The Cable

Controversial MEK Leader, Asked to Talk Islamic State, Instead Talks Iran

An Iranian dissident was asked to testify to Congress on the Islamic State. She used the occasion to call for regime change in Iran.

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The controversial leader of an Iranian dissidents group was called to Capitol Hill to lend her expertise about the Islamic State lawmakers. Her testimony Wednesday showed she was only interested in talking about Iran.

Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Iranian dissidents organization Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a group that until 2012 was list on the State Department’s terror list, insisted Tehran was the root of the Islamic State’s power. In prepared testimony, she mentioned Iran 135 times. By comparison, the Islamic State, or ISIS, got 19 mentions; Iraq was mentioned 48 times. Nuclear, as in Iran’s nuclear program, got 31 mentions.

But lawmakers tolerated Rajavi’s notion that “terrorism and fundamentalism came from the mullahs’ regime in Iran. When that is overthrown [the Islamic State] will be destroyed.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), who previously defended to FP his decision to invite Rajavi to testify, used his opening statement to admit she wasn’t an expert on the Islamic State — but could provide insight into the group because of her knowledge on Iran.

Other lawmakers praised Rajavi, who testified via videoconference from Paris, where the headquarters of MEK’s umbrella organization — the National Council of Resistance of Iran — is located. Three House members who are not on the subcommittee were granted permission by chairman Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) to praise Rajavi and ask her questions. But her answers were often jumbled, hard to hear, and focused on regime change in Iran as opposed to problems in Iraq and Syria.

Two former senior State Department officials rejected Rajavi’s credentials so strongly that they refused to appear with her at the hearing. One — former State counterterrorism director Daniel Benjamin pulled out of the hearing all together to protest the MEK’s inclusion. The other, Mideast expert and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, told reporters after the hearing that the only reason he didn’t join Benjamin was that American lives were on the line in the fight against the Islamic State.

In recent years, the MEK has become well connected with high profile allies in the government and among former U.S. officials like FBI Director Louis Freeh and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Rajavi’s appearance distracted from substantive differences in how to confront the Islamic State. Ford insisted that that while there are ideologues in its ranks, most of its fighters are frustrated by political corruption and lack of economic opportunity in their homelands.

“For everyone one Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, 50 people are joining the Islamic State driven by anger … not ideology,” Ford said.

Counterterror expert Walid Phares argued the opposite. “A jihadi doesn’t becomes a jihadi because he has no job,” said Phares, co-secretary general of the Transatlantic Parliamentary Group on Counterterrorism. “He becomes a jihadi simply because of indoctrination.”

Ragavi, however, suggested the roots of the Islamic State stretch back decades.

“Islamic fundamentalism and extremism emerged as a threat to regional and global peace and tranquility after a religious dictatorship came to power in Iran in 1979,” she said in prepared testimony.

She suggested one of the ways to defeat the group is to “recognize the Iranian people’s aspirations to overthrow the mullahs’ regime and end inaction vis-à-vis the flagrant abuses of human rights in Iran.”

Photo Credit: Miguel Medina/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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