been shaken.”

Mukasey said the MEK could “help bring the current regime in Iran to an end” if the U.S. helped put it into a position to fight inside Iran.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), lead sponsor of a House resolution urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to delist MEK, opened the conference.

“The Iranian regime is doing what it can to destroy the bastion of freedom in Ashraf through its proxies in Iraq,” Poe said. “The international community must ensure that the means of pressure and intimidation and inhumane restrictions on the people of Ashraf stops and that the people in charge soon lift the abuse, the oppression, the intimidation.”

In a July 16, 2010 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. ordered Clinton to review MEK’s status, citing the need for a more thorough examination of the organization.

A State Department spokesperson told Tuesday the status of MEK was still under review and that no timetable for a final decision was in place.

“We are currently working to comply with the court’s decision,” the spokesperson said, adding that the court had “notably” left the terrorism designation in place during the review process.

The case is the latest of numerous attempts by MEK and affiliated groups to challenge their status in court, but the designation – first made in 1997 – remains unchanged. (Britain in 2008 removed MEK from its terror list and the European Union followed suit the following year.)

A woman lights traditional candles ahead of last week's conference on Capitol Hill supporting the MEK. March 17 marks Nowruz, the first day of the Iranian solar year, translated literally as "New Day." The Caucus room in the Canon building was decorated with items to celebrate the occasion. ( Starr)

Other high-profile former officials who spoke in support of MEK include former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former governor and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Congress members from both sides of the aisle who dropped by during the event to lend their support for the call to delist MEK included Reps. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), and John Lewis (D-Ga.)

That the MEK remains highly controversial is not in doubt. In contrast to the strong support and even praise expressed for the group at the conference, the State Department’s 2009 terrorism report describes the group as a “Marxist Islamic” organization that wants to overthrow the Iranian government “through its military wing” and that it uses “terrorism to achieve its objectives.”

“In 1973, the MEK assassinated the deputy chief of the U.S. Military Mission in Tehran and bombed several businesses, including Shell Oil,” the report states. “In 1974, the MEK set off bombs in Tehran at the offices of U.S. companies to protest the visit of then U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger.”

“In 1975, the MEK assassinated two U.S. military officers who were members of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group in Tehran,” reads the report. “In 1976, the MEK assassinated two U.S. citizens who were employees of Rockwell International in Tehran. In 1979, the group claimed responsibility for the murder of an American Texaco executive.”

The report said that after the MEK was expelled from France for terrorist activities in 1986, it moved to Iraq and was supported by Saddam Hussein and his regime.

The speakers at the conference, which was hosted by the Iranian American Community of Northern California, said there was no evidence to back the claims made in the State Department’s report.

Former Director of the FBI Louis Freeh said he does not believe the State Department has evidence to back its designation of MEK as a terrorist organization. ( Starr)

Freeh, the former FBI director, argued strongly for this position.

“I was in probably one of the leading bureaucracies in the world for many, many years, but at some point decisions have to be made and facts have to prove what they are and what they are not, and there is absolutely no credible evidence – we think even on a classified basis – that justifies the maintenance of this organization, MEK, on the foreign terrorist organization list,” he said.

“In fact, all the evidence militates against it.”

The MEK, together with its associated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), was reviled by Tehran for aligning itself with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed in the 1980-88 conflict, and leaders of Iran’s opposition Green Movement have denounced the MEK/NCRI. Critics call it a “cult.” 

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam, MEK members were disarmed by agreement and confined to Camp Ashraf. Some 3,400 Iranians are at the camp, and the NCRI regularly puts out statements accusing the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad of carrying out or tolerating abuses against the inhabitants.

The NCRI has provided the West with valuable intelligence on Iran. A then senior member of the group, Alireza Jafarzadeh, in 2002 helped to uncover nearly two decades of clandestine nuclear activity by Tehran, triggering the still-unresolved standoff between Iran and the international community.

The conference on Capitol Hill was held on Mar. 17, ahead of Nowruz (“New Day”), the first day of the Iranian solar year. The Caucus room in the Cannon building was decorated with items to celebrate the occasion, including dried fruit, spices, candles, and decorated eggs.