If US removes Iran's MEK from list of terrorist organizations, will it matter?

The MEK, whose terrorist listing is up for review by the State Department, is not apt to directly threaten the US. But delisting the group could hurt Iran's Green movement.

Scott Peterson has a lengthy investigation for the Monitor this week on the cavalcade of American political stars who've been raking in big bucks in return for speaking on behalf of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The Iranian exile organization is currently on the US list of terrorist groups – but many in Washington would like to see it rehabilitated into an ally to go after the Iranian regime.

The list of former and current officials being paid to speak on behalf of the MEK – whose doctrine is an odd mélange of Marxism and Islamist ideologies requiring cult-like loyalty to its principal leader Maryam Rajavi – reads like a who's who of the Washington establishment. Former "mayor of America" Rudy Giuliani called the the terrorist designation a "disgrace." Former Homeland Security boss Tom Ridge was effusive about Mrs. Rajavi, calling it an "honor... to work with an individual that we believe clearly is one of the most inspirational, great leaders of the 21st century: Viva Maryam!"

Former Governor Howard Dean (D) of Vermont, former NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark, and no fewer than three former CIA heads (James Woolsey, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden) have also spoken out on their behalf in paid engagements at pro-MEK conferences. And lots more Democrats, Republicans, generals, and bureaucrats appear to be getting paid.

All of this comes as part of a multimillion-dollar lobbying effort to get the MEK removed from the State Department's list of "terrorist designated organizations," where it's been included since the list's creation in 1997. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to make a decision on maintaining the designation in the coming weeks. While the MEK has lobbied for delisting before, the pressure this time is particularly intense – and bolstered by an unprecedented array of top former officials. It's hard to imagine Hezbollah, for instance, finding a paid army of former US officials for that purpose.

But will we be less safe if the group's handsomely paid advocates win the day? Almost certainly not. The terrorist designation makes it illegal for US citizens to do business with the group, and also makes it easier to go after their finances. The State Department says that "FTO designations play a critical role in our fight against terrorism and are an effective means of curtailing support for terrorist activities and pressuring groups to get out of the terrorism business." But in practice, most groups that want to do us harm (like Al Qaeda, for instance) have not been deterred.

On the current list, the MEK is just one among 48. But many of those groups, while they may be violent and use terror tactics, don't appear focused on the US. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which killed at least a dozen people in a nerve gas attack in Tokyo in 1995, has been dwindling ever since and is tightly monitored. The Abu Sayyaf Group, a kidnap-for-ransom gang with Islamist roots that operates in the southern Philippines, has shown little ability to operate outside that country and neighboring islands. And it's unlikely that Washington is losing sleep at night over the Basque separatist group ETA.

The MEK hasn't killed a US citizen since the 1970s, when it assassinated six Americans – two of them military officers – while it and other groups were trying to oust Iran's US-backed Shah. After the Iranian revolution, the group lost a bloody power struggle and went into exile abroad. Many of its members landed in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where they participated in attacks against their native country in the Iran-Iraq war and also helped Hussein's bloody crackdown against Shiite and Kurdish uprisings inside Iraq after the first Gulf War.

In 1992, the group attacked 13 Iranian embassies in various countries.The last successful terrorist attacks attributed to the MEK by the State Department was in 1999, when it assassinated the deputy chief of the Iranian Armed Forces General Staff, Brig. Gen. Ali Sayyaad Shirazi. The MEK avows to have given up terrorist activity since 2001, but the State Department details MEK terrorist activity through 2003.

In a 1991 report, the State Department wrote that "the MEK sought to counter what it perceived as excessive Western influence in the Shah's regime. Following a philosophy that mixes Marxism and Islam, has developed into the largest and most active armed Iranian dissident group. Its history is studded with anti-Western activity, and, most recently, attacks on the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad." (The most recent State Department report on the MEK can be found here.)

These days, the MEK's leaders insist they're pro-American, and pro-democracy. And as a practical matter it's hard to see them setting their sites on the US – which remains a potential future sponsor, so long as the hostile relationship between Tehran and Washington persists. So the terrorist designation doesn't matter much, if at all, when it comes to directly protecting Americans or enhancing national security.

But the designation as a political question is something else again. The group is widely despised inside Iran, both due to its odd beliefs (Massoud Rajavi, Mrs. Rajavi's husband and the MEK's military leader, forced the dissolution of the marriages of all adherents in the late 1980s, for instance) and its participation on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq war.

The Iranian regime has sought to paint its pro-democracy Green Movement as both a tool of the Western power and as affiliated with the MEK, in an attempt to discredit its political opponents with the Iranian population at large. So a US step in the direction of friendlier relations with the MEK would almost certainly be pointed to as evidence that the US – which has praised the Greens and called for political reform inside Iran – is actually working to install an MEK regime in Tehran. (Mrs. Rajavi already styles herself Iran's "president-elect.") That would both complicate any US efforts to support the Green movement, while also handing the Iranian establishment a bigger cudgel to attack its political opponents with.

It's that political context that worries those who support maintaining the MEK listing. And it's something that any friend of political liberalization in Iran should keep in mind.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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