An Iranian exile group is ramping up its lobbying campaign to get off a U.S. terrorist list, and the issue has sparked a fierce debate among foreign policy experts about the wisdom of such a move.
Supporters of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq see it as a potentially useful group in countering Iran. It has provided the U.S. information about Iran's nuclear program, for instance. Others see it as a dangerous cult and warn that taking it off the Foreign Terrorist Organization list would undercut peaceful Iranian dissidents, who want nothing to do with the MEK.
Despite sanctions against it, the MEK has managed to enlist members of Congress and some high-profile former U.S. officials to press its case.
The U.S. State Department is under court order to review the MEK's status, and officials say that review is continuing.
Obligation To Protect?
The group's supporters, meanwhile, often stand vigil outside the State Department. At one such event this week, MEK supporter Farah Salehi, a software engineer from Berkeley, Calif., said that the group should never have been on the terrorist list in the first place.
"The MEK designation was a wrong designation that was made in 1997 as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government," Salehi says.
She calls this an urgent matter because thousands of MEK members live in Iraq in a place called Camp Ashraf. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants them out, though Camp Ashraf residents fear there are few places they could safely go. If they returned to Iran, the MEK says its members would be jailed, or worse.
"Maliki is using this label as an excuse or justification that these are terrorist people and they don't need to be protected and it's OK to go ahead and massacre them," Salehi says.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean agrees, saying the U.S. promised to protect residents of Camp Ashraf.
"They are unarmed. And 47 of them over a two-year period were mowed down by Maliki's people. And I don't think the United States should be permitting those kinds of human-rights abuses," Dean said in a recent interview with NPR's Talk of the Nation.
Dean and other former officials have accepted large speaker fees from groups linked to the MEK.
But he insists, "This is not a scary group of people. And in the past, who knows what they did. But the fact of the matter is they're not a terrorist group."
May Send Wrong Message To Iranian Activists
The U.S. government has linked the MEK to the killing of several American military officials and civilians who were in Iran in the 1970s. But the group says it renounced violence long ago.
Robert Hunter, a retired ambassador now with the National Defense University, says the residents of Camp Ashraf ought to be protected. But, he adds, "getting into bed with these people, I think, would be a profound mistake."
Hunter describes the MEK as a Marxist cult, whose members have learned the ways of Western public relations.
"This organization is not a friend of the United States and it never has been. Even though their tactics have changed, they now smile sweetly on us and others, their basic strategy and leadership has not changed at all," Hunter says.
If the U.S. takes the MEK off the terrorism list, Hunter worries that this would send the wrong message to Iranians seeking more democracy. He says the MEK is hated by many Iranians because it was once a tool of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Others feel that taking the group off the list would put more pressure on the Iranian government.
Kenneth Katzman, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, says Iran watchers have been debating the ramifications of such a move and there are two sides of the argument.
He points out, though, "the Foreign Terrorist Organization list is supposed to really be decided on the technical question of, is the group a terrorist group or not."
And that is the only question the State Department is supposed to decide.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Now, the story of an Iranian exile group on a U.S. terrorism list that has mounted a lobbying campaign here in Washington to get off that list. The Mujahedin-e Khalq has enlisted Members of Congress and some high profile former officials to press their case. And the State Department is under court order to review the group's terrorist designation. It's also called the MEK.
And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, all of this has Iran watchers furiously debating the ramifications of such a move.
MICHELE KELEMEN: This has been the scene outside the State Department most days this summer, protesters chanting to get the Mujahedin-e Khalq off the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS CHANTING)
KELEMEN: A software engineer from Berkeley, California, Farah Salehi says the MEK should never have been on the list in the first place.
FARAH SALEHI: The MEK designation was a wrong designation that was made in 1997, as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government.
MICHELE KELEMAN: And she argues, getting off the list is an urgent matter because thousands of MEK members live in Iraq, in a place called Camp Ashraf. And Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants them out.
SALEHI: Maliki is using this label as an excuse or justification that these are terrorist people and they don't need to be protected and it's okay to go ahead and massacre them.
KELEMAN: Some members of congress and former officials echo that argument. Among them, former Vermont governor, Howard Dean, who says the U.S. promised to protect the people of Camp Ashraf. In a recent interview on NPR, he shrugged off news that he and others have taken speaker fees from groups tied to the MEK.
Governor HOWARD DEAN: This is not a scary group of people and, in the past, who knows what they did? But the fact of the matter is they're not a terrorist group. That's been ascertained by the FBI. We disarmed them. We promised to defend them. They are unarmed and 47 of them over a two year period were mowed down by Maliki's people and I don't think the United States should be permitting those kinds of human rights abuses.
KELEMAN: There is a moral obligation to help those in Camp Ashraf, says Robert Hunter of the National Defense University, but he says that's a separate issue from the terrorism designation.
ROBERT HUNTER: Oh, I think they ought to be protected. There's no question about that, but getting into bed with these people, I think, would be a profound mistake.
KELEMAN: He describes the MEK as a Marxist cult whose members have learned the ways of Western public relations.
HUNTER: This organization is not a friend to the United States. It never has been. It killed some American officers a number of years ago and, even though their tactics have changed - they now smile sweetly on us and others - their basic strategy and their leadership has not changed at all.
KELEMAN: And Hunter thinks that if the US takes the MEK off the terrorism list, it will undercut peaceful Iranian protestors who want nothing to do the group that was once a tool of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran/Iraq war.
There are two sides of that argument, though, says Kenneth Katzman, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service.
KENNETH KATZMAN, ANALYST, CONGRESSIONAL RESEARCH SERVICE: Some people feel that taking the group off the list would put more pressure on the regime and that could be helpful. Others say that taking the group off the list could make the regime dig in its heels even more on nuclear negotiations. But the foreign terrorist organization list is supposed to really be decided on the technical question of - is the group a terrorist group or not?
KELEMAN: And that's what the State Department has to decide. Advocates have suggested that the MEK could be a useful group to stand up to the Iranian regime. It has in the past offered the U.S. information about Iran's nuclear program, but Robert Hunter says the State Department shouldn't buy that line.
HUNTER: Enemy of my enemy is my friend - not in this case.
KELEMAN: State Department officials will only say the terrorism designation is under review. MEK supporters, meantime, are ramping up their lobbying campaign.
Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.