October 14, 2011

The New Republic: Why Is There Such Widespread Support in DC for a Former Terrorist Group?

Filner MEKGlancing over the invitations to briefings and rallies from
organizations with names like the Iranian-American Community of Kansas,
and the Iranian-American Community of North Texas—which include broad
references to the “Iranian opposition” and looming “humanitarian
catastrophes”—it’s fair to assume that these organizations represent a
broad set of issues that face Iranians living here in the United States
and back in their native country.

However, attending these events reveals that all of these groups have
one primary, and rather narrow, aim: removing an organization known as
the as the Mujahedin el-Khalq (MEK) or People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI)
from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list, where
it was placed in 1997. While advocacy groups that support the MEK
assiduously cultivate an image as both the face of the Iranian émigré
community in the United States and of the opposition to Supreme Leader
Ali Khameini back in Iran, a range of Iran experts and members of the
Iranian American community in the United States say they are neither. In
fact, other Iranian Americans have felt compelled to launch a
counter-campaign to oppose the MEK’s removal from the State Department’s

Thanks to an appeals court ruling, the State Department has been
required to review the MEK’s inclusion on that list, and both sides
anticipate a ruling by year’s end. But while the review has attracted a
flurry of recent news coverage of the MEK and its alleged terrorist
ties, what has been less examined is the impact this whole debate has
had on American policy towards Iran and its people. MEK allies’
remarkably sophisticated and well-connected lobbying effort has sown
confusion in Washington about the interests of the Iranian-American
community as well as of the current generation of dissidents back in
Iran. One expert on Iran—who declined to be quoted on the record given
the heated nature of the current debate—told me that MEK lobbying
efforts had managed only to produce “a distraction.”

Indeed, MEK supporters—including current and former U.S. government officials—often refer to the group as “the Iranian opposition,” or a symbol of “an uprising for the freedom of the Iranian people,”
to quote recent statements by lawmakers, but that’s a very questionable
assumption. And it prompts a set of policies that, however much they
benefit the MEK, are at odds with what many experts say can best help
the people of Iran.

THE MEK FORMED in the 1960s as one of a number of opposition groups that
supported the overthrow of the Shah. Its early ideology was heavily
influenced by Marxism, as well as the anti-colonial fervor then sweeping
the globe. The MEK initially supported the Iranian Revolution in 1979
but soon had a falling out with the new regime under Ayatollah Khomeini,
after which most of its supporters were either massacred or fled Iran
in the 1980s. Many members of the group went to Iraq, and their
cooperation with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war has since
alienated much of the population in their native country.

Like the dissidents in Iran and its many expatriates, MEK members
oppose the current regime in Tehran led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khameini. And the plight of MEK members since fleeing Iran in the 1980s
certainly raises ongoing human rights concerns, particularly for the
more than 3,000 members living as refugees in Iraq’s Camp Ashraf. Just
this year, Amnesty International called on the Iraqi government to
launch an investigation after violent clashes between Iraqi security
forces and MEK members in Ashraf left more than 30 MEK exiles dead.

But according to a range of U.S. experts on Iran and Iranian
Americans without personal ties to MEK members overseas, neither
activists in Tehran nor the average Iranian American share MEK
supporters’ top priorities. As Council on Foreign Relations Senior
Fellow Ray Takeyh put it flatly to a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee
in July, “Despite its activism in Western capitals, the MEK commands
very little support within Iran,” due, in particular, he said, to the
past alliance with Saddam.

In justifying its foreign terrorist organization listing, the State
Department cited terrorist attacks MEK members committed in the 1970s,
which included the murder of Americans, as well as attacks within Iran
in the 1990s. MEK supporters argue the listing was politically motivated
and that the group’s members have since renounced violence. They also
say the Khamenei regime and its allies are behind much of the negative
portrayals of their movement.

Despite their designation, the backers of the MEK have long enjoyed
an elevated status largely by virtue of being the best organized and,
for a while, the sole Iranian-American group involved in national
politics. While Iranian Americans have some of the highest rates of
education and voting participation of any immigrant community, their
fragmentation, as well as a general skepticism about government among
first-generation Iranian Americans, allowed allies of the MEK to long
have the run of Washington.

In the last decade, however, a second generation of Iranian Americans
has begun to take a keen interest in the policy-making process,
particularly on issues that affect their community and their relatives
back in Iran. That was what generated the impetus for the National
Iranian American Council (NIAC), an Iranian-American advocacy group that
was founded nine years ago. The NIAC now boasts 4,000 dues-paying
members and a mailing list of over 40,000. But Abdi and his colleagues
have found that one of their challenges has been breaking through the
monopoly MEK activists have enjoyed for so long, particularly on
Capitol Hill. “The only interactions with the Iranian-American
community” many in Congress had ever had before NIAC, Abdi recalled,
“was with these MEK activists.”
When it first began reaching out
to congressional staffers, its members were surprised by how much
confusion they encountered over their agenda and identity. Some staffers
would cut them off mid-pitch, saying they had just spoken to their
members in weeks prior, or they made assumptions about the sort of
issues the group wanted to discuss.

Longevity alone does not fully explain the reach of the MEK’s
allies—then and now. The group’s activists have also conducted what even
their critics readily acknowledge has been a tremendously savvy and
effective lobbying and grassroots campaign, driven in part by the sheer
dedication of their members and in part by significant amounts of money
from undisclosed sources. One Senate staffer recounted to me how, for a
period of about five months, his office “heard from people in the state
all the time, and I do mean all the time,” about the human rights abuses
suffered by MEK members. “It was clear they were traveling the entire
state trying to meet with every state leader trying to plead their case
in order to get a meeting with the senator,” the aide recounted. Other
congressional staffers have told me about similarly persistent outreach
to their Washington and district offices.

Despite these anecdotes, it is very hard to measure the exact scope
of grassroots and financial support the MEK and its de-listing campaign
enjoy in the United States. The group’s supporters have had a presence
on Capitol Hill for years, but it was only in 2010 that lobbying
registration reports began to appear for groups advocating the removal
of the MEK from the State Department’s terror list. The Iranian-American
Community of Northern California, for example, paid the lobbying firm
Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP $100,000 for that purpose through
the first half of 2011. Various other groups, meanwhile—with monikers
like the Iranian-American Community of Kansas, the California Society
for Democracy and Human Rights, and Democracy International—have
organized Capitol Hill briefings and other roundtables featuring
high-profile paid speakers; rallied at the State Department and across
the country; and taken out full page print ads in The Washington Post and banner ads on The New York Times website.

The press contact for a number of those organizations, however, could
not provide any details on how the various groups are related, who
their leadership is, or how many members they have, explaining he was
just a summer intern. No one else at these organizations responded to my
inquiries. Past conversations I’ve had with MEK activists have yielded
similarly vague explanations of their membership and financing. But they
consistently maintain, as the intern said in an e-mail, that “of the
active Iranian Americans in this country, the largest number support the
cause of Camp Ashraf.”

What is quantifiable is the impact their outreach has had. 51
Democrats and 45 Republicans have signed onto a House resolution
introduced this year calling on the State Department to remove the MEK
from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. As has been widely
reported, the group has also attracted a long list of high-ranking
former officials and politicians—including former FBI Director Louis
Freeh, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Homeland Security
Secretary Tom Ridge, and former Democratic National Committee Chairman
and Vermont Governor Howard Dean—to their cause. Many, like Dean,
retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell,
 have acknowledged being paid substantial speaker fees to appear at MEK
events, but they maintain that their support for the de-listing campaign
is independent of financial considerations.

Thus a large cadre of American public figures regularly takes to the
floor of Congress, the airwaves, and the op-ed pages to draw attention
to the human rights concerns at Camp Ashraf and the reasons for removing
the MEK from the foreign terrorist organization’s list, as Freeh did
just this week in The New York Times.

UPSTART GROUPS LIKE NIAC have sought to expand the number of Iranian
Americans participating in national political advocacy, as well as the
range of issues they bring before policymakers. But increasingly, they
have spent their time pushing back against the MEK, rather than
advocating for a more robust dialogue with Iran, for example, or
opposing broad-based sanctions that hurt average Iranian citizens, which
top their list of priorities.

In the past nine months, the group has launched its own full-on
campaign to oppose lifting the MEK’s terrorist designation, including a
series of briefings, grassroots outreach, and a media blitz. “We would
love to sidestep it,” Abdi said of the issues raised by the MEK, “and
for a long time we did.” But, he said, the group’s leaders became
worried this year that the State Department would give into the pressure
to remove the MEK from its terror list, which they believe would send
the wrong signal to Iranian citizens and would make it easier for the
Khamenei regime to taint the Green Movement as kin of the MEK.

Regardless of where they stand on the MEK’s terror listing, U.S.
public officials across the political spectrum profess a desire to
support the Iranian people and their democratic aspirations, even as
relations with the Iranian government sink to a new low. They would be
better able to pursue that agenda if they distinguish between different
segments of Iranian Americans, recognize the limits of the MEK’s reach,
and determine how best to promote dialogue with the Iranian people,

Emily Cadei covers foreign policy for Congressional Quarterly.




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