Washington’s favorite Iranian terrorist group has likely won. By a forthcoming edict of the State Department, you can now no longer call the Mujahideen-e Khalq — formerly Saddam Hussein’s proxies against the Iranian regime — a terrorist organization. Erasing its status as a cult is a different story.
The State Department is set to remove what everyone simply calls the MEK from its list of terrorist groups, in advance of a court-imposed deadline for a decision. That will leave the organization free to fundraise and operate without attracting the attention of the FBI. The impact on U.S.-Iranian relations may be marginal, but the symbolism is enormous: As tensions with Iran over its nuclear program remain high, the Obama administration is wiping away the stigma from a cultish group that wants to overthrow the Iranian regime so badly it has attacked Iranian and other civilians to advance its agenda. And it comes after a long and deep-pocketed lobbying effort attracted a host of Washington politicos to advocate for the group.
“The delisting of the MEK, following a well-funded political lobby campaign, creates the dangerous impression that it is possible for terrorist organizations to buy their way off the [terrorism] list,” says Mila Johns of the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
The MEK’s questionable practices extend beyond attacks on Iranian civilians. In a 2004 New York Times Magazine story, Elizabeth Rubin documented the group’s cult-like behavior. “Every morning and night, the kids, beginning as young as 1 and 2, had to stand before a poster of Massoud and Maryam, salute them and shout praises to them,” a former member told Rubin, referring to the “husband-and-wife cult” of leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. Life in the MEK, Rubin reported, means enforced celibacy and public confessions of sexual desires. “Mujahedeen members have no access to newspapers or radio or television,” Rubin wrote, “other than what is fed them.”
Originally founded as a student organization in the 1960s to overthrow the Shah, the MEK attacked Western targets in pre-revolutionary Iran, and their victims included three U.S. Army officers. But they fell out of step with the Islamic radicals that took control of Iran in 1979, and turned their weapons on the new regime. Saddam Hussein became their sponsor during the Iran-Iraq war, yet the leadership moved to Paris. For over a decade, the MEK carried out bombings and hijackings on regime targets inside and outside Iran, including an audacious April 1992 coordinated raid on 13 Iranian diplomatic facilities around the world. The State Department listed them as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 1997.
But it’s been years since the MEK attempted a terrorist attack. Most of its operations have centered around endearing itself to the U.S. by portraying itself as an advocate for a democratic Iran, a source of information on Iran’s nuclear program and an implacable enemy of Washington’s Tehran enemies. It turned over its weapons at a training camp in Iraq after the U.S. invasion that until recently was a de facto U.S. protectorate called Camp Ashraf. In Washington, supporters have spent years and millions of dollars waging a lobbying campaign to remove the group’s terrorist status, holding rallies outside of Congress and slathering the sides of buses with pro-MEK posters.
The sources of that money remain undisclosed. But it purchased prominent D.C. lobbying firms like Akin Gump and advocates like Reagan administration veteran Victoria Toensing. And it got an odd collection of supporters, from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on the right to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean on the left, plus retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, ex-CIA director Michael Hayden, ex-FBI director Louis Freeh, ex-Obama national security adviser James Jones and a host of other notables.
The Iranian government, having been on the receiving end of MEK attacks, thinks the group still plans violence against it. Accordingly, some consider the MEK a diplomatic obstacle to resolving the Iranian nuclear question. The MEK also has support among U.S. Legislature who want to see the U.S. take a more bellicose turn toward Iran, so it’s possible that the group will rocket from the terrorist list to the halls of Congress.
Chances are, the State Department decision will merely entrench the impasse between Washington and Tehran. “I don’t think the world really looks that much different after the MEK delisting,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “U.S.-Iran relations will remain hostile, and the MEK will remain a fringe cult with very limited appeal among Iranians.”