The Matter of MEK
Column by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz – The Syrian Ba’athist regime of Bashar Al-Assad continues to massacre protestors in cities around the country. In the latest foreign effort to restrain Al-Assad, U.S. president Barack Obama joined Saudi King Abdullah in a telephone conference on August 13, according to the Saudi official Arab News, in which the two leaders agreed that “the Syrian regime’s brutal campaign of violence against the Syrian people must end immediately.” Already, on August 8, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Damascus.
But Al-Assad and his cohort have demonstrated throughout the bloody events in Syria that voices from Washington and Riyadh are irrelevant to them, especially when compared with the support provided the Syrian misrulers by their colleagues in Tehran. Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his clique have called on their allies in the Arab lands to back Syria against the U.S. The Iranians have managed to recruit the Iraqi administration of prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki to the pro-Assad front.
Amid the turmoil involving Syria, its political allies, and its neighbors, comes debate over the U.S. government’s listing of the Iranian opposition group, the Muhajidin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahidin of Iran) or MEK, as a “foreign terrorist organization.” The U.S. Department of State is now considering whether MEK, which was undeniably a homicidal Marxist-Islamist force during the Iranian Revolution and for some time thereafter, should continue to be classified as terrorists.
Controversy over MEK and its future is as or more relevant to Iraq than to Iran. MEK sided with Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran, as did some other Iranian and Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups. MEK maintains a colony, called “Camp Ashraf,” inside Iraq. Since the Iraqi government came under Iranian dominance, calls for expulsion of MEK have been made repeatedly in Baghdad, and on August 13 Iranian media reported that MEK would be thrown out of Iraq “within six months.” While this posture may reveal more about Iraqi lassitude than about Iranian influence, it is indicative of the hostility MEK faces.
Meanwhile, MEK has succeeded in removing the taint of terrorism from itself in European international and national bodies, and has commenced a wide-scale campaign for its “delisting” as a terrorist organization by the U.S.
An impressively varied roster of U.S. former officials and political leaders has called for MEK to be freed from legal sanctions. A congressional bill, House Resolution 60, was introduced in January of this year calling for removal of MEK from the terrorist list, with backing from Democrats and Republicans alike.
More recently, supporters of delisting MEK have included Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Attorney General; Tom Ridge, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security; Louis Freeh, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; R. James Woolsey and Porter Goss, former Directors of Central Intelligence; Gen. Michael Hayden, former Director of National Intelligence; Lee Hamilton, former co-chair of the 9/11 Commission; Howard Dean, Democratic former governor of Vermont; Ed Rendell, Democratic former governor of Pennsylvania; Bill Richardson, Democratic former governor of New Mexico; Evan Bayh, Democratic former Senator from Indiana; Bill Bradley and Robert Torricelli, Democratic former Senators from New Jersey; Gens. Hugh Shelton, Richard Myers, and Peter Pace, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Togo West, former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs; Gen. James T. Conway, former Commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander; John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Paula Dobriansky, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs; and Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York.
The case for removing MEK from the terrorist list has been answered by a letter of 37 Iranian and other Middle East experts, published in the London Financial Times on August 10. The signatories opposed to delisting MEK are mostly academics, including Professors Ervand Abrahamian (City University of New York), Ali Ansari (St. Andrews’ University, Scotland), Shaul Bakhash (George Mason U.), Juan Cole (U. of Michigan), Nader Hashemi (U. of Denver), Paul Pillar (Georgetown U.), and Gary Sick (Columbia U.) Few of these names are as well known, outside the academic environment, as those of the advocates for delisting MEK.
Both sides have engaged in exaggerated rhetoric. The compelling issue regarding MEK, from either perspective, is whether it can play a significant role in removing the Ahmadinejad circle and the system of clerical domination from Iranian political life. Those who believe MEK can fulfill such a task naturally favor its removal from the Foreign Terrorist list. Those who consider it dangerous for the destiny of the Iranian people want to keep it on the list. The role of MEK as a source of tension inside Iraq has been swept aside in a typical Western-style debate over abstractions; but the question of direct opposition to the Tehran dictatorship is anything but abstract.
The anti-delisting letter includes hyperbole and irrelevancies. It states “MEK, an organization based in Iraq that enjoyed the support of Saddam Hussein, lost any following it had in Iran when it fought on Iraq’s behalf during the 1980-1988 war.” But the Iran-Iraq war is now 23 years behind us, and the action of MEK and other groups opposed to the Iranian state in siding with Saddam can no longer be considered a major factor in the discussion. Opponents of consequential action against Tehran habitually credit the Iranian populace with a detailed and brooding memory about such things. Yet ordinary Iranians no longer see their enemies in the past, but in the present, and in the form of “their” government, not of historical opposition groups, or of the defunct Saddam state.
The anti-delisting group affirms the claims of international observers who find “MEK to be a cult-like organization with a structure and modus operandi that belies its claim to be a vehicle for democratic change.” MEK indeed has cult-like aspects, including the personal adulation of its public leader, Maryam Rajavi. But the same is true of many leftist groups, and is not a legal basis for their continued U.S. listing as Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
The anti-delisters declare, “When Iran’s post-election turbulence commenced in 2009, MEK quickly sought to associate itself with the wave of popular opposition inside Iran. By attempting to claim credit for Iran’s democracy movement, MEK has aided the Iranian government’s attempts to discredit the Green Movement [against the theft of Iran’s presidential election by Ahmadinejad] and justify its crackdown on peaceful protesters by associating them with this widely detested group.” Such an argument against delisting MEK suggests that this émigré-based organization is more detested by ordinary Iranians than the clerical regime and the extremist fanatics surrounding Ahmadinejad. That is unlikely.
MEK was, in reality, unimportant to the Iranian political struggle of 2009-2010 and efforts to paint it as complicit in Iranian state suppression are no less questionable than allegations that it fomented the Green Movement. Such blandishments are reminiscent of early reporting on the 1989 Iranian Revolution that portrayed it as led by the Tudeh Party, the Communist cadre controlled by then-Soviet Russia.
The suggestion that the Tehran state needs the delisting of MEK as a pretext to increase its repression inside Iran is absurd. The Iranian regime has already arrested, imprisoned, and executed so many people, representing such differing and contradictory elements, that exasperation over the status of MEK would hardly make a significant difference.
The anti-delisting letter concludes “We urge the U.S. government to avoid conflating a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization with Iran’s Green Movement as the Iranian people continue their struggle for democracy and human rights.” Delisting MEK does not mean identifying it with the Green Movement; it means simply removing its classification as a terrorist entity. Proponents of lifting the terrorist label from MEK may express their enthusiastic hope that MEK could overthrow the Iranian state. But it is unrealistic to think that MEK alone can lead a political revolution in Iran.
My own discussions with Iranian dissidents, who are not prominent before the Western public, for the obvious reason that they fear reprisals by Ahmadinejad and his thugs, suggest that since the emergence of a stalemate between Ahmadinejad and the Green Movement in 2010, various leftist groups have gained stature as opponents of the dictatorship. The Iranian secularist, Marxist left is extremely diverse and devoted to specific interpretations that mean little to someone unschooled in Marxism; they are as obscure in their ideological disagreements as Islamist groups.
MEK has abandoned most of the Marxist idiom it adopted during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It is certainly not the first radical group to become a cult; a list of similar phenomena would be tedious to read. It tends to make exaggerated propaganda claims that cannot be confirmed.
Other Marxist, non-Islamist groups have, according to my informants, become more important than MEK inside Iran and in the Iranian diaspora. One such is Komala, a Kurdish Marxist movement with an anti-Stalinist bent. Komala possesses the “prestige of martyrdom,” since it has reputedly suffered the most deaths at the hands of the Tehran tyranny among all the challengers of the clerical order. But there are many such formations. The old Russian-directed Tudeh Party retains financial assets from the Soviet period, and publishes émigré periodicals, but has little support inside or outside Iran. Nevertheless, secularist and Marxist trends have existed in Iran since the beginning of the 20th century and are powerful forces in the consciousness of society.
Other non-Marxist, and Muslim but non-Islamist groups, including spiritual Sufis, are active in opposing Ahmadinejad and the clerical apparatus from within Iran and from outside the country. Currently, the rulers appear to be most afraid of them, not of MEK, because the Sufi and other Muslim dissenters possess credibility with Iranian religious believers that the Marxists often lack. Tehran has accused the Sufis of seeking to act as American agents, with dire results for the mystics, who have been arrested and otherwise suppressed.
At present, Ahmadinejad is engaged in a serious conflict with the ruling clerics led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, because Ahmadinejad’s brother-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has put forward the concept of “Iranian national Islam without the rule of the clerics.” This does not make Khamenei, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, or any of the other clerics in the summits of power happy. They may remove Ahmadinejad because of it.
Iranian reformists refer to the Mashaei scheme as “Iranian national socialist Islam without the rule of the clerics,” i.e as open fascism based on leader-worship. Mashaei has also made statements about friendship with the people of Israel that appear to illustrate his instability. He is accused by the clerics of using black magic to control Ahmadinejad.
With anxiety at the top of the Tehran government aggravated by the crisis in Syria, although the “Arab spring” appears in decline, power might quickly return to the Iranian street. If Ahmadinejad’s position were to be seriously undermined by Khamenei, and a new Iranian democratic upsurge were to occur, it might take a form similar to that seen in the early stage of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. That is, everyone who wants an end to clerical rule, including all of those who believe the Khomeini experiment has failed (this now includes Khomeini’s entire family), plus all the “reformist” clerics who want to change the existing structure in the direction of civil society, along with Sufis, Kurdish nationalists, assorted leftists, and MEK would be, de facto, on the same side.
It would not be palatable for most opponents of the Iranian regime to find themselves in the company of Khamenei, but if Khamenei removes Ahmadinejad, it is impossible to imagine supporting Ahmadinejad, with his raving threats and Jew-baiting, against Khamenei, with his own nasty rhetoric and Israelophobia.
Temporarily, at least, discontented Iranians may “march separately, and strike together” with other combatants distasteful to them, and whom they may have to fight against later. This implies delisting MEK or, at least, backing off its suppression in Iraq and the threat of its expulsion to Iran.
Columnist, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, is the Director of Center for Islamic Pluralism, Washington DC.