War with Iran: Closer than Ever II
Why is the West impeding the Iranian opposition at the behest of the mullahs?
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the Iranian Opposition’s parliament-in-exile, is one anti-regime organization worthy of Western support.
The NCRI’s 500+ members represent varying political tendencies and ethnic/religious groups within Iran. Kurds, Baluchis, Turkmens, Arabs, Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians all have representation, as do secular, religious, nationalist and liberal groups. Half of the NCRI’s members are women and the organization’s stated goal is “to establish a democratic, secular and coalition government in Iran.”
Remarkably, instead of supporting the NCRI and cultivating it into a tool to bring down the theocracy in Iran, for decades, Western governments have been actively impeding its efforts at the behest of the mullahs in Iran.
In 2003, the State Department closed the NCRI’s American offices on the grounds that the group is a front for the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI, also known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq/MEK/MKO), by then a designated foreign terrorist organization in the United States and Europe. There is debate about whether the NCRI is the MEK’s political wing or if the MEK is only a member of the NCRI. Either way, the time has come for both of these organizations to be de-listed from the terror record. (In Europe the MEK is a designated terrorist organization, while the NCRI is not; in the U.S. both are.)
In the U.S., according to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, an organization can only be classified as a foreign terrorist organization if “the terrorist activity of the organization threatens the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States.” By all accounts, today’s NCRI and MEK do neither of those things.
The Iraqi-based MEK was established by students at Tehran University in the 1960s as an anti-Shah leftist group. Its estimated 10,000-20,000 members are led by the husband and wife couple of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi (who is also President-elect of the NCRI). After assisting in the downfall of the Shah, MEK members were forced to flee Iran when the new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, turned against them. The leadership established their headquarters in France.
Operating from their Iraqi camps the MEK has attacked and spied on Iran for decades. In the process, the NCRI was the first to reveal to the world, in August 2002, the whereabouts and true purposes of Iran’s hidden nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak. In addition to providing vital intelligence about Iran’s covert nuclear weapons program, they have also supplied intelligence on Tehran’s other impious activities in the region such as Iranian-sponsored attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Arguably, the only time they have ever “threatened the security of U.S. nationals” was in the 1970s when the current leadership was languishing away in prison and an aligned Marxist splinter group attacked organizations viewed as sympathetic to the Shah.
In fairness, the MEK’s alliance with Saddam against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War has turned a significant portion of the Iranian population against it and by no means is it strong enough to bring down the mullahs on its own. Regardless, why are the U.S. and Europe hampering the MEK’s work to weaken the radical regime in Iran by designating it a terrorist organization – a designation that literally means no American can deal with them, U.S. banks must freeze their assets, and any American giving them any kind of support violates the law?
In short, since the 1980s, Western governments have acted out against the MEK to placate Iran, the world’s top sponsor of terrorism. In 1986, the MEK was forced out of France as part of a deal between the French and Tehran, made by then French PM Jacques Chirac, in which the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah released French hostages it was holding in Lebanon.
In the late 1990s, as Middle East expert Daniel Pipes writes, the State Department designated the MEK a foreign terrorist organization “to curry favor with Iranian ‘moderates.’"
In 2001, then British Home Secretary Jack Straw followed suit. A year later, and at British insistence, the EU went along and labeled the MEK a terrorist organization. Amusingly, as Chris Booker writing for the Daily Telegraph tells it, Straw himself admits to doing so “at the behest of the Tehran regime.”
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American armed forces arrived at the MEK’s camps. The group’s members quickly signed ceasefire agreements with the Americans and were disarmed of their thousands of tanks, anti-aircraft guns, armored personal carriers, artillery, and military vehicles. All 3,800 residents of the main camp, in Ashraf, were questioned and put under investigation. A 16-month review by seven U.S. agencies, including the FBI and State Department, determined that there was no basis to charge any MEK members with violations of American law. Irrespective of that, Iraq’s Shia Islamist government has promised its Iranian peers that the MEK would be expelled from Iraqi territory. Thankfully, nothing has come of that threat yet.
The inhabitants of Camp Ashraf are currently being guarded by coalition forces as its residents have been declared protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. So, officially, the MEK are now “protected terrorists.” “Terrorists” that must be protected against Iranian attacks and have their supply runs escorted by the U.S. military.
On top of doing the mullahs’ work for them by disarming and effectively locking up the MEK, this situation is, at the same time, taking valuable coalition resources away from the war in Iraq.
Over the years, literally thousands of senators, congressmen, and various European parliamentarians have urged their respective governments to de-list the NCRI/MEK. The European Court of Justice, the European Court of First Instance, and the United Kingdom’s Proscribed Organizations Appeals Commission have also all come out with rulings in favor of de-listing the MEK.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House International Relations Committee's Central Asia and Middle East Subcommittee, has described the group as one that “loves the United States. They're assisting us in the war on terrorism; they're pro-U.S."
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Cal.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, said they are “the only group on the terrorist list that's been more helpful to the U.S. and more harmful to our enemies.”
Former presidential candidate Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) accused the French government of doing “the Iranian government’s dirty work” after French police raided MEK properties in 2003.
Numerous U.S. soldiers and commanders in Iraq have referred to them as “patriots,” pro-American, and vital intelligence assets.
In any case, the designation sticks. A label that not only causes immense confusion, but that considerably encumbers the NCRI’s and MEK’s work to end the mullahcracy in Tehran. By the NCRI’s own account, it is spending 80% of its resources fighting the designation - money that could otherwise be spent gathering crucial intelligence on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its nefarious activities in the region.
So why do they remain a designated terrorist threat?
In 2004, The Washington Post ran an article which detailed secret contacts taking place between the Americans and the Iranians. The issue at hand was a deal that would see Iran “hand over some senior al Qaeda operatives in its custody and the United States would transfer to Iran some prisoners it was holding from the Iraqi-backed (MEK) organization.” The deal never happened. It was reportedly scuttled by the Pentagon because of its belief that the MEK could be “useful in fomenting regime change in Tehran.”
In 2007, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), claimed to have discovered a letter written after the 2003 invasion of Iraq “where Tehran offers to withdraw military backing for Hamas and Hezbollah as well as give open access to their nuclear facilities in return for Western action in disbanding the (MEK).”
Very appealing offers – if only they had not been made by the terrorist regime in Tehran.
It would be naïve of us to think that Iran’s support for Hezbollah - or any Iraqi Shia militia for that matter - could ever be stopped. The two are practically joined at the hip – the terrorist groups’ leaders are groomed in Iranian seminaries in Qom and the membership is armed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The “open access” the mullahs promise to afford to their nuclear facilities is something that they are already required to do by numerous international treaties and resolutions. If they do not abide by the rules of those accords, why would we be thick enough to believe them this time?
The time to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is running out. In the little time we do have left, everything and anything must be done to try to weaken the regime in Tehran. The NCRI and MEK are only two of the many organizations working tirelessly to bring real change to Iran – we should be supporting all of them. But, the fact that we are vigorously obstructing the efforts of, arguably, the most effective and well-organized of the lot to appease the mullahs is something that has to stop.
As my friend and Iranian pro-democracy activist of many decades, Majid Saatchi likes to tell people, “appeasement of the ‘moderate’ Rafsanjani and the ‘reformist’ Khatami got us Ahmadinejad”; in the same sense, it is frightening to imagine what appeasement of Ahmadinejad will get us.
Dan Rabkin is a Middle Eastern affairs and national security analyst based in Toronto, Canada. He was Canada's 2005 Governor General's Medalist. He can be reached at [email protected].