The MEK advocates for a non-nuclear Iran with free, democratic, and secular values, much in line with our own. Having been based in Iraq since 1986, they are now resettled in European countries, an effort in which the U.S. government played a major role. However, with the President-elect a vocal opponent of the nuclear deal with Tehran, charges against the dissident group and its many defenders—the stock and trade of the mullahs in Tehran—are conveniently resurfacing across the U.S. media.
As an academic and author of three empirical, peer-reviewed journal articles that examine the MEK—in addition to writing the foreword for an independent 2013 study undertaken by Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr. that addressed the misinformation campaign directed at Western government policies toward the Iranian opposition group—I feel that it is critical to set the record straight.
The US Department of State did not add the MEK to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) until 1997. The purported basis was the killings of six American military personnel and defense contractors in Iran in the early 1970s. The State Department would later allege that the MEK played a key role in the February 1979 occupation of the US embassy in Tehran and that after fleeing to Paris, and then Iraq in the early 1980s, it conducted terrorist attacks inside Iran. Such claims, never verified with credible terrorism incident data, were formally debunked by French judicial review.
Two years later, in 1999, the United States went a step further by alleging that the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political organization made up of several Iranian opposition groups that reject clerical rule, was a front for the MEK and designated it too as a terrorist group. Martin Indyk, then Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, indicated that the State Department added the National Council of Resistance (NCR) as an alias for the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) because “The Iranian government had brought this to our attention. We looked into it and saw that there were good reasons for designating the NCR as an alias for the MEK.” The United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU) followed suit, pinning the MEK (though not the NCRI) to their terror lists.
The evidence, however, demonstrates that the US military officers and contractor killings that formed the basis of the original designation were carried out by a secular hard-left splinter group, with no ties to MEK leadership; that there was no proof that the MEK played a role in the 1979 embassy takeover; and that the armed resistance carried out by the MEK from Iraq was an insurgency directed at official regime targets, not innocent civilians, at a time that their relatives and sympathizers were being jailed, tortured and executed en masse.
There is also overwhelming evidence that Iran lobbied hard to get the United States and other Western governments to designate the MEK as terrorists, even though the allegations were baseless. Only a day after the US added the MEK to its FTO list in October 1997, one senior Clinton administration official said inclusion of the MEK was intended as a ‘goodwill gesture’ to Tehran and its newly elected moderate president Mohammad Khatami. Five years later, the same official told Newsweek: “[There] was White House interest in opening up a dialogue with the Iranian government. At the time, President Khatami had recently been elected and was seen as a moderate. Top administration officials saw cracking down on the [MEK]—which the Iranians had made clear they saw as a menace, as one way to do so.”
Across the Atlantic, similar political considerations operated. In 2006, then British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw admitted that the UK designation of the MEK in 2001 was specifically issued in response to demands made by the Iranian regime. That same year, classified documents, later unclassified by a UK court, revealed that senior foreign service officials were concerned about possible adverse foreign policy consequences if the terrorist designation was lifted since the Iranian regime prioritized “tough legal and political measures” against the organization. The EU too is now known to have bowed to pressure in designating the MEK in 2002.
Supporters of removing the terrorist designation took their case to courts. These efforts met with strong resistance, not only from spokespersons for Iran but also from representatives of a new Iran-tilting government in Iraq. By 2006, seven European courts had ruled that the group did not meet lawful criteria for terrorism. They also ruled that the terrorist designation should have been moot after 2001, when the group’s leadership ceased armed resistance to focus on a political and social campaign to bring about democratic change in Iran.
In the United States, where the courts similarly ruled repeatedly in favor of the MEK, and as many as 200 members of Congress signed statements endorsing its cause, the process was stalled until America’s second highest court granted the writ of mandamus filed by the MEK, and ordered the Secretary of State to take action or it would delist the group. Secretary Hillary Clinton, having been provided no credible basis for re-listing by the intelligence community, revoked the designation in September 2012.
Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that the MEK is a natural ally of the United States, one to which we have pledged our support. Unfortunately, if people are to believe the misleading media storm, it could have a dire influence on the selection of our next Secretary of State and the future of US-Iran policy.
Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, Associate Professor of Public and International Affairs, is director of the graduate program in Global Affairs and Human Security at the University of Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.