by Kenneth R. Timmerman (June 2011)
An Iranian group that has attracted high-level support from former White House and senior national security officials, was dealt a body blow last week in its effort get off the terrorism list, when the State Department released a series of documents the group had sought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
According to the documents the group, known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK, or MKO), supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – not a position to endear itself to U.S. diplomats – before its “gradual elimination from the ruling coalition” by Ayatollah Khomeini less than two years later.
The new documents describe the MEK terror campaign against the Islamic regime during the 1980s and 1990s, and the group’s alliance with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
According to hundreds of Iranians interviewed by State Department “Iran watchers” in Dubai, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Germany, the ties to Saddam were the most damning.
“Ordinary Iranians were almost uniformly dismissive of the MEK, reacting with either disdain or apathy,” a recent cable from the U.S. Consulate in Dubai states.
“The MEK are detested among the young and old in Iran, although many young Iranians don’t know much about them,” the cable quotes one Iranian as having told U.S. diplomats.
“They are hated among Iranians, since their hands are stained with the blood of their fellow countrymen,” another Iranian is quoted as saying in the just-released cable.
A host of former senior U.S. officials have come out in public in support of the group, including, most recently, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, Gen. Jim Jones.
At pro-MEK event in Brussels on May 25, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark, former State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Ambassador Dell Dailey, and others, argued that the MEK should be treated as a legitimate Iranian opposition group.
As the U.S. and the European Union continued to ratchet up sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran this week, many members of Congress are pressing the State Department to remove the MEK from the terrorism list, as the European Parliament has recently done.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), former New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani, and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton have also staked out positions in favor of the group. All three are potential Republican presidential candidates in 2012.
But the newly declassified State Department cables paint a much darker picture of the group, starting with the victimization of its own members if they strayed from the party line or tried to leave the organization.
Several recent cables from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad detail interviews with MEK members who managed to escape from Camp Ashraf, a military base northeast of Baghdad that was assigned to the group by Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s.
Since the liberation of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition in 2003, the group has been confined to quarters. Tensions with the Iraqi government have been building, and 34 MEK members were killed in April during clashes with Iraqi Army units.
The escapees – refereed to as “defectors” in the State Department cables – painted a harsh picture of repression in the MEK camp, and claimed that the group’s leader had issued standing orders that anyone caught trying to escape should be immediately executed.
“Many of the defectors alleged psychological and physical harm at the hands of the MEK, including solitary confinement in MEK jails in Ashraf,” one cable states.
Some of the MEK escapees said they had been “lured from Iran with promises of study abroad opportunities” or “by offers of travel abroad.” Others were Iranian POWs captured by the Iraqis during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war who were sent to Camp Ashraf with a promise they would soon be repatriated to Iran or resettled in a third country.
The defectors “reaffirmed existing perceptions of the MEK as a cult-like organization that thrives on maintaining control of its members and those lured to Ashraf under false pretenses,” the cable states.
Allan Gerson, a Washington, DC attorney representing the group in its efforts to get removed from the State Department’s list of international terrorist organizations, dismissed the new documents as “much ado about nothing” when he released them at a lavish Capitol Hill reception last Wednesday.
“The question is why, when every single Camp Ashraf residents were taken outside [sic], and interviewed by the U.S. military in American controlled facilities in 2003 and 2004, and each were given the choice to leave, none of those individuals had done so?” Gerson asked.
But the State Department cable that recounts the stories of the MEK escapees, flatly contradicts Gerson’s assertion.
“The defectors confirmed that this was their first encounter with any foreign mission and welcomed future visits,” the cable states. “The defectors were all unified in their desire to leave Iraq… Many accurately pointed out that their failed resettlement has offered little incentive for other residents to leave Ashraf, fearing similar hopelessness and 'purgatory' in Iraqi hotels.”
The undated cable, signed “Hill,” appears to have been written in 2009 or 2010, when Christopher Hill was the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.
Already in 1994, the State Department sent a damning 41-page report to Congress, detailing why it considered the MEK a terrorist organization.
The “original sin” of the group was the murder of three U.S. officers and three civilian contractors working for the Shah’s government between 1973-1976.
MEK representatives claim that the murders were carried out by a “Marxist splinter group” before Massoud Rajavi became MEK leader in 1979. But Mujahedin newsletters published in Iran in 1980 celebrated the murders, calling the U.S. victims “criminal agents of U.S. Imperialism in Iran.”
During an FBI investigation code-named Operation Suture, an FBI agent who infiltrated Camp Ashraf and posed as an MEK member reported that the group continued to celebrate the anniversary of those murders in late 1980s.
The MEK says that it abandoned violence against the Islamic regime in Iran in 2001, after a campaign of mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids against Iranian military and law enforcement personnel failed to win it popular support inside Iran.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran and a Contributing Editor at Newsmax Media
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