Taking MEK off ‘terrorist’ list is a gift to Iranian regime

MEk rally in Paris

Supporters at the MEK’s annual rally in Paris, 13 June 2012.

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

On 21 September, the State Department indicated that the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK – People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran) will be de-listed from the US foreign terrorist organizations list.

The news caused outrage and anguish in many quarters, particularly among reform-minded Iranians at home and abroad. They rightly fear that the tacit US legitimizing of the group will be used by the regime to discredit the Green Movement and other opponents.  As one US-based Iranian put it, the decision ‘feeds directly into the regime’s narrative: that the US is backing the MEK to launch attacks against Iran and undermine the territorial integrity of the country. MEK affiliation will likely become even more of an excuse for the persecution of students and activists’.

I have to agree with the National Iranian American Council that the decision is a gift to the Iranian regime.

The MEK is a quasi-cultish group that emerged in pre-revolution Iran with a curious blend of Islamist and Marxist ideological motives and an inclination towards violent tactics.  Their bombing and assassinations were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians and six Americans. It was the latter acts in the 1970s that earned their 1997 addition to the terrorist list.

The MEK is despised by most Iranians for having supported Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The day the news was announced, Bahman Kalbasi, an Iranian journalist at the BBC, published a tweet commenting that ‘perhaps the only popularity contest the government of Iran can win is when its alternative is MEK’.

While many MEK members are exiled in Europe, several thousand have operated until recently from a self-sustaining camp outside Baghdad. Because they are dedicated to the removal of the current regime in Iran, the MEK have won friends in many Western capitals. In 2009, after years of lobbying, the Council of the European Union de-designated the MEK as a terrorist group.  But the group’s most prominent supporters are in Washington, where prominent politicians from across the political spectrum have waged a well-oiled campaign to promote de-listing.

Notwithstanding its deadly history, the MEK has done some good deeds.  Its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was the vehicle through which Israeli intelligence in 2002 exposed previously hidden Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.  Despite the MEK’s low level of support in Iran it is also seen by some right-wingers as a means for inducing regime change in Tehran.  But some of the MEK’s high-profile advocates have also been motivated by more personal considerations.  At least one former politician has been under investigation for the lavish fees he received for supporting the MEK cause.

Critics credit the lobbying effort with having swayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make the de-listing decision.  Indeed the pre-election timing of the decision does suggest a political motivation. But there are other factors she had to take into account.

One factor is the set of legal requirements for the terrorist listing.  To be designated, a foreign organization must be engaged in terrorist activity or have the intention to do so, and this activity ‘must threaten the security of US nationals or the national security of the United States.’  A case can be made that the MEK’s activities work against US foreign policy interests in that they undermine the cause of reformists in Iran.  But that’s a hard sell, given the primordial instinct that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.

With regard to intent, the MEK renounced violence more than a decade ago.  MEK operatives reportedly were responsible, with Israeli backing, for a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear engineers and scientists.  While these assassinations fit some descriptions of terrorism, they did not threaten US lives.  On the contrary, they were intended to slow nuclear weapons development.

Clinton also had to take into account the American political scene, in which Iran’s nuclear program plays a huge part as the spearhead of the Republican Party’s attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy stewardship.  Keeping MEK on the terrorism list would have been seen as a sop to Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, even if in reality the regime benefits from the de-listing.  Given Iran’s intransigence in the nuclear talks this summer, there was no mileage in either politics or policy for not de-listing. If talks this summer had encompassed serious negotiations, Clinton would not have made this decision.

Those who criticise the de-listing should thus spare some of their anger for the Iranian regime. Tehran’s refusal to limit its enrichment program or to accept the transparency demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency incurs many costs beyond non-economic expenditures.  In addition to choking sanctions, political isolation and the prospect of war, the regime’s policies have triggered legitimacy within the US for the group that is most vehemently set on regime overthrow. Unfortunately, it is the Iranian people who will again suffer.


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