It's no secret how a group gets designated as
terrorists in the eyes of the U.S. government. Section 219 of the Immigration
and Nationality Act enumerates the authorities of the secretary of state in
listing a group as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The act references
the existing statutory definitions of terrorism, provides avenues for appeal of
the classification, and otherwise lays out various processes
Nowhere, however, does the act lay
out the options for buying your way out of a designation. Luckily, the Iranian
expat group Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK) soon
to be "delisted" as an FTO, according to multiple reports, has provided us
with a roadmap. But first, a little background.
The MEK, an anti-shah, Islamist,
Marxist Iranian opposition group that fell afoul of the Islamic Revolution
early on, was designated -- put on the terrorist list -- in 1997. It earned the
designation fair and square, having been
involved in numerous attacks, including the hostage-taking and murder of Americans,
according to a State Department report. Indeed, it was at times more hardline
than the mullahs: The group reportedly condemned the new Iranian government's
decision to release the American hostages in 1980 as "surrender."
More recently, the MEK has
restricted its attacks to Iranian nationals. Those curious can check out this lengthy
FBI report for all the gory details. Suffice it to say that these erstwhile
Marxists have proven themselves remarkably adaptable: The leadership moved with
ease from the shah's Iran, onward to France and, once ousted from Paris, to a
congenial perch in Baghdad, where the MEK was reportedly involved in Saddam's
extermination campaign against the Kurds and repression of Iraq's Shia.
But the world is now a different
place -- Saddam is gone and the MEK claims it has reformed. Certainly, the
embassy takeovers and the anti-American, anti-Israel rhetoric are gone. Now it
appears that the MEK is merely a cult-like organization -- intensely devoted to
its leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi and virulently opposed to the Islamic
Republic. Reports from former
members suggest that followers require permission from
the Rajavis to marry, that parents are separated from children, that
communication with outsiders is banned, and that more senior followers are
required to divorce to commit themselves more fully to the fight.
The State Department has long resisted
efforts to remove the MEK from the terrorist list. As of 2004, the FBI had
evidence that the group was still planning attacks against Iranian targets
around the world. In addition -- and this is no small caveat -- successive secretaries
of state in both Republican and Democratic administrations have recognized that
delisting the MEK could throw a monkey wrench into efforts toward rapprochement
with Iran. For while most Iranians may loathe the system imposed on them by the
ayatollahs and their loyal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, they also loathe
Setting aside the fact that the MEK
worked hand in glove with other masterminds of the Islamic Revolution, Iranians
are rightly wary of the fact that the MEK sided with the hated Saddam in his
war against Iran. Indeed, the MEK has never appeared as the voice of democratic
hope for the Iranian people, but merely another dictatorship in waiting. Washington,
however, has been more suggestible.
The recent history of the MEK -- also
known in other guises such as the National Council of Resistance, the National
Liberation Army, and the People's Mojahedin of Iran -- has featured various
front groups that have lobbied aggressively for the removal of the MEK's
terrorist designation. These lavishly resourced groups have pursued a
sophisticated and multi-dimensional campaign that reached from the state-by-state
field offices to the toniest K St. lobbying shops. And their efforts have
gained substantial momentum in recent years, leaning on former senior
government officials and journalists to make their case.
On Capitol Hill, the MEK emphasizes
its credentials as an opponent of the Iranian regime, allowing wannabe masters
of the "great game" to imagine that this enemy of our enemy is our friend. Among
Republicans and Democrats alike, there is seemingly little curiosity as to the
MEK's nature or its plans for Iran should it ever should come to power.
who of former government officials have led the way in advocating for the
MEK in Washington's corridors of power. There's former New York City mayor and
presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, former Vermont
governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean, President Barack Obama's
former National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones, and the former chairman of
the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democrat Lee Hamilton. There's also Mitt Romney
Reiss and former New Mexico Governor Bill
Richardson. Who says bipartisanship is dead in Washington?
Is every one of these men and women a principled
supporter of the MEK, dedicated to the liberation of Iran from Islamist
tyranny? Seems doubtful. As their own records in government will attest, most
did nothing for the MEK when in a position to do so. The more likely
explanation is that at least some of these folks have been persuaded with money,
most of it coming in the form of speaking fees. And there is lots of it. Where
does it come from? The FBI won't tell those on Capitol Hill who have asked; the
MEK insists the money is from its donors.
The ethics of accepting
money for a speaking gig from a designated terrorist group is dubious -- but if
it's happening through non-designated fronts, it's likely to be legally kosher.
On the other hand, the Washington Post
in July that some of these speakers are also taking part in regular briefings
and negotiations regarding the fate of Camp Ashraf, the MEK camp inside Iraq
that the government in Baghdad is disbanding.
According to State Department sources, participants
in those calls were advocates on behalf of the MEK, and were being used to
relay messages to and from the group. If so, these individuals were acting as
unregistered foreign agents for the MEK. The law is specific on this question: Acting on behalf of a foreign organization
without properly registering with the U.S. government is a crime. The Justice
Department is reportedly
investigating former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell for his MEK ties, but
few are sanguine the probe will go anywhere.
So what's the lesson here? Pretty simple. Announce
you've renounced terrorism. Buy a bunch of supporters. Lobby to get off the
terrorism list. Et voila.
The tale of the MEK reflects poorly on all involved,
from the State Department to Capitol Hill to undeclared lobbyists. Unfortunately,
the designation of foreign terrorist organizations has become a highly
politicized exercise in which some groups are designated for the right reasons
(terrorism) and others are not labeled, despite clearly meeting the statute's
requirements. For example, the Haqqani network in Pakistan was only designated in
September despite its long association with other terrorist groups and its own
terrorist activities. At the very least, however, we will soon find out whether,
freed of the opprobrium of its terrorist designation, the MEK will make any
difference in our long-running battle with Iran. Somehow, I doubt it.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images