The MEK As a Wedge Issue for Neo-Con Iran Hawks

While you would expect the State Department’s decision to de-list the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) would elicit cheers from anti-Iran neo-conservatives, the MEK has, in fact, been one of a number of issue — including former Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and Washington’s engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood — that has been the source of considerable division among the neo-cons.

Strong opposition to de-listing the MEK, let alone providing it with U.S. (or even Israeli) support has been based mostly among those most ardent Iraq hawks closely associated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), particularly Michael Rubin; Danielle Pletka, and Michael Ledeen, who moved over to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) a couple of years ago and, of all people, should know a con when he sees one. Their opposition is based on the conviction (shared by many critics on the left and among realists or anyone who has ever actually been to Iran) that the MEK is largely hated in Iran itself and thus that any perceived U.S. support for — or complicity with — it will prove entirely counter-productive to their goal of regime change.

Or, as Rubin put it last March:

The problem with those who would embrace the MEK is that it would undercut the chance for regime collapse.

…Iranians living under the regime’s yoke hate the MEK. That is not regime propaganda; it is fact, one to which any honest analyst who has ever visited Iran testify. Ordinary Iranians deeply resent the MEK’s terrorism, which has targeted not only regime officials, but also led to the deaths of scores of civilians. During the Iran-Iraq War — a conflict that decimated cities and led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths — the MEK sided with Saddam Hussein.

…If the MEK is delisted, let the MEK celebrate. But whether listed as a terrorist group or not, it would be wrong and counterproductive to embrace the group unless, of course, the goal of those for officials on the group’s payroll is simply to aid the current regime in its efforts to rally its subjugated masses around the flag.

The last reference, of course, was to the legion of high-profile former Republican and Democratic administration officials and military officers (useful idiots and/or mercenaries, so far as MEK foes are concerned) who have been speaking out in favor of the MEK, most, if not all of them, in return for tens of thousands of dollars paid out by the MEK’s multitudinous front groups and p.r. consultants. (The Washington Post covered a good lot of them last July when the FBI started looking into their lobbying activities.

Pletka, whose blog post this week about Obama “hat[ing] Israel” can only be described as truly bizarre, nonetheless raised some good questions last year about the morality of those who support the MEK and the application of double standards regarding Washington’s enforcement of its terrorism laws:

If this is an enemy/enemy/friend thing, let’s consider whether we wish to replace the creepy, Islamist, dictatorial mullahs with the creepy, Islamist, dictatorial cult. Seems a bad trade to me. The United States should be supporting democracy in Iran, not a one-for-one swap among murderers and thugs.

And here’s another question: Where’s the FBI and the Justice Department? A terrorist group is lobbying in the United States. It’s paying top political fixers to make its case. It’s paying speaking fees to former government officials. Where’s the money from? How’s it being transferred? And would it be okay for Hezbollah to do this? Al Qaeda?

Unfortunately, these arguments didn’t get very far with more prominent associates and colleagues at AEI, although Richard Perle, such as Newt Gingrich, who spoke at a MEK rally in Paris last July (Bowing before a recognized cult leader in a foreign country must be particularly humiliating for someone like Gingrich, but I guess Sheldon Adelson’s $10m didn’t cover all his campaign debts); John Bolton, Allan Gerson, who was one of the MEK’s attorneys; and the former (and mercifully briefly) CIA director under Bill Clinton, James Woolsey. Richard Perle, who appeared at an Iranian-American “charity event” in Virginia in 2004 but then claimed he had no idea that it was a fund-raiser for the MEK has since wisely kept his silence.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the neo-con critics of the MEK sceptics (besides the big-name endorsers noted above) have been, of course, the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) headed by Raymond Tanter, as well as a number of writers and think tankers, including contributors to the Weekly Standard, the National Review, and Commentary (notably Jonathan Tobin), and Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum. Unlike the IPC, which has always insisted that the MEK got a bad rap and is truly a deeply pro-American group dedicated to all the principles and values that have made this country great, the latter have basically propounded “the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend” argument disdained by Pletka.

Rubin and Tobin grappled last February on Commentary’s Contentions blog on the practicality of backing the MEK in the wake of reports that Israel had used the MEK to assassinate an Iranian scientist the previous month — reports that, in Tobin’s view, were “difficult to doubt.” Tobin:

The MEK are allies of convenience and, just like many wartime allies in other conflicts, share only a common enemy with Israel. But however nasty they may be, Israel need not blush about using them. For a democracy at war, the only truly immoral thing to do would be to let totalitarian Islamists like those in Tehran triumph.

To which Rubin responded:

Jonathan is correct that Israel cannot ignore the Iranian regime’s genocidal intent, and he is also correct that there is no moral equivalence between alleged Israeli targeting of Iranian nuclear scientists and Iranian assassination attempts upon Israeli diplomats.

…By utilizing the MEK—a group which Iranians view in the same way Americans see John Walker Lindh, the American convicted of aiding the Taliban—the Israelis risk winning some short-term gain at the tremendous expense of rallying Iranians around the regime’s flag. A far better strategy would be to facilitate regime change. Not only would the MEK be incapable of that mission, but involving them even cursorily would set the goal back years.

The Weekly Standard has generally avoided the controversy, but last May, Lee Smith, who is also associated with FDD, penned a generally sympathetic article entitled “Terrorists or Fall Guys” in which he quoted, among others, his FDD colleague and AEI alum, Reuel Marc Gerecht, as asserting, “If the PLO can be rehabilitated, so can the MEK.” The article featured at some length statements by Brig. Gen. David Phillips, the retired commandant of the U.S. Army Military Police, whose job was to disarm the MEK after the 2003 invasion and who opposed transferring the MEK from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty on the grounds that the Iraqi government would probably hand its members over to Tehran. The final sentence of the piece:

American credibility and prestige are on the line, says Phillips, not only in how we treat people under our protection but also in how we deal with Iran. “We’re afraid of sending the Iranians a strong message and getting them mad. But that’s exactly the message we want to send them.”

That’s apparently Smith’s bottom line on the question.

Pipes, who, unlike almost all other neo-cons, opposes U.S. intervention in Syria, has come out in clear support of the MEK, which, in a 2011 article entitled “Empower Iranians Vs. Tehran,” he called “the most prominent Iranian opposition group.”

He apparently disagrees with Rubin, a long-time senior editor of MEF’s Middle East Quarterly — and someone who has actually spent some time in Iran — about the MEK’s popularity inside Iran, arguing that:

…([J]ust as the MeK’s organizational and leadership skills helped bring down the shah in 1979, these skills can again facilitate regime change. The number of street protestors arrested for association with the MeK points to its role in demonstrations, as do slogans echoing MeK chants, e.g., calling Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei a “henchman,” Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “dictator,” and shouting “down with the principle of Velayat-e Faqih” (that a religious figure heads the government).

From which we might fairly conclude that Pipes thinks that the MEK organized the Green Movement, or, better yet, that he takes Tehran’s for word it.

In any event, this is where Pipes comes out:

“Following a court-mandated review of the MeK’s terrorist designation, the secretary of tate must soon decide whether to maintain this listing. With one simple signature, the Obama administration can help empower Iranians to seize control over their destiny — and perhaps end the mullahs’ mad nuclear dash.”

Just last week, it came out that The Legal Project, yet another arm in Pipes’ empire, had “coordinated and financed the defense” of Seid Hassan Daioleslam in a defamation lawsuit filed in 2008 by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and its president, Trita Parsi. The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this month by Federal District Court Judge John Bates on a summary judgment motion by the defense that the plaintiffs had failed to provide sufficient evidence that Daioleslam’s allegations that NIAC and Parsi were agents of the Iranian regime were malicious; that is, that the defendant knew at the time that he made those accusations that they were untrue. (The judge made no finding as to whether the accusations were in fact true, and you can read NIAC’s reaction here.)

While Diaoleslam has long denied charges by Parsi and others that he is himself associated with the MEK, our own Daniel Luban wrote a series of posts back in 2009 that provided evidence of such a link and of the rather nefarious purposes that Diaoleslam and his editor at the time, Kenneth Timmerman, were entertaining when the article that was the subject of the lawsuit was published. (See here and here for additional background and information.) In the course of his own inquiry, Daniel asked how it was that Diaoleslam, “whose professional activities are mostly limited to writing occasional pieces for obscure right-wing websites, is getting the money to devote himself full-time to research — not to mention how he can afford the likes of Sidley Austin LLP, the white-shoe law firm that is defending him in his lawsuit with NIAC.” So now we have at least a partial answer to that question; Pipes was helping him out. (Incidentally, for those of you who are interested in Obama-hatred and Islamophobia, don’t miss Pipes’ an article he wrote for his Foundation for Democracy in Iran last year.

(Incidentally, for those of you interested in Pipes’ Islamophobia, don’t miss his <a href=”>recent five-part series in the Washington Times on Obama’s alleged early Muslim identity. It amasses an enormous amount of material to prove that Obama “has specifically and repeatedly lied about his Muslim identity” — except that the evidence marshaled by Pipes in support of that conclusion proves no such thing. Indeed, if there were a motion for summary judgment based on Pipes’ evidence, I would imagine that Judge Bates would throw the case out.)

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.