Decision to Delist MEK was Multi-faceted

It is probably inaccurate to take the State Department to task in isolation as having made the decision to delist the Mujahadeen-e Khalq (MEK) from the US foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) list. State is the cabinet department that must officially announce (or take formal action related to the US court challenge), but that does not mean the State Department did in fact make this decision on its own. In fact, with a history of being a sort of weak sister in foreign policy decisions with some consistency since the Kennedy Administration (and at least two administrations prior to that in the 20th Century), most foreign policy decisions of any importance have been made by the White House, with other key players like the National Security Council, in some instances the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, as well as influential members of Congress often carrying more weight than — or at least as much as — State when all is said and done.

Under Hillary Clinton, the State Department surely has become a more important player than it was, say, when Colin Powell was so consistently bypassed or ignored under the first George W. Bush Administration. Still, the Administration (comprising a foreign policy team on which State frequently is but one voice) makes the final call on most important decisions, regardless of what bureaucratic mouthpiece must pronounce the result. So, it is often the White House where the proverbial buck stops. Indeed, burnt into my memory are plenty of times when I was in State/INR and the Department was being hammered by the media and various informed observers for making an unfortunate decision, when all around me — often all the way up to the Secretary’s suite on the 7th Floor — officials at State were seething over how their opinion to the contrary had been ignored by this or that Administration.

Second, this decision comes in the context of an especially hotly contested US presidential election campaign (often called by insiders — and for good reason in many instances — the foreign policy “silly season” because of statements and decisions that might have gone differently had campaign pressures been absent). Making decisions that appear in any way favorable to the Iranian regime are a hard sell in a political Washington flush with various powerful constituencies favorable to Israel or hostile to a regime perceived widely as aligned against the US and various US interests. But entering the last & most critical 6-7 weeks of the presidential election campaign (and the ongoing & controversial Iran/Nuclear standoff), there doubtless were some within the Administration worried about the potential adverse political blowback of sustaining the MEK listing. This blowback could include accusations from the Romney camp that the US was being “soft on Iran”, that the White House was allegedly “weak” in standing up to “terrorist threats” overall (in this case, the regime in Iran), and that it was blocking efforts by an anti-regime Iranian group.

I opposed this decision because of what I know about the MEK.  Nonetheless, I also can imagine how campaign-focused Administration officials might have imagined something like this being raised by Gov. Mitt Romney in next week’s presidential debate, knowing that in a time-compressed debate the President would have been hard put to argue the merits of the case once he had been accused of holding back what could be characterized by his opponents as a group opposed to Iran’s clerical regime — one that had supposedly gathered “valuable” intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program. Most American voters haven’t a clue as to what the MEK is, let alone its many unsavory and violent activities (as well as its bizarre internal dynamics), and all they would pick up on are loaded phrases like “anti-regime Iranian group,” “soft on Iran” and so on.

Mind you, I am not making excuses for the Obama Administration concerning this decision, but let us also not neglect the pressures from other quarters — many of them hostile to the Administration politically — that might well have figured into a decision that almost certainly was to some degree “political” and not determined solely on the merits of the case.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.