Iranian group's big-money push to get off US terrorist list
SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: A roster of influential former US officials is speaking at rallies in support of removing the MEK, an Iranian opposition group with a violent anti-American history, from the US terrorist list. A decision is expected within weeks.
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"I was offered a fee to appear, but what I said were my own comments, uninfluenced by what I was paid," said Crowley.Skip to next paragraph
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A large-scale operation
In scale and effectiveness at drawing in big names, this campaign stands alone, says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group that for years has sought to increase the voice of Iranian-Americans in Washington and advocated US-Iran engagement.
The NIAC has launched a counter-campaign, concerned that delisting the MEK would "radicalize" Iran's homegrown democracy movement, and "unleash a major force for war" between the US and Iran.
"We've never seen this kind of money," says Mr. Parsi. "At one conference with 10 speakers, if they average $50k a pop, that is half a million dollars just in speaker fees."
The momentum to remove the terrorist status "is all about [the MEK's] ability to muster a political lobbying campaign," says Parsi. If the decision were based on "the merits of the case, this would be as uncontroversial as the four times that the Bush administration re-listed them. Four times. No controversy."
One reason may be the caliber of the MEK’s advocates today, and their insistence that they would not back a group with links to terrorism.
For example, Mr. Freeh, who was in charge during some of the FBI’s investigations of the MEK in the 1990s, told an MEK-linked conference in Washington in March that there is "absolutely no credible evidence, we think even on a classified basis," that justifies the MEK's terrorist listing.
He made no mention of the FBI’s 2004 report that found the MEK “actively involved in planning and executing acts of terrorism.”
At a similar event in mid-July, Mr. Freeh praised the "bravery" of the MEK for "leading the fight for freedom in Iran. Just as our military forces fight for freedom on the battlefields, you fight in a more difficult and much more dangerous place."
Freeh asked the audience if such prominent panelists – which on that day included Shelton, Dean, Rendell, and Anita McBride, the former chief of staff for Laura Bush – would be there if there was "even a remote possibility" the MEK were in fact terrorists.
Raising doubts about change
But the MEK’s history has raised doubts among Iran specialists and in US government reporting about its ability to turn away from violence after embracing it for decades.
The MEK was just one popular faction that toppled the pro-West Shah in Iran's 1979 revolution – but the only one that assassinated Americans. One MEK song from the time revels in anti-US sentiment: “Leave American, your blood is [already spilling] on the ground.”
The MEK lost out in the post-revolution power struggle; thousands of its members were killed. MEK actions peaked at a rate of three assassinations and attacks per day – its propaganda included how-to assassination guides. The MEK has claimed responsibility for killing thousands of Iranians it called “agents of the regime.”
Among numerous actions abroad, in 1982 the MEK seized the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, taking nine people hostage and doing $500,000 in damage.
On a single day in 1992, the MEK orchestrated attacks on 12 diplomatic facilities in 10 countries. In New York, the Iranian Mission to the UN was “invaded” by five men with knives, who took three hostages and went on a two-hour rampage “behind chained doors,” according to news reports. In Ottawa, the Iranian Embassy was “attacked and pillaged” by some 55 people armed with sticks and hammers.