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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.

By Staff writer / August 8, 2011

The MEK's self-declared 'president-elect' Maryam Rajavi talked with former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani at a June 18, 2011 rally in Villepinte, near Paris.

PHOTO: Benoit Tessier/AP, ILLUSTRATION: John Kehe/Staff

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Washington; and Istanbul, Turkey

A high-powered array of former top American officials is advocating removal from the US terrorist list of a controversial Iranian opposition group with a long anti-American history.

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With a decision due within weeks by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former US four-star generals, intelligence chiefs, governors, and political heavyweights are calling for the US government to take the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK/MKO) off the terror list it shares with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Many of these former high-ranking US officials – who represent the full political spectrum – have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak in support of the MEK.

They rarely mention the MEK’s violent and anti-American past, and portray the group not as terrorists but as freedom fighters with “values just like us,” as democrats-in-waiting ready to serve as a vanguard of regime change in Iran. Some acknowledge that they knew little about the group before they were invited to speak and were coached by MEK supporters.

Their efforts may be working: Knowledgeable officials say the millions of dollars spent on the campaign have raised political pressure to remove the MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list to the highest levels since the group – whose record includes assassinations of US military advisers and attacks on US diplomats – was one of the first to be put there in 1997.

But the delisting of the MEK, Iran experts say, could benefit Iran's hard-line rulers by giving them more reason to brutally clamp down on Iran's internal, nonviolent opposition. The Green Movement – which led street protests in 2009 – steadfastly rejects the MEK as an anti-democratic and violent force.

"The people who are saying [the MEK] are no longer terrorists are also saying they are democratic," says John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran from 1979-1981, who was US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran until last year.

"The issue is, have [the MEK] changed their terrorist nature?" asks Ambassador Limbert. "If they say, 'We renounce terrorism,' I have no confidence in that. What is it in their past – or in their present – that leads you to have confidence in such a statement?"

The State Dept. will be weighing many ramifications, from how this will play out in the streets of Tehran to how it will affect US strategic credibility.

"The MEK, with its violent history, is exactly what the Iranian regime needs to legitimate its violence against the peaceful opposition," says Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was incarcerated in Iran during the 2009 protests. He spoke Aug. 4 in Washington at a panel organized to warn of the risks of delisting the MEK.

Reformist cleric Mohsen Kadivar and US-based academic Ahmad Sadri warn of broader dangers. Taking the MEK off the terrorist list, they have written, would "trigger a huge loss of US soft power in Iran, damage Iran's democratic progress, and help Iranian hardliners cement a long-term dictatorship."

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