NEW YORK (AP) — The Obama administration granted a victory Friday to a militant Iranian organization formerly allied with Saddam Hussein, taking the group off the U.S. terrorism list despite vehemently rejecting its claim that it is a pro-democracy opposition movement worthy of replacing Iran's Shiite regime.
In announcing the decision, the State Department said the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq hasn't committed terrorism for more than a decade and credited its 3,000 members for nearly completing the peaceful departure from their paramilitary base near Iraq's Iranian border. Effective immediately, any assets the MEK has in the United States are unblocked and Americans are permitted to do business with the organization.
Derided by its critics as a cult, the MEK helped Islamic clerics overthrow Iran's shah before carrying out a series of bombings and assassinations against the Iranian government. It fought in the 1980s alongside Saddam's forces in the Iran-Iraq war but disarmed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The group now claims to seek the peaceful replacement of Iran's government with a democratic, secular government — which U.S. officials contest. But they note that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who made the decision, focused strictly on whether its members still had the capacity and intent to commit acts of terror.
A senior State Department official said, however, that the administration does not regard the MEK as a viable opposition group that could promote democratic values in Iran. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Delisting the MEK is sure to infuriate Iran, which accuses the group of involvement in the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years. Just this week, Iran blamed the MEK after New York police were forced to escort an Iranian diplomat from a Manhattan street when he was surrounded and threatened by an angry mob of protesters near the United Nations.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the MEK "chants dirty slogans and openly sanctions the killing of Iranian women and children."
Administration officials informed reporters about the decision last week, ahead of a court-ordered Oct. 1 deadline for Clinton to either strike the Iranian group off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations or explain why it should be left on. The deadline resulted from a high-profile pressure campaign by the MEK to get off the blacklist, with champions including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Other advocates were a former attorney general and FBI director under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama's first national security adviser.
Several American military officials and defense contractors were killed by the MEK in the 1970s, U.S. officials maintain, and its attacks have killed hundreds of Iranians.
But U.S. officials rejected that the MEK's public lobbying pressured them into the decision.
Iran's mainstream opposition groups have distanced themselves from the MEK, whose ideology stems from elements of Marxism, secularism, an obsession with martyrdom and near adoration of its leaders. A 2009 report by the security think tank RAND accuses it of fraudulent recruiting as well as "authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labor, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options."