WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will remove an Iranian militant group formerly allied with Saddam Hussein from the U.S. terrorism list, officials said Friday, describing a move that will infuriate Tehran and end years of high-profile campaigning from the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will notify Congress of her intent later Friday, the officials said. A court order had given her until Oct. 1 to make a decision. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about the matter.
Clinton’s decision comes just days after the last big batch of the Iranian exiles reluctantly left their decades-old paramilitary base in northeastern Iraq, relocating for now to a refugee camp outside Baghdad. The U.S. had demanded that the MEK’s 3,000 members comply with an Iraqi demand to leave Camp Ashraf as a condition of being removed from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Derided by its critics as a cult, the group has journeyed through multiple countries and the shifting alliances of the Middle East over its four-decade history. It helped Islamic clerics overthrow Iran’s shah before carrying out a series of bombings and assassinations against the Iranian regime. It then fought in the 1980s alongside Hussein’s forces in the Iran-Iraq war, but disarmed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. And it has since suffered violent recriminations from Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated government.
The decision to strike the MEK off the list rested on two factors: whether it still had the capacity and the intent to commit acts of terror. Several American military officials and defense contractors were killed by the MEK in the 1970s, U.S. officials maintain, and its attacks have claimed the lives of hundreds of Iranians. But the group insisted that it forswore violence more than a decade ago and now only seeks a peaceful overthrow of Iran’s theocratic regime.
And it assembled a high-profile roster of champions, including several retired generals and Cabinet members, even as it remained on the U.S. terrorism blacklist. Luminaries who’ve advocated for the MEK to be delisted include the Bush administration’s attorney general, Michael Mukasey, FBI Director Louis Freeh and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser, Gen. James Jones.
That led the Treasury Department earlier this year to examine whether the officials were providing illegal material support to designated terrorists — a civil inquiry that would likely be nullified now. Removal from the list also should make it easier for the MEK to raise money and recruit in the United States.
The organization is far from Iran’s mainstream opposition, however.
The group has an ideology mixing Marxism, secularism, an obsession with martyrdom and near adoration of its leaders. A 2009 report by the security think tank RAND accuses it of fraudulent recruiting as well as “authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labor, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options.”
MEK supporters say this is Iranian propaganda, pointing to several former members who’ve freely left the group.
It also vehemently rejects the Iranian accusation that members have worked with Israel to assassinate several Iranian nuclear scientists. U.S. officials back that claim, saying there is no evidence to suggest recent terrorist activity by the group.
U.S. officials said Clinton’s letter to Congress would not amount to a final designation. That will probably come in a couple of weeks as officials unfreeze assets held by the group in the United States and other legal work that might allow it to open a U.S. office.
Camp Ashraf is not yet fully closed. An estimated 200 exiles remain there to try to sell off the property that was left behind in the move, but Iraq’s government wants them to leave quickly.
The hostility of Baghdad’s Shiite leaders reflect its desire to build stronger ties with Iran, but also the deep hatred for the group in Iraq because of its purported role in helping Hussein crush Shia and Kurdish revolts in the 1990s.
When the MEK handed over its hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces to U.S. forces, the Bush administration agreed to protect the group and posted soldiers and a general at the camp for years. The army and the MEK even worked on joint patrols and other emergency plans.