The Middle East Channel

Washington’s dangerous (and deluded) support for the MEK

With the rumblings of fresh protests in Tehran after over a year of relative quiet from the opposition, some members of the US congress, along with several other former officials, appear to be again dreaming of the possibility of a post-theocratic Iran. One significant sign is their renewed push to have the People’s Mojahedin of ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

With the rumblings of fresh protests in Tehran after over a year of relative quiet from the opposition, some members of the US congress, along with several other former officials, appear to be again dreaming of the possibility of a post-theocratic Iran. One significant sign is their renewed push to have the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (also known as the MEK) removed from the State Departments list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. Echoing this sentiment last month, former Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, in an event designed to raise support for the MEK’s removal from terror list, asked the audience, "Is it even possible to oppose a terrorist state, and be a terrorist yourself?"

No matter how one looks at that question, the answer must be a resounding "yes." MEK is a non-state organization that, at regular intervals over the years, has taken pride in attacks that have left innocent civilians dead. In the lexicon of our times that qualifies as terrorism. With their designation as a terrorist organization currently under review, the larger issue is not just whether the MEK is engaged in terrorism at the moment, but that if the organization is further legitimated  by U.S. policy makers, it will prove to be yet another disastrous read by the U.S. government.

In my ten years of traveling to Iran and writing about it for a mostly American audience, I have not once met an Iranian who had a favorable opinion of the organization. Just over a year ago I wrote an article in which I warned of unpopular, exile opposition groups opportunistically attempting to high jack the homegrown Iranian civil society movement.

While many argue that the Iranian regime is too repressive to allow opposition, I would venture to say that there are still thousands, perhaps millions, of Iranians completely willing to speak openly about their attitudes on the 2009 election — but good luck finding a single person who is pro-MEK.

While it is obvious that expressions of dissent in Iran are extremely limited, they are by no means non-existent — which should make the group’s total lack of public support seem all the more suspicious. In the absence of direct access into Iran, the words of the group’s so-called "President Elect," Maryam Rajavi, are instructive in displaying the group’s detachment from reality. In reference to the hangings of two protesters in January who allegedly had ties to her organization, the imaginary Commander-in-Chief said, "the mullahs are enraged over the MEK’s role in the uprisings last year as well as the popularity which [Camp] Ashraf enjoys among Iranians."As one domestic Iranian journalist told me, however, this is little more than another self-aggrandizing claim by a self-congratulatory cult leader. "The MEK are not a real threat. They haven’t been a threat for a very, very long time."

For many people in Iran, though, especially those who remember the early years after the 1979 revolution, the MEK has come to represent an evil much more toxic than the American view of the Taliban and Al Qaeda — and the Iranian state has seized that boogeyman and used it to their advantage when faced with threats, skillfully pinning all manner of attacks on an organization that has had no local presence since the 1980s.

It’s a natural move. Many of us can recall the reaction we had to learning that an American, John Walker Lindh, was fighting against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, just after September 11. In Iran, the memory is of the thousands of Mojahedin members fighting alongside Saddam Hussein’s army, against Iran in the 1980s, and those memories will never be forgotten. As one Iranian veteran told me, "Ultimately as a people we have more loyalty to our nation than we do to anything, even our religion, and nothing will make us forget what they did. As the regime says, they are truly hypocrites."

If the voices of the majority of Iranians aren’t proof enough, why not ask others within the U.S. government that might have some insight into Iran? Indeed, the State Department staffs several of its regional consulates and embassies with Iran watchers who are tasked with following social and political trends inside Iran. Before taking decisive action, why not ask them what they are hearing from Iranians about the MEK? Isn’t that what the American taxpayers are paying them to do?

The unfortunate reality in Washington is that Congress is often ill-equipped to deal with our toughest foreign policy questions. If I were to distill all the questions I’ve been asked by Congressional staffers into one coherent inquiry, it would look something like this: "Is the MEK’s Green Movement on the verge of taking down the Islamic Republic — or do we need to give them more time (and money)?". Given the 32-year freeze in relations between the U.S. and Iran, it is perhaps not so surprising that some are so out of touch. Still, uninformed backing for a group that enjoys no popular support among the people of Iran, by American officials playing off the longstanding standoff between the U.S. and Iran, for their own political gains, is unacceptable and could very likely come back to haunt the U.S.

Yet it’s not just in the halls of Congress where common sense has been replaced by an uninformed and misguided approach to the MEK. Even Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations, gets it wrong. In advocating sanctions against Iran, the former presidential candidate added, they had to be, "combined with new approaches to talk to the Iranian people — one is through the MEK group. At least give them some credibility, and talk to them, and find ways that we work together."

In fact, working with the MEK would mean to cease speaking to the Iranian people. Furthermore, it would provide validation for those voices in the Iranian regime that have long accused the U.S. of meddling in their affairs, unnecessarily strengthening the domestic position of hardliners within the system. In a country with varied opinions on all subjects, the contempt reserved for the MEK is nearly universal.

Sitting here in Tehran, the mere thought of the MEK becoming a legitimate contributor to the policy dialogue on Iran is laughable, except to those of us who would actually like to see an end to the more than three decades of animosity between the U.S. and Iran, and hope for a productive future relationship through real diplomacy. To us — and we are much stronger in number than the MEK could ever hope to be — the idea is insane, heartbreaking and reprehensible.

Jason Rezaian is a Tehran-based journalist

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