U.S. Delisting of Controversial Iranian Group Upsets Both the Regime and Its Opposition

By Patrick Goodenough | October 1, 2012 | 4:45 AM EDT

Carrying a photo of MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, supporters rally in Washington on Oct. 22, 2011, calling for the group’s delisting from the U.S. terror list. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

(CNSNews.com) – The Iranian government has condemned the Obama administration’s decision to remove a controversial exiled Iranian group from its list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), but the move is not likely to welcomed either by the country’s mainstream opposition Green Movement.

Some critics of the move argue that it will benefit the regime and harm outreach to ordinary Iranians.

The Mujahedin-e-Khalq (People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran), known by various acronyms including MEK, MKO and PMOI) is reviled by many Iranians for its links to Iraq’s ousted Baathist regime. It sided with Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq, and it and has been labeled a “cult” by some leading opposition figures.

On Friday the State Department – whose most recent terrorism report describes the MEK as “a Marxist-Islamic organization that seeks the overthrow of the Iranian regime through its military wing” – confirmed that it has lifted the group’s FTO designation, a step that removes a block on any assets in the U.S. and allows Americans to give it material support.

The official notification said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in making the decision, took into account the group’s renunciation of violence and “the absence of confirmed acts of terrorism by the MEK for more than a decade.”

At the same time, it noted concerns about the group’s past involvement in terrorism, and concerns about how it operates internally as an organization.

“I want to be very clear about this. We do not see the MEK as a viable opposition or democratic opposition movement,” a senior administration official said during a background teleconference briefing Friday. “They are not part of our picture in terms of the future of Iran.”

That’s not how the MEK sees itself, however.  The group’s France-based leader, Maryam Rajavi, holds the title “president-elect,” and according to its website, “her mandate is to oversee the peaceful transfer of power to the Iranian people following the regime’s overthrow.”

“This has been the correct decision, albeit long overdue, in order to remove a major obstacle in the path of the Iranian people’s efforts for democracy,” Rajavi said in a statement welcoming the U.S. move.

“We are seeking change in Iran by the Iranian people and their just resistance. We want the sovereignty of the people and a free election.”

The MEK has lobbied hard for years against its FTO designation, and won support in the U.S. from some high-profile figures across the political spectrum, including former DNC chairman Howard Dean, former of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Wesley Clark and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.

Asked Friday about the lobbying that has taken place, the senior administration official said delisting decisions are “not made to appease any group of lobbyists, no matter how famous they are.”

“The United States Government is not going to take anyone off the list if it genuinely believes that they pose an imminent threat, that they are going to commit terrorist acts again, or that they are somehow wedded to violence.”

‘The United States actively opposes all forms of terrorism’

MEK has its supporters in the U.S., but also many critics.

“[W]hile most Iranians may loathe the system imposed on them by the ayatollahs and their loyal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they also loathe the MEK,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Danielle Pletka wrote on Friday.

“Indeed, the MEK has never appeared as the voice of democratic hope for the Iranian people, but merely another dictatorship in waiting.”

“This is a movement with a long history of terrorism, including the murder of U.S. officers and officials during the time of the Shah,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted in a 2009 report.

“It served as a tool for Saddam Hussein, and now is a cult centered on its leaders, the Rajavis. Like some Iraqi exile groups in 2003, it has no real strength or credibility, and in spite of its domestic political efforts, it is a movement that only the stupidest and most irresponsible members of Congress and think tanks could support.”

In August three dozen Iran experts, including some Americans, signed a letter declaring that the group “has no political base inside Iran and no genuine support among the Iranian population” and warning that FTO delisting would harm the “legitimate, indigenous Iranian opposition.”

“We urge the U.S. government to avoid conflating a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization with Iran’s Green Movement as the Iranian people continue their struggle for democracy and human rights,” the signatories said.

Last month, when reports emerged about imminent MEK delisting, the Washington-based National Iranian American Council (NIAC) said the move would harm America’s standing among ordinary Iranians.

“The biggest winner today is the Iranian regime, which has claimed for a long time that the U.S. is out to destroy Iran and is the enemy of the Iranian people,” said NIAC policy director Jamal Abdi.

“This decision will be portrayed as proof that the U.S. is cozying up with a reviled terrorist group and will create greater receptivity for that false argument.”

The administration itself has evidently recognized that MEK’s designation as a terrorist group is regarded favorably by ordinary Iranians.

Late last year it launched an online “virtual embassy” of the U.S. to Iran, designed to reach out to “the Iranian people”. A section on “myths vs. facts” regarding U.S. policy to Iran confronts the perception that “the U.S. supports Iranian political or ethnic-based terrorist groups.”

This is a myth, it says. “Fact: The United States actively opposes all forms of terrorism. We have designated both the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and Jundallah as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO).”

As of Monday, that page on the “virtual embassy” site had not been altered.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow