Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed Congress on Friday, September 21 that the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e-Khalq‘s (MEK) will be removed from the U.S. foreign terrorist organization list. Many worry that this decision, announced just days before her October 1st deadline to make a verdict, will exacerbate already tense relations with the government of Iran.
The MEK was placed on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list in 1997 after the deaths of several Americans in Iran during the 1970’s. The group has a long history of violence against the government of Iran and is known for its cult-like behavior. Dissidents in the group fought on behalf of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War and have since been banished to Camp Ashraf, located in Iraq.
The controversial group recently made headlines by relocating its members from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty in Baghdad. As described in the New York Times, animosity between the Iraqi government and the Iranian opposition group has erupted in violence in the past, peaking with the announcement by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq that they will close the camp by the end of the year. Occupants were to be moved to a new camp north of Baghdad so that the government could “reassert Iraqi sovereignty over the land.”
Claims of abuse and mistreatment against MEK members by the Iraqi military has led to some support for their safe transfer to the new camp in Baghdad. At this time, it appears the relocation has been successful in preventing violence between the MEK and Iraqis, and taking the MEK off the terrorist list will allow members to achieve refugee status and move to other countries since they can no longer live safely in Iraq. This and the cooperation by the MEK during relocation may have carried weight in the decision by Clinton. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is now assisting with the resettlement process for these members.
Leaders of the MEK have been lobbying extensively over the past few years for removal from the U.S.’s terrorist list, and several well-known politicians and former U.S. government officials have been paid large sums of money to lobby the Obama Administration on their behalf. While the group has been repeatedly linked to the deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists alongside Israel’s secret service, Mossad, the State Department’s decision was also heavily based on official record showing the MEK is not guilty of acts of violence or terrorist activity over the past few years.
But more importantly, many argue that the decision could send a message that the United States backs the mission and efforts of the MEK, further irritating U.S. relations with the Iranian people and government. The Green Movement, a pro-democracy opposition group located in Iran, has been at odds with the MEK despite their common goal of regime change in Iran. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) argues that the delisting of MEK is a “gift to the regime” of Iran, since it might “have harmful consequences on the legitimate, indigenous Iranian opposition.” According to several U.S.-based Iran experts, “by attempting to claim credit for Iran’s democracy movement, the MEK has aided Iranian government’s attempts to discredit the green movement and justify its crackdown on peaceful protesters by associating them with this widely detested group.”
Whether the delisting will strengthen the current Iranian regime and harden its negotiating position in nuclear talks remains to be seen. In any event, the U.S. continues to emphasize its preference for diplomatic negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In his address to the UN General Assembly on September 25, President Obama stated: “so let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited.” The President also re-affirmed that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and that the U.S. would take no option off the table to prevent it from becoming a reality.