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Human Rights and the Media: How the GOP Can Help Iran

Republicans would do well to stop agitating to remove the unpopular militant group MKO from the State Department's terror list.

by
Josh Shahryar

Bio

November 27, 2010 - 12:00 am

I along with many other human rights activists following the GOP’s actions against Iran’s regime have been, at times, overjoyed by their stance with regards to human rights abuses in Iran — especially by Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI). Rep. McCotter bravely took the stand twice in Congress to denounce human rights abuses in Iran. However, many others in the GOP have at times left us scrambling for explanations.

Such is the case for GOP leaders’ support for taking the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (also known as MKO, MEK, and PMOI) off the terrorist list. As recently as last week, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called for the U.S. to remove the Iranian resistance organization from the State Department’s terror list. “We have shackled this freedom-seeking group which has the ability to help Iranians rise up against that tyrannical regime,” were her exact words.

A resolution is already in the works in the House supported by Democrats and Republicans, and several GOPers have come forward to support the claim that the MKO is a peace-loving opposition group that wants nothing but human rights and needs U.S. support. Sometimes, though, the truth is far more sinister than what it appears. Not only is the MKO not peace-loving, it is also perhaps the most hated organization active in Iran — even more hated than the institutionalized mullahcracy that governs the country.

While the public is outraged by the persecution of Iran’s opposition Green Movement activists, members of the MKO are universally abhorred by mullah and non-mullah alike. This isn’t some group that opposes Iran’s dictator Ayatollah Ali Khamenei through peaceful means. This is a group that actively joined forces with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War in the ’80s and killed their fellow Iranians — including civilians. They also assassinated Americans in Iran during the shah’s regime.

That’s not it. Their human rights record is also haunting. Human Rights Watch released a report in 2005 chronicling how this cultish and secretive organization is engaged in gross human rights violations against its own members at their former military camps in Iraq where thousands of members are still based:

Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone twelve former members of the MKO living in Europe. These witnesses provided credible claims that they were subjected to imprisonment as well as physical and psychological abuses because they had either expressed criticism of the MKO’s policies or had requested to leave the organization’s military camps.

And that’s just a snippet. The entire report provides evidence of systematic abuse against members of the MKO by MKO leadership that has even resulted in the death of members. And there are Republicans who think supporting this organization will help human rights in Iran?

Siding with the MKO does absolutely nothing but make the Iranian public suspicious of America’s motives. So bad is its reputation that even America’s peacenik neighbors up north in Canada refused to take them off the terror list. At a time when the GOP needs to formulate a plan sympathetic toward the Iranian populace, Rep. Bachmann and others are out to further energize the Iran’s mullahs. Imagine how easy it would be for Iran to further stoke hate against the U.S. if the MKO were to be removed from the terror list and received active U.S. support.

Helping Iran’s dissidents who support democracy and human rights gain further ground and educating the Iranian public about the U.S.’s support for their rightful demands are important. But that goal could be achieved through other means. There are actions the new GOP majority in the House can take that would greatly help Iran’s human rights cause. But if you think the MKO fiasco is shocking, there is yet another case of “how-do-they-manage-to-not-see-this?”

Voice of America, the federal government’s media arm, is supposed to be a source of unbiased news for Iranians in Iran and abroad. However, the VOA in the past two years has lost credibility with Iranians in Iran and the Iranian diaspora because of one simple reason — its director is a flagrant supporter of Iran’s mullahs.

A mullah supporter running a media organization funded by the U.S. government on American soil sounds surreal. But it is true. Seyed Ali Sajjadi, the director of Persian News Network (PNN), a branch of the VOA for Iran, has deep familial ties with the current mullahcracy of Iran. His views regarding the Iranian government are so skewed that  for years Iranians and non-Iranians alike have been calling for his ouster. But who wants to make VOA more productive when “friends of freedom” like the MKO need to be removed from the terror list, right?

Sajjadi’s father is an esteemed cleric in Iran and considered close to Khamenei. For this and other reasons, he has repeatedly refused to run programs on PNN that shed a negative light on Iran’s regime. Kenneth R. Timmermann of the Washington Times outlines some of Sajjadi’s blatant pro-mullah policies:

Amateur cell-phone video of the murder of Neda Agha-soltan, a 26-year-old woman who was shot to death during a post-election demonstration on June 20, 2009, went viral in minutes and stirred international outrage over the regime’s brutality. PNN waited three days to air the video.

At the peak of the post-election protests last year, PNN editors told reporters to cover nonpolitical subjects instead of interviewing dissidents, arguing it was not PNN’s job to give the dissidents airtime.

During the U.N. General Assembly in September, Voice of America (VOA) broadcast a documentary on the satirical film “Borat” instead of carrying live coverage of President Obama‘s address as in previous years or debunking the outrageous statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who later said the United States was the perpetrator and not the victim of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

This is the guy in charge of a U.S. taxpayer-funded media organization for Iranians. I wonder what VOA would do if they were funded by Iran’s mullahs — about the same thing I imagine. Why aren’t Rep. Bachmann and others working to get this guy out of his post?

If the GOP wants to make an impact,  it needs to ask Iranians what they want. From speaking with Iranians both inside and outside Iran in the past two years, it looks to me that some in the GOP have gotten it horribly wrong. (Not that I think Obama or the Dems are innocent little squirrels when it comes to Iran.) So please, those of you who really want to help Iran’s opposition movement, stop propping up the MKO and start working on fixing VOA’s Sajjadi problem.

This is not a difficult choice to make. Republican leadership, which is in a position to support human rights in Iran, is not being asked to switch from one gray area to another. MKO and Sajjadi are well-known subjects within the Iranian community. Any decisions made or not made in their regard will resonate deeply inside that community.

For the sake of human rights in Iran, I hope the right decisions are made.

Josh Shahryar is a National Security Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. A journalist and human rights activist, he covers ongoing conflicts as well as human rights issues for various media organizations.
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