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 for review.
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 the MEK.
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.