A senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is criticizing the State Department for refusing to brief him and his colleagues on an Iranian opposition group that some are calling to be removed from the department’s list of terrorist groups.
Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, noted that more than 100 congressmen have co-sponsored a bill to remove the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s terror groups list.
His subcommittee “should take that bill seriously and evaluate it in light of facts that the State Department would probably only share with us in a classified briefing,” Mr. Sherman said in an interview.
After being refused a State Department briefing, he requested that department officials facilitate a briefing by the intelligence community. “That request is pending, much to my frustration because I wanted to get that classified briefing this week, and we have only one more week of Congress,” he said.
The MEK, which formed in 1965 as an Islamic Marxist guerrilla group opposed to the Western-backed shah, initially allied itself with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces but soon turned against the regime. Members found haven in Paris and later in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein granted them a refuge called Camp Ashraf. MEK forces joined Iraq in its war with Iran during the 1980s.
The group’s 13-year bid to get itself removed from the State Department list has received momentum in recent years and months.
The House resolution calling for delisting, introduced in June, came after a decision by the European Union last year to take the MEK off its own list of terrorist groups. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in July called on the State Department to review the group’s status.
Six co-sponsors of the House bill sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday calling for a review of MEK’s designation, which they said has had “deadly consequences.” The letter cited a July 2009 assault by Iraqi forces on Camp Ashraf that left 11 dead.
One co-sponsor, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said in an interview that while the MEK had a “sordid, distant past,” he believes it had undergone an evolution and was now “part of the patchwork quilt that is composes the opposition to the Mullah dictatorship.”
Many MEK sympathizers on the Hill credit the group with helping to reveal the Iranian nuclear program in 2002.
“This isn’t the same MEK that was assassinating people during the shah’s regime and was committed to Marxism,” Mr. Rohrabacher said. “What happened 30 or 40 years ago is less important than what’s happening today.”
The MEK claims it forswore violence in 2001 and turned over all weapons to U.S. forces after the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Kenneth Katzman, an Iran analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said that “in recent years, we don’t have any information about armed attacks the group has committed” and argued that the 1997 designation was questionable from the beginning.
“Even during the years when the group was involved in armed struggle and openly committed to it publicly, their armed attacks were generally against regime targets - military officials, government buildings, Iranian embassies abroad, things like this. … It’s not like they were attacking mosques in Iran, where innocent people were gathering, or stores or shopping malls.”
For a foreign organization to qualify for terror-group designation, according to the State Department, it “must engage in terrorist activity or retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.” Such activity “must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security (national defense, foreign relations, or the economic interests) of the United States.”
Mr. Katzman said that while there was widespread agreement that the MEK’s current activities do not meet the criteria, “there are a lot of experts that believe taking them off the list would be a prelude to supporting the group.”
He said that some of the Hill support for the MEK was a relic of “a time when there was no other visible Iranian opposition to support” and that, in his estimation, the group has a “very, very small following inside Iran.”
Iran analysts concurred with Mr. Katzman’s assessment about the MEK’s political viability within Iran.
“Politically, they are dead. They have no place in Iran’s politics,” said Omid Memarian, an independent Iranian journalist who was jailed by the regime in 2005. “We should not forget that Iranians have a lot of nationalist sentiment and, by taking sides with the enemy [Saddam Hussein], the [MEK] shot themselves in the foot.”
Abbas Milani, a Stanford University professor of Iranian studies and co-director of the Hoover Institution’s Iran Democracy Project, said that there was a “range of views” within the opposition Green Movement about whether to welcome the MEK into the fold.
“They obviously think of themselves as the heart of the opposition,” Mr. Milani said. “Some people think of them as the problem child of the opposition because of their present and because of their past — that, because of cooperation with Saddam Hussein, they have disqualified themselves from being a credible part of the opposition.
• Ben Birnbaum can be reached at email@example.com.
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