Terrorists No More

An Iranian group's lobbying campaign to get removed from the U.S. list of terror organizations looks to be a success. But what does that say about the state of politics in Washington?

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.

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.

A who's 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 advisor Mitchell 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 reported 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.



Putting Syria Back Together Again

Bashar al-Assad may fall, but is the worst yet to come?

The uprising in Syria is only getting bloodier. Prominent human rights organizations have estimated that the death toll from the conflict now exceeds 30,000 people. And it is only getting worse: More than 300 people were reportedly killed on Sept. 26, making it one of the uprising's bloodiest days. Unsurprisingly, there has also been a corresponding spike in the number of people fleeing the carnage. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees now puts the number of Syrian refugees at 235,300, with 103,416 people seeking asylum in just August. Those are registered refugees -- the real number escaping Syria is likely to be significantly higher.

As hard as it is to believe, the next chapter of the Syrian uprising -- after the fall of President Bashar al-Assad -- may be even more challenging. The protests in front of U.S. embassies in Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa -- as well as the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya -- suggest that ending an autocracy is only the beginning of a long, complicated post-Arab Spring rebuilding process. Unlike in Tunisia or Egypt, the odds of a successful transition to democracy may be even lower for Syria; research by Gene Sharp and others suggests that violent revolutions more often than not result in new, illiberal governments.

This leaves Syria with a paradox: The more rebels wage a war against the Assad regime, the less likely they are to achieve democracy, reconstruction, or reconciliation. It also leaves the United States with a paradox: The longer it declines to intervene, the greater the costs -- the more deeply embedded Islamist radicals become and the stronger the enmity between Syria's ethnicities and sects grows.

The guns of Syria's August are not growing quiet in September. The reality is that Syria will only get worse in the absence of international intervention. And whatever help the United States provides now will be dwarfed by what it will be asked to contribute in helping the country rebuild. This month at a conference in Berlin, the Syrian National Council estimated that $12 billion would be needed for immediate support in the first six months after the fall of the regime.

But Syria's troubles run deeper than its present crisis -- indeed, the country has several fundamental flaws that together will comprise America's greatest foreign-policy challenge in the Middle East.

First, regional powers view Syria's diversity as an opportunity to establish permanent bases of influence. As in Lebanon, Syria's future political parties will likely owe their allegiances to regional benefactors. With little experience in democratic competition, they will be ripe for regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, and the Arab Gulf countries to effectively buy sizable voting blocs. In addition to these conflicting international influences, the country's ethnic and sectarian tensions will cripple effective post-Assad governance. There will be violent consequences of this political fallout, as deep scars from the present conflict will likely lead to simmering violence in the post-Assad period.

Former regime supporters will also attempt to play a spoiler role. The next Syrian government will only win confidence if it can judiciously prosecute former regime officials and creatively cooperate with disparate Free Syrian Army brigades to make concrete security improvements. Former President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, preached that security was more important than liberty; the new government must offer something better than this false choice.

Finally, the Assad regime retains power today partly because it has reinforced the notion that democracy is the curse that burdens countries like Iraq and Lebanon. Although they face a ruthless crackdown, opposition activists tell me their greatest challenge is not the regime -- but trying to sell a liberal, democratic vision of Syria to its people.

These challenges are, of course, interrelated, and together they will lead to a weak, ineffective government unable to confront Syria's myriad challenges -- prosecuting former regime members, reallocating scarce resources (Syria has lost more than half its water supply in the past decade), finding jobs for Free Syrian Army fighters, and overhauling its oligarchic crony-capitalist economic system. Overall, Syria's future challenge will be equal parts Libyan demilitarization, Iraqi de-Baathification, and Lebanese desectarianism.

So, if bringing down Assad is hard, rebuilding Syria in the aftermath is going to be expensive, complicated, and messy. The complexities of the post-Arab Spring Middle East do not allow for simple solutions, but serious efforts are under way. The U.S. Institute of Peace-moderated "The Day After" project, for example -- which has brought Syrians together with technical experts to map out the elements of a societal overhaul, like writing a constitution and establishing rule of law -- is one attempt to frame the landscape of a post-Assad Syria.

But forums like these remain theoretical if the United States does not start in-country development assistance to help pre-existing, identified grassroots opposition networks build the necessary tools to end the bloody stalemate and ensure Syria's transition does not devolve into chaos and continued violence. The lesson of past U.S. engagements in the Middle East is not that the United States should avoid intervention -- but that it must try in Syria, as the country's future without foreign assistance would be intolerable. Intervention won't be pretty, easy, or cheap, but it is better than the alternatives.