What should be U.S. policy towards an Iranian opposition group known as the MEK, or, correctly, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq?
The issue has become relevant in light of recent developments: a raid by Iraqi security forces on the MEK's headquarters in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, has led to widespread concern that the Iraqi government under Nouri Al-Maliki is merely serving Iranian interests: the Iranian government had commended Iraq's prime minister for launching the assault on Camp Ashraf that cracked down on the Iranian opposition group, but with no U.S. intervention to avert what has been described as a "crime against humanity." With 33 residents of the camp reportedly killed and some 300 wounded, Iraq's leading opposition bloc -- the "Iraqiya" bloc of Ayad Allawi -- has asked the UN Security Council to help protect the exiles.
The question of support for the MEK was also highlighted by commentators such as Hussein Ibish, in the controversy over the Peter King hearings on radicalization among American Muslims. Specifically, Ibish argued that the hearings would be undermined and open to accusations of hypocrisy, as prominent advocates of the hearings such as Rudy Giuliani and Francis Townsend have been supporters or defenders of the MEK and have sought to remove the group's name from the State Department's list of designated terrorist organizations.
Ibish's point is valid; the MEK should not be declassified as a terrorist group, or for that matter receive any U.S. backing, for several reasons.
First, the group's claims to espouse secular liberal-democracy are little more than a farce. Its underlying ideology is an amalgam of Marxism and Islamism, resulting in what is essentially a totalitarian cult. As Human Rights Watch documented through interviews with former MEK members in 2005, dissent in the movement is not tolerated. Those in the group who criticize the leadership face solitary confinement and torture in secret MEK prisons for years on end. As is often true in that region, the MEK's actions speak louder than its rhetoric-to-Westerners. If one wants to believe that the MEK has reformed, one might as well trust Hamas's occasional declarations to the Western media that it is willing to recognize Israel's existence according to the pre-1967 borders, although it is hostile belligerence, rather than a willingness to compromise, that characterizes Hamas's policies..
In keeping with its revolutionary ideological roots, the MEK has a long history of terrorism, notably in its support for the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979 by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. The organization's subsequent falling out with the new Iranian regime in 1981 had nothing to do with ideological differences, but rather power politics. Upon seeing its influence marginalized by Khomeini, the group launched a series of terrorist attacks on clerics, ministers and civilians within Iran. Later, the MEK was granted a base in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, and there is strong evidence that the MEK assisted the Baathist regime in brutally suppressing the Kurdish uprisings in the north and the Shi'a revolt in the south after the First Gulf War. The only reason the MEK has not carried out any terrorist attacks in recent years is that it was disarmed in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, leaders and representatives of the opposition "Green" movement in Iran have explicitly expressed a desire to keep their distance from the MEK. Mohsen Kadivar and Ahmad Sadri recently wrote that if the U.S. were to remove the MEK from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, it would be a "disaster for the pro-democracy movement in Iran." It is not often that one hears the Green movement comment on aspects of U.S. policy towards Iran -- an indication of how serious the issue of the MEK is for the Iranian domestic opposition.
The other major problem is the question of practicality. Those who argue for backing the MEK because it would allegedly help destabilize the regime in Tehran give no specific recommendations, meanwhile affirming that they do not endorse the MEK as future rulers of Iran. Supporting the MEK, however, would presumably entail some form of rearmament.
The MEK has so far done little more for the U.S. than providing allegedly reliable intelligence on Iran's nuclear program. But has this impeded the regime's efforts to develop nuclear weapons? Suppose, however, that Washington does work with the MEK, which makes a claim to being the largest single Iranian opposition group; and that consequently the regime in Tehran is destabilized: Is there reason to think that the MEK would not seize power in the ensuing vacuum as their rightful reward? In such an event, from the perspective of U.S. interests, we would be back at square one. The MEK's ideological principles, hardly different from those of the current regime, dictate a policy of striving for regional hegemony. Why, for example, would the MEK, after coming to power, wish to discontinue the nuclear program?
Although the U.S. government should urge the Iraqi government to treat MEK members humanely, it must not remove the group from the list of terrorist organizations, or work with it in any way. Instead, we should welcome the UN Human Rights Council's (UNHRC) announcement last week that it will send a special investigator to monitor human rights in Iran. At least the US could put pressure on the UNHRC to send a special investigator to monitor and report on human rights in Iran.
This might at least start to vindicate the Obama administration's decision to rejoin the UNHRC, and would represent a victory over the Iranian government's relentless lobbying against the UNHRC's decision to send in a special investigator to monitor and report on human rights in Iran.
Iran might fear that such an investigation would destabilize its regime through international condemnation and isolation. As Patrick Clawson noted in a conference call with the Middle East Forum in November 2009, the regime's top concern is actually silencing the domestic opposition. The Iranian government worries that if the UN sends in a special investigator to monitor and report human rights in Iran, then what amounts to international condemnation and isolation will embolden the Green movement.
Both domestic opposition and the Stuxnet virus have impeded the progress of the nuclear program. Incidentally, I am not discounting a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as a last resort; but in the end only regime change can put an end to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons for the forseeable future -- far more than the MEK.