One simple word which encapsulates the sum of the aspirations harbored by Iranians throughout the world, both those in exile and those living, and suffering, in the land of their birth. It was one of the demands invoked repeatedly throughout the pro-democracy demonstrations which took place last week at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. These protests were held against the backdrop of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s last speech before the United Nations General Assembly, evoking memories of the election he purloined in order to remain in power.
Although various factions within the Iranian freedom movement were present, the bulk of those in attendance came from the MEK, an organization led by the woman seen in the placard above, Maryam Rajavi.
The president of the People’s Mujahadeen of Iran-and wife of Massoud Rajavi, the leader of that group’s political arm, The National Council of Resistance in Iran-she controls what is arguably the most controversial, and undoubtedly the most personality-driven, group within the anti-IRI opposition movement which has taken root among the Iranian diaspora created by the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The cloud surrounding the MEK exists for a number of reasons, one of the most prominent among them being its inclusion in a list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations created by the State Department, which includes such illustrious fraternal associations as Abu Sayyaf and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
At first glance, it would appear that this designation is appropriate. After all, as this ABC News report about the recent removal of the MEK from proscribed terrorist organizations makes clear, it was responsible for the deaths of Americans-both civilian and military-abroad, much like northern California jihadi John Walker Lindh. It was given sanctuary for decades by Iraq-itself considered a state sponsor of terror until the removal of Saddam Hussein from power-much like the Palestinian Liberation Front, a terrorist group responsible for murdering American citizens in the most callous manner.
So if the terrorist designation is applied to any group which has the blood of Americans on its hands, then the State Department should not have even contemplated de-listing the MEK. However, if that is the policy, then what explanation is there for the federal government’s consistent policy of embracing, if not feting, PLO leaders? Men who are directly implicated in the murder of American diplomats, and who represent an entity responsible for the deaths of more Americans any other terrorist organization in the contemporary era-and whose hands are stained with blood much fresher than that taken by the MKO-with the exceptions of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah. The PLO might even outrank the latter in body count, if we consider that its chief operations planner was once a protege of Yasser Arafat.
If the criteria for inclusion is militarization and/or criminal activity, then it’s hard to explain why the Irish Republican Army has never been designated an FTO. After all, the IRA Army Council didn’t formally renounce its armed campaign until 2005, which marked the year it finally decommissioned its supply of arms. What’s more, members of the IRA have engaged not only in murder and obstruction of justice within the past decade-as well as other notorious criminal activities-but shared their bomb-making expertise with the most prolific terrorist group in the Western Hemisphere.
So what explains the MEK’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department? Although obviously a self-interested stance, I can’t help but agree with the MEK itself, which concludes that this decision was made in an attempt at currying favor with the Iranian regime. A regime whose presidency was held by the pseudo-reformist Mohammed Khatami, assiduously courted by the Clinton administration, at the time this list was formulated. As others have pointed out, this policy of engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran has not returned much in the way of political or diplomatic dividends.
Even so, the MEK’s fiercest adversaries do pose some valid objections. The organization does have a very sordid past, a past which Kenneth Timmerman has extensively and eloquently limned over the years. And despite some exaggeration of the dangers it poses, there is an inexorably cultish quality to the organization created by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, although it should be noted that there are numerous cults in this country which do not engage in terrorism. At least, as it is generally defined.
Another valid critique of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq is the assertion that it is not a genuinely grassroots opposition movement. Anyone who has observed an MEK rally firsthand can’t escape the impression that the astroturf accusations are not completely devoid of merit. The man above didn’t seem to have much interest in the internal political dynamics of Iran, much less the MEK, although the fact that he was at a rally with fans of the Redskins and Giants did speak to a rare intra-divisional amity this NFL season.
Even protestors with more substantive concerns-such as these Cameroonian men-did not seem particularly interested in the issues that animated others at this rally.
Notwithstanding the occasional references to “Iranian freedom,” most of their chants focused exclusively upon the injustice of Paul Biya’s lengthy dictatorship over the people of Cameroon, and the persecution their countrymen endure for opposing it.
Finally, the allegation that the MEK bought its way off of the State Department’s list of proscribed terrorist groups must be addressed. The fact that the former head of the Department of Homeland Security is willing to speak to crowd of MKO supporters, and urge other nations to facilitate the resettlement of MEK members now living in Camp Liberty, speaks to the efficacy of their lobbying efforts.
As does the bipartisan nature of the support they receive. Which runs the gamut from avid motorist Patrick Kennedy,
to former New Mexico governor-and Clinton fixer-Bill Richardson,
to the far more reputable, and decidedly conservative, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Whatever motivates these public figures to support their cause-to a greater or lesser degree-it can’t be disputed that the mobilization of the MEK within the halls of American power has played a significant role in their political rehabilitation.
That said, it strikes me as slightly hypocritical to bemoan the (legal) lobbying by an anti-IRI organization while ignoring the corresponding public relations campaign undertaken by friends of the mullahcracy. Even if you truly believe that the MEK is a monstrous organization, how much more bestial and inhumane is the regime it stands against?
Which isn’t to imply that the MEK is worthy of political support-either through taxpayer subsidies or individual donations-or a model which Iranian dissidents should emulate. Personally, I find the idea of it serving as “the government” of any future, post-Islamic Iranian republic fairly ludicrous. And of course, there already exist opposition activists with much compelling, forward-thinking platforms.
Nevertheless, the widespread efforts to demonize the MEK-for all its failures-seems to be profoundly misplaced. Even if we were to concede that this organization comprised the most detestable collection of rogues known to man, its continued existence is itself a byproduct of the brutal theocracy which has ruled Iran for the past three decades.
Their goals might be more ignoble than those of the Green Movement, and more incoherent than those of the constitutional monarchists and the left, but they exist within the context of opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran. A regime which rules largely-ironically enough-because of their past actions. However, the past is the past. To use the actions a group took decades ago, however heinous, as a justification for arbitrary political decisions, even those that might be enjoy widespread popularity, would be mistaken.