Removal of MEK from U.S. Terrorist List: Likely Consequences and Proposed Solutions

20 Sep 2011

■ Abbas Hakimzadeh
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Abbas Hakimzadeh is student activist and former political director of The Office for Consolidating Unity (Daftare Tahkime Vahdat), the major national student-run union in Iran’s university for human rights, democracy and student affairs. He was arrested and imprisoned several times for students rights activities. He is currently human rights defender and political activist.

In recent years, the leaders of the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK) have intensified their efforts to be taken off the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Delisting has garnered support from prominent current and former American politicians. In 2009, the MEK was taken off the European Union’s terrorist list. The U.S. State Department kept the MEK on its list of terrorist groups. Just over a year ago, however, the US Federal appeals court ruled that the State Department must reconsider its previous decision (1).

The MEK is a political and paramilitary organization founded in 1965 in opposition to the Shah. Marginalized in post-revolutionary Iran, it turned its weapons against Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters, proclaiming its mission to be the downfall of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1986 the French government forced them to leave Iran; the group moved its operations to Iraq, then under Saddam Hussein, where they fought alongside Iraqi soldiers against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war.

The MEK has been linked to a number of assassinations in both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. Among those killed in operations linked to the MEK have been Americans (2). In the early day of the Revolution, the MEK led a failed attempt to seize the American Embassy in Tehran; the plan was infamously implemented later on by student followers of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Despite the MEK’s presence on the list of terrorist groups, the State Department has not treated it like other terrorist groups, for example al-Qaida. For instance, some members of the MEK live in the U.S. and have been allowed to publically advocate for the MEK in the United States. Many observers contend the U.S.’s listing in October 1997 of the MEK was an attempt on the part of the U.S. at a certain degree of rapprochement with Iran under reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2004).

Delisting of the MEK has potentially enormous consequences for the Iranian regime and U.S.-Iran relations, and therefore the decision ought not to be taken lightly. Clearly, removing the MEK will be a political loss for the Islamic Republic of Iran, as it has long labored to marginalize the organization. When the European Union removed the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations, it was considered by most onlookers to be a serious blow for the Islamic Republic. However, it bears noting that the regime is an expert in seizing political losses as opportunities for heightening its anti-foreign propaganda. If the MEK is de-listed, the regime will likely increase its propaganda against the MEK, as well as against the U.S. government.

Also opposition groups of almost all stripes will blame the U.S., recognizing that the delisting of the MEK, include traditional opposition groups excluded after the Revolution, as well as reformist groups that have gained international attention after the fraudulent election in 2009 were marginalized. If the U.S. delists the MEK, the reaction of groups close to Mir Hossein Moosavi and Mahdi Karroubi, the Green Movement leaders now both under house arrest, as well as Mohammad Khatami will be crucial. Because Moussavi and Karroubi are under house arrest and unable to address the public, their reactions to recent developments are unknown. However, in the past, they have both been highly critical of the MEK. Notably, two members of the reform camp criticized the current attempt to delist the MEK in a recent article (3). Given the regime and wide array of political groups opposing the delisting of the MEK (including monarchists, republicans and etc), it is likely that most Iranian people— whether actively involved in an opposition group or not— will look unkindly on the delisting of the organization.

Most analysts will rightly view the delisting of the MEK as punishment of Iran for its nuclear policies, as well as for its support of terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and the other groups in Iraq. A delisting of the MEK by the U.S. would represent a shift of attention from the mainstream opposition groups of the Green Movement and reformists to another group and other approach.
We must also consider the inhuman and unlawful condition of the people who are or were members of the MEK who left Iran by chance but because of the MEK recognition as terrorist group by US could not obtain the minimum rights of human outside Iran (4). The most glaring example of this is Camp Ashraf. The situation of residents of Camp Ashraf is because of the wrong policies of the MEK leadership and on the other hand because of trouble moving from Iraq as the MEK is in black list. They have also faced attacks by Iraqi soldiers. The most recent attack, on April 8, 2011, left approximately 34 casualties of the MEK members. (5)
If the US government will subject this decision to two conditions to be fulfilled by the MEK, the negative consequences will be reduced among oppositions and civil society actors. The conditions encompass firstly MEK leaving aside the army aspect of organization completely and secondly closing Ashraf Camp and taking policy of political activities without any weapon. US state must provide grounds to accomplish two conditions in cooperation with allied Europeans and also must force the MEK leaders. Absolutely, the aforementioned conditions will decrease fears of terrorist’ moves of the MEK in future as well as solve the problem of human rights of members in or outside of Ashraf camp. Ashraf closure is being precisely followed by EU and the MEK had admitted to perform it (6). Thus, it might not be far from reach.

The MEK renouncing violence and closing Camp Ashraf Camp, which is in close distance of Iran’s borders, would be a big point for Iran’s regime. After that, the Islamic Republic state logically cannot easily accuse opposition movements of being MEK members and subject them to harassment, prison, and even torture or execution.

Although the conditions mentioned above for removing the MEK from FTO might be in contrary to US policies for restricting Iran’s regime, politicians must in this case preferably assess the human aspect of problem and aside the political programs of the MEK or the benefits of states (Iraq, Iran or US). The west should look to find solutions for this problem and in any possible ways the human rights of the residents must be protected. If that means closing Ashraf and pushing the MEK to publically renounce violence, then the US should embrace that as a policy.

Having militia is a traditional strategy for a political group. The political party must have political activities transparently. The army belongs to states not parties.


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