An Iranian opposition group called the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), scored a major victory on July 16 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared that the State Department must review its designation as a foreign terrorist organization. However, the MEK is the most controversial Iranian opposition group, with advocates of regime change in Iran divided on whether they should be considered terrorists or democratic freedom fighters.
The U.S. court ruled that the State Department violated due process by refusing to allow the MEK to defend itself against the allegations made against it. The State Department says it has classified intelligence to show that the MEK has not ended military operations, still intends to use violence, trains female suicide bombers, and has provided false intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. However, the court expressed doubts about these allegations, saying: “Some of the reports included in the Secretary’s analysis on their face express reservations about the accuracy of the information contained therein.”
The MEK previously won lengthy legal battles in Europe. On June 24, 2008, the United Kingdom removed the group from its list of terrorist organizations on court order. In its ruling in November 2007, the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission ordered the British home secretary to revoke the ban on the MEK, describing the group’s proscription as “perverse.” The English Court of Appeal upheld that decision, noting that the examination of the classified material had “reinforced” its view that the MEK is not engaged in terrorism and has no intention of doing so in the future.
In October 2008, Court of First Instance ruled that the EU’s “statement of reasons is manifestly insufficient to provide legal justification for continuing to freeze the PMOI’s funds.” The European Union subsequently de-listed the MEK in 2009.
The MEK is the cause of a fissure in the ranks of those calling on the U.S. government to support the Iranian opposition in trying to overthrow the regime. One of the most prominent groups in favor of the MEK being de-listed is the Iran Policy Committee, which includes Professor Raymond Tanter, General Paul Vallely, and General Thomas McInerney, among others. Also on the side of the MEK are Dr. Daniel Pipes and Jed Babbin. Opponents of the MEK include Kenneth Timmerman, Michael Rubin, Michael Ledeen, and Jacob Laksin.
Kenneth Timmerman, best-selling author of the 2005 book Countdown to Crisis and executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Times criticizing members of the House of Representatives who have put together a pro-MEK resolution. Timmerman says that the MEK continues to assassinate members of the Iranian regime, despite the group’s claims that it has abandoned violence, and sets off bombs “in urban areas that have randomly killed civilians.”
He also claims the group has a history of terrorism, even though the MEK claims past attacks were carried out by a group that splintered from the main organization when its leaders were in prison. Timmerman says that eyewitnesses have told him that throughout the 1980s MEK members celebrated its murdering of U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iran in the period before the shah’s overthrow. He says that the MEK should remain on the list of foreign terrorist organizations in the U.S., but another group listed by the Treasury Department in 2009 as a terrorist entity called the Free Life Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PJAK) should be removed instead.
“U.S. lawmakers would be wiser to demand that the Treasury Department drop its restrictions on PJAK … than to waste time on the MEK, a Marxist Islamist organization that not only uses terrorism as a political tactic but is widely discredited among ordinary Iranians because of its support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War,” Timmerman wrote.
Ali Safavi, president of Near East Policy Research and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which describes itself as Iran’s “parliament in-exile” that includes the MEK, has written several articles in the Huffington Post challenging allegations against the group, including one that responds to Timmerman’s piece.
Safavi told Pajamas Media that the MEK is “the number one target of Iranian disinformation.” Safavi admits that the MEK engaged in violence against the Iranian regime prior to 2001 but insists that the only targets were regime elements like the Revolutionary Guards. The MEK members in Iraq handed over their weapons to U.S. forces in 2003 and have since been held at Camp Ashraf.
He also said that the MEK does have a large amount of support in Iran. “If the MEK has no support, then why has the number one diplomatic agenda of Iran’s dealings with foreign countries for the past 30 years been to crack down on the MEK?” he asked.
Mike Gapes, the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said in June 2008 that when his committee went to Iran the previous November, they were struck by the regime’s “absolute obsession” with the MEK. However, he conceded that it is “probably” true that the group “has no influence in Iran.”
To support his claim that the MEK has substantial support in Iran, Safavi sent Pajamas Media a series of articles about a rally near Paris in June that the NCRI claimed brought out 100,000 supporters (the New York Times wrote 30,000) and included speeches by Maryam Rajavi, the “president-elect” of NCRI (pictured in this article’s thumbnail); former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton; and former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Aznar.
“Can you tell me what other opposition group can bring this many people to an event?” he asked. Timmerman has questioned the reliability of the group’s numbers in the past and claims many attendees are paid to show up.
Dr. Raymond Tanter, president of the Iran Policy Committee and author of President Obama and Iran: Engagement, Isolation, Regime Change, agreed with Safavi, saying that the wealth of intelligence the MEK provides shows they have support.
“When scientists are willing to risk their lives to reveal nuclear and other secrets of the Iranian regime, it is a bellwether of the support for the PMOI and NCRI in Iran. And when the regime cracked down on the demonstrators on the Iranian street in 2009, most of the persons persecuted and hanged were supporters of these two organizations,” he told PJM.
Two Iranian opposition figures disagreed with Safavi and Tanter about MEK’s support in Iran.
“The MEK has no legitimacy among the Iranian people. Their ideology which is a concoction of Marxism and Islamism is considered dangerous. They have already determined their ‘elected president’ and ‘elected leader’ and hence I personally recommend that they acquire a remote piece of land where they can form their government,” Amir Abbas Fakhravar, the secretary-general of the Confederation of Iranian Students, told PJM.
Reza Kahlili, author of A Time to Betray, is a former member of the Revolutionary Guard who decided to spy for the CIA. He told PJM: “Even though the MEK has many supporters here in the U.S. and many more in Europe, their support in Iran is minimal and it would be a big mistake for the West to support MEK as a legitimate opposition to the Islamic regime.”
He also warned that directly supporting the MEK would backfire.
“This would be a turn off to the majority in Iran who are aspiring for their freedom and it will solidify support from those disenchanted in the Guards for the mullahs.”
In response, Safavi said: “The idea that somehow, the MEK has tens of thousands of supporters outside Iran but none in Iran defies logic. The Iranian exile community is a microcosm of the society in Iran. Virtually every one of those outside Iran who support the MEK have relatives and friends in Iran. The difference is, outside of Iran they can speak their mind without fear of persecution. In Iran, any expression of sympathy with the MEK would result in arrest and execution as a Mohareb (warring against God), according to Article 186 of the Islamic Punishment Act.”
Others take a more neutral stance, arguing that such disagreements can be settled after the fall of the regime.
Roozbeh Farahanipour, one of the leaders of the 1999 student uprising in Iran and executive director of the Marze Por Gohar Party, secretly entered Iran in July 2009 to take part in anti-regime demonstrations. He did not make a determination on the MEK’s level of support in Iran, but said that the issue could be settled in free elections after the regime falls. He also stated that he felt neither the MEK nor PJAK should be listed as terrorist groups by the U.S. government.
“If anyone should be listed as a terrorist group, it’s the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence services, the Basiji, and the other parts of the regime,” Farahanipour told PJM.
The MEK’s legal battle with the State Department is not over, and neither is the debate about its qualifications as an Iranian opposition group. It is important for the U.S. to make an accurate assessment of who can be counted upon to be fruitful allies in fighting the Iranian regime, but first, the decision to help the Iranian people to pursue regime change must be made.