BBC: The Strange World of the People’s Mujahedin
These people are chanting for a group of Iranian dissidents you’ve probably never heard of. They’re the Mujahidin-e Khalq or MEK, in English the People’s Mujahidin of Iran (PMOI) and some Americans such as this retired colonel like the look of them. “There is an excellent resource we should be working with instead of against. Our own state department is stuck on stupid in that they do not understand, they’re not even trying”.
Former state department official ambassador John Limbert thinks he understands them all too well, and he is nervous of the idea that the group could ever rule Iran.
“I find that a frightening prospect. Not only do I find it a frightening prospect but most Iranians that I know find it a frightening prospect.”
The MEK leaders have for over 30 years harbored one ambition, to win power, and there are many in Washington who want to help them.
“The tide is moving your way and I feel the movement that is represented here by Mrs. Rajavi and by you. History is on your side”
I’m Owen Bennett Jones and I’ve an hour in this BBC program to report on the People’s Mujahidin and I’ll need it. Some believe its leaders Maryam and Massoud Rajavi are peace loving secular democrats; others think they are power crazed married couple running a cult that brainwashes its members. This is a story of religion, revolution, democracy, martyrdom and tens of thousands of dollars being lavished on retired US officials and politicians. Among the many different claims you hear in this program there’s one fact nobody contests: the MEK wants to overthrow the Mullahs who rule Iran, but that is not how they began.
“Before the Iranian revolution was very enthusiastic wanted to make the Iranian revolution more extreme, more radical all the time, espoused a policy of Islamist Marxist radicalism.”
Bruce Riedel has provided foreign policy advice to every US president since George Bush senior and he began his career in the CIA dealing with Iran.
“Well Khomeini wasn’t interested in Marxist radicalism. He saw these people as useful in helping to bring about the revolution, but once that had happened he was quite willing to get rid of these people and had no interest and no intention of giving them any real role in governing Iran.”
So, the potted history; anti-Shah, then anti-Khomeini and when he turned on them they faced severe persecution and there was a vicious conflict between the MEK and the Iranian state. Ambassador John Limbert:
“The MEK was carrying on an assassination campaign including the ruling party in June 1981. [They] killed about 80 people including some very prominent clerical leaders. The government cracked down very hard, put a lot of people in prison, a lot of people were executed, tortured, and the MEK had to run for their lives. Many of them ended up refugees in Europe.”
“And eventually from Europe, ended up in Iraq”
“Exactly. Saddam Hussein who was fighting the Iranians during the 80s offered them a camp, facilities, space and weapons, and eventually one of the things they did, I believe it was in 1988, before the end of the war, was to mount their own military campaign into Iran. One of the things that many Iranians will never forgive them for; fighting as an ally of Saddam Hussein against their homeland.”
One of those facilities, Camp Ashraf, became a desert citadel for over 3000 MEK members, a symbol of defiance used to promote the group.
Ashraf is located 50 miles west of the Iranian border inside Iraq. Mujahedin’s refuge in Ashraf dates back . . .
After 2003 invasion of Iraq the US took control of Camp Ashraf and found there 2139 tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces and other bits of kit, all supplied by Saddam Hussein. The MEK says, ‘That’s all history’. They are now a modern campaigning organization.
“Until that day, I salute you all, God bless you, and our joint mission …
“Viva Ashraf, Viva Ashraf . . .
Well, that was a most rousing speech by Lord McGuinness from Northern Ireland, just one of many senior people on the panel here addressing both Iranians and many Londoners and British people who have come to support this cause and just as they leave the auditorium I am going to try to catch up with some of them to ask why they support this issue in particular.
“I have known about them for 12 or more years from just being approached in the street in Oxford. It’s an amazing story of resistance and fighting for freedom and all the world institutions really, as we heard this afternoon, including the United States have let them down extremely badly.”
We started making this program wondering about the 3400 MEK members of Camp Ashraf. Who are they? Why are they in Iraq? The MEK says they may be massacred by the Iraqi government. Why? But we soon find ourselves drawn into an unceasing propaganda wars that swirl around the MEK. Normally scholars, journalists, and politicians can agree on the basic facts. But with the MEK just about everything is contested. The US officially designated them terrorists in 1997 and it still does. It says they killed Americans. The UK and Europe both delisted them in 2007 and 2009 respectively. So, are they terrorists or a peaceful resistance? In this program we’ll simply present two narratives, claim and counter claim. Both can’t be right. You just have to decide which one to believe. We’ve gone to the conference to interview a pro-MEK retired US general and we were made welcome. Until we started asking questions of people coming out of the auditorium.
“My name is Owen Bennett-Jones from BBC.
I just saw thanking some of your European supporters,
Yes, we are thankful to them because they are coming here, you know, to support us.
That is the least I can do.
And you are from MEK?
Ye… I am not, I believe in them really. I love them, you know. But I am not a member of them.
Well in the past of course they killed the Americans, didn’t they?
No, they didn’t. It is something they said they did it but it was another group. They never did that, no.
They said they did.
Sorry, what are you saying?
I said they never said that, they never killed anybody. They just fight with the Iranian Mullahs. You know.
When MEK activists overheard a few of the interviews I conducted at the London conference they said I was intimidating, and from that moment declined any further contact.
You might ask, why does the MEK matter? Well, for two reasons. First, US officials fear that the secular democratic peaceful face of the MEK is simply an act and that they are hiding their true colors to get off America’s terrorists list. And secondly, the pro-Iranian Iraqi government is hostile towards the MEK, it wants camp Ashraf closed down and the MEK worries about what will happen to its people there. It believed they could be killed.
This is the sound track of some YouTube videos from 2009 and 2011 showing the Iraqi security personnel killing around 40 MEK members and injuring hundreds more at Camp Ashraf. The international community is now working with the Iraqi government to move the MEK from Camp Ashraf to a UN controlled facility, Camp Liberty near Baghdad and there, they’ll assess the refugee claims and try to move the MEK members out of the country.
“The camp lacks the minimum standard of habitation under international law. Camp Liberty is nothing but a prison.”
The MEK have complained bitterly about Camp Liberty, but they can’t match the language of retired US general David Philips who was stationed in Camp Ashraf in 2004 and who now often speaks of defense of the MEK.
“In discussing with some of my Iraqi friends, the term concentration camp came up. Well, recently one of my Iraqi friends called and said, we do not want the term Camp Liberty to be synonymous with Buchenwald and Dachau but it’s headed that way.”
It’s is the sort of thing that frustrates international officials who deal with the MEK such as Martin Kobler, the UN special representative for Iraq, who has responsibility for Camp Liberty.
“Let me say as a German citizen very clear. This is unacceptable. To compare the residents of Camp Liberty with a systematic extermination of European Jews under Nazi dictatorship. This is an insult to the victim of the former times. Let me just say that the reports we all get from the Camp Liberty residents are grossly exaggerated.”
Liberty, concentration camp or refugee camp? And here’s another question, are they a brave band of volunteers, or a cult, brainwashing its members?
“An Iranian woman has died and a second is in hospital with serious burns after they set themselves on fire during protests in Paris.”
“BBC journalist was conducting an interview outside the offices of French security service the DST.”
In 2003 the French authorities arrested Maryam Rajavi on terrorism charges; charges that were eventually dropped. In protest, 10 MEK supporters set themselves on fire. Two died. This, along with other allegations that you’ll hear set alarm bells ringing and prompted the question, is it a cult? Mohammad Sobhani joined the MEK in Tehran in the 1970s and went to Camp Ashraf with his wife. Like many others he has told us that in 1989 the MEK changed. That year a major MEK offensive, supposedly the big push to overthrow the Mullahs in Tehran was crushed. Massoud Rajavi needed to explain the defeat to stop his fighters from quitting.
“The organization had been defeated; more the 1400 were killed and around 1000 injured. Rajavi initiated a debate on ideological divorce. He posed this question, “why were we defeated? Because you were thinking about your husband and I was thinking about my wife and that is why we were unable to fight the war. All those married must become separated and single people should not wish to get married”. Then at a conference with the organization’s central council, after an ideological discussion, Rajavi held up a tray and addressed the members and asked them to take off their rings in the way of God. We believed that in this struggle we have forfeited our homeland, forfeited our parents and thought, if Khomeini regime would be overthrown with this divorce, then we’ll do it.
Did you love your wife?
Did she love you?
She did too. She joined the Mujahedin because of me.
What did she say when you said, I want to divorce you?
We never discussed getting a divorce. No husband and wife would divorce in person. They would have to offer the divorce to Massoud Rajavi.
After you divorced your wife, did you see her again?
Yes, I would see her for example in the big meetings with all the organization members around 2000 or 3000 people. But we couldn’t talk to each other because according to the organization we had got divorced and if you did, it would mean that you had lied to the organization.
Massoud and Maryam Rajavi did not themselves see the need to get divorced but the MEK doesn’t deny that everyone else did. In a 2007 BBC TV film Ali Safavi, a People’s Mujahedin member based in Paris, was asked about the divorce policy.
Were members required to divorce?
No, every individual member of the Mujahedin decided on his or her own to forgo family life, those who were married of course.
All of them?
Yes, all of them.
Isn’t it rather implausible, to think that hundreds of members would all have voluntarily taken the decision to divorce?
Not at all.
But if marital love was distracting, what of parental ties?
In 1991 the leadership declared the 800 children in Camp Ashraf had to go. Many went to MEK foster homes in Europe. Camp Ashraf has been almost entirely child free ever since. The MEK said it was because Iraq was too dangerous for children. Former members told us it was because children kept parents emotionally tied to each other.
Sara Sadeqi’s father was a MEK activist who visited Camp Ashraf in the early 80s. The MEK then told him he couldn’t return to Iran because the authorities there were after him and that anyway his wife and baby had died. In a decade at Camp Ashraf he had no access to a telephone. When he did eventually get held of one, the first thing he did was call home. His family were alive. Reunited he now lives in Germany with his wife and daughter Sara.
So now it is over, isn’t it? You have got a family. What do you think of the MEK now?
“I hate them; I hate them as long as I live. There are so many other children that haven’t seen their parents for more than 30 years maybe. This feeling is just killing someone. Parents are the only people a child needs. When there are no parents, you will have no love, you will have no feeling, nothing.”
I have heard several hours of this kind of testimony from many former members including consistent claims that at Camp Ashraf there were hours of ideological indoctrination sessions and regular self-criticism sessions in which members had to confess their sexual fantasies. So why did people join? Well, some say they were made false promises of work or a new passport. Others were prisoners of war, left over from the Iran-Iraq conflict and handed over by Saddam Hussein to Massoud Rajavi. Others, maybe most, like Ruhollah Tajbakhsh joined up because they believed the MEK represented the best hope for Iran.
“My father was a political prisoner from after the revolution until 1985. I, like many others, seeking a better situation, wanted to improve the situation for people, so I joined the struggle. I thought that I may find this with the Mujahedin, but I was very wrong. As when I went there I saw the true colors of the organization. I wanted to join a political organization and strive for the freedom of my people. Suddenly I found myself in a trap of a religious Mafia like cult.”
Ex-members say leaving was difficult; according to Ambassador John Limbert the MEK took the members’ passports when they arrived in Iraq and told them that if they left the Camp, Saddam Hussein would throw them in Abu Ghraib prison. From 2003 to 2008 there were 3 ways to leave Camp Ashraf. Trust the MEK and ask them to hand you over to the Americans, don’t ask the MEK and try to reach the American forces outside the Camp, or trust neither and escape the area all together. Rulollah Tajbakhsh took the third option.
The general told me that if anyone wanted to leave the Camp, they could leave the Camp. Is that true?
But some did leave the Camp?
“Yes some did, but let me explain. You need to know that in Camp Ashraf if someone puts their hand up and says they want to leave, there will be certain repercussions. I told the organization I want to leave. I was separated from the guys I was with and for about a month and a half, from mornings till the evenings, I was put in a room, a container. I was not allowed to speak to anyone. Food was brought to me there. Commanders from my unit, or other team leaders who I had met before, would come and try to persuade and cajole me to change my mind and brainwash me. Then when they realized it was pointless they held a meeting for me where there were around 200 people present and I was in the middle. From 8 o’clock in the morning until 2 am they talked, they verbally assaulted me saying he must not leave us. But I made a plan and it took me about a month to flee. One night at 10:30 pm I left and got to the barbed wire fence of Camp Ashraf. By 4 am I had jumped over, handing myself into the Iraqi police.”
How did you get through the fence?
I throw a rug on it, and then jumped over.
US colonel Steven Hambrecht spent six months at Camp Ashraf in 2004 and he had daily contact with the MEK. What did he make of them?
“They were cold and I guess that is the best way to explain; the women were separated, separated from their families, they were not allowed to have any kind of sexual contact.”
Do they want to leave?
Yes, some wanted to get out.
And could they?
At times they could, but they were selective on who they would let go.
Could they freely leave or did they have to run away. I mean some people have told us they literally had to run away.
Yes. I believe that they did.
But some US officers saw it differently. US military police, General David Philips was in charge of keeping order in Camp Ashraf in 2004, the same time as Colonel Hambrecht was there, and he came away impressed not so much a cult he argues but a group with admirable focus.
“[I had] itel reports saying they are holding people against their will. They are a cult and that they are torturing their own people. I tried really hard to prove that to justify my own mind. Now, do they have things you could say are cultish? I would say my son’s a United States Marine. And if that isn’t cultish then there is nothing that’s cultish. Are the people in Ashraf highly dedicated, very focused, do they have the leadership and the hierarchy? Yes. Are they dedicated to the point that they would die for their cause? Yes, I have no doubt that the people in Ashraf of put in a position; they would give their lives up for their cause.”
We’ve spoken to people who had their children removed from them and they feel very bitterly about it. What would you say to them, I mean they feel they have escaped a cult?
“I would really want meet those people because of the fact I have never to date met a single person who was at Ashraf that would tell me, I was at Ashraf, I was held against my will and . . . “
OK. Well, how we get a telephone thing together?
I suggested that General Philips met some of those ex-members and he agreed, but when we tried to make the arrangements he declined and said he wanted to discontinue his dialogue with the BBC. He said one of the ex-members I’d suggested he meet is a liar and here again we’re at a point where both sides can’t be right. General Philips said when he was in Camp Ashraf, he was actually a colonel at the time, he never came across anyone who was kept against their will.
One former member Mohammad Razzaqi who was in the MEK for 17 years and now lives in France, directly contradicts that.
When you spoke to Colonel Philips, did you tell him that people in Camp Ashraf were being held against their will?
“Yes, I told him.”
Did you tell him that people had been tortured in Camp Ashraf?
I told him that I was tortured and I was in a cell and the person who was in that cell with me was killed, by PMOI officers. But after Colonel Philips heard such a thing from me, he ordered his soldiers to handcuff me and take me to the isolation.
We put those claims to General David Philips who said Mohammad Razzaqi was lying. We re-checked with Mr. Razzaqi who stuck to his account. Before they stopped talking to us the MEK claimed that many of the former members we have been talking to were in fact Iranian agents spreading disinformation. Some western intelligent agencies have given credence to those claims. The German annual intelligence report of 1999 for example said the Iranian government initiates anti-MEK publications published in part by former MEK activists. So, another choice, victims or Iranian spies?
Many members of the MEK did join freely, but some such as Hassan Piransar who spent 19 years with the organization do bitterly regret that decision. One of the first things that shocked him on getting out was seeing a mobile phone. He didn’t know they existed, and he soon started making some calls.
“I called my cousin and I told him, my mom, where are they? He said you don’t know? They died; and… sorry about that. I was really shocked about, sorry. After that I went to my tent and I cried a lot because – I talked to myself that wasted 20 years, I couldn’t help them, for nothing. And after that I became betrayed by PMOI leadership. God help them and God help me because I lost everything and God help them because they betrayed each one of us, they betrayed Iranian people, they betrayed the people who died for them, who were hung for them.”
Why do you say they betrayed, because I guess the PMOI leadership would say, you know, that they are continuing the struggling for a free Iran.
“They are saying that they are pro-democracy, they are pro-freedom, and they are advocate for peace, they are all lies.”
In the United States the MEK or PMOI is also known is officially listed as a designated foreign terrorist organization, although in recent years it has been removed from the UK and EU lists. The MEK now wants to be delisted in America too on the grounds that it has renounced violence. Senior retired US officials have been paid to advance that case, such as the former governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell, the former head of the FBI Louie Freeh, and the former head of the US Democratic Party Howard Dean.
“There is a fact that they are not terrorists”
“This organization was put on list in 1997 as an accommodation to the regime in Iran which hates this group because it represents organized democratic resistance.”
“Not one terrorist incident in the last decade, not one, and by the way, our statute says terrorist action against the United States of America and its citizens.”
So why was it listed in the first place? The MEK says it was because President Clinton wanted to appease the Iranian regime. Ex-CIA officer and presidential advisor Bruce Riedel says there is more to it than that. Unlike the UK and the EU, the US had a particular reason to list them. The MEK had killed Americans.
“This group carried out the murder of Americans in 1970s. It doesn’t get a ‘get out of jail card’ because it stopped killing Americans. It is still responsible for the activities that it carried out.
A People’s Mujahedin’s song from the 1970s, ‘down with America, by blood and gunfire’ they chant, on the lips of every Muslim is the cry of the Iranian people, may America be annihilated. The US State Department’s Dan Freed who has got responsibility for the MEK issue is a career diplomat who chooses his words very carefully. But on the MEK history of violent anti-Americanism he is utterly unambiguous.
Is it your view that the MEK killed American citizens in the 1970s?
The FBI has also stated that the MEK killed Americans. But the group denies it. Before they declined to talk to BBC for this program, a People’s Mujahedin supporter Leila Jazayeri overheard me asking someone about this issue and she intervened and briefly put her point of view.
“I suggest you go back to the history of PMOI, about those Americans you are talking [about], that they were killed, there was a faction that made a coup against PMOI at the time of the Shah and they killed PMOI members themselves. They were responsible, not PMOI. So it wasn’t PMOI that was involved in any massacre of Americans.”
Next dispute, the US embassy hostage siege in Tehran in 1979 in which over 50 US diplomats were held for 444 days. Some say the MEK supported those kidnappings.
So what was the truth of those allegations? Did the MEK, the People’s Mujahedin, participate in the siege of the American embassy and the holding of those diplomats, or not. Well I am in a very good position to find out I think I am just in Arlington Virginia now, just on the suburbs of Washington. To go and meet a man John Limbert who was one of the hostages. And presumably will be able to tell me whether or not the MEK was involved.
Well I am very grateful for you welcoming me to your home. We are in your sitting room on your sofa and there is a laptop computer here and we have got a YouTube film up and I just wanted to take you back to 1979. You were inside the embassy.
“That’s right; it was Sunday morning, first day of our work, first day of our work week, about 10:30 in the morning when a group of students broke into the compound.”
And this is what was showing on American television.
“The US embassy in Tehran has been invaded and occupied by Iranian students.”
And then that was the beginning of 444 days of captivity.
“That is right. We were there until January of 1981, just at the time that Ronald Reagan was sworn as the President.”
And when you were there? Was it clear to you that the MEK, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran were supporting the activity, the kidnapping that you faced, what was the MEK’s attitude.
“The MEK, along with other leftist groups were very strong supporters of our captivity, the continuation of our captivity, opposed any steps that would have ended the crises and even went so far as to call for our trial.”
And id that attitude last the whole 444 days or…?
“It did. On the issue of the hostages they were, how I can say this, more catholic than the Pope.”
John Limbert’s home was full of photographs showing him with former US presidents and he’s been left wondering how a group that supported his kidnapping could be backed by so many senior Americans.
“It’s a puzzle for me, Owen. I do not understand it. I have spoken to members of Congress personally on this issue and asked them to be very careful, to understand who these people are and what their past is. My colleagues have done the same, and we seem to make almost no impression on Members of Congress. A scholar, a few months ago, was talking to a House Committee about this group and explaining what it is and its anti-democratic past and the House member simply turns on him and says “I don’t care”. Well, I think it was Schiller who once said ‘against stupidity, the gods themselves labor in vain’.
Did you feel let down, actually?
“I was disappointed.”
But this was all a long time ago. Groups can renounce terrorism and the MEK often points to the 2007 ruling of the UK’s Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission. After a long and deliberative process it concluded that the PMOI had by 2002 given up the use of force.
“There was a significant change in the nature of the PMOI’s activities in 2001 and thereafter. And in particular there have been no offensive operational attacks as PMOI operatives inside Iran since August 2001 or at the latest May 2002.”
In 2009 the EU followed suit, delisting the MEK on the more limited procedural grounds the group should have been told why it was put on the list in the first place. Even so, that’s two important delistings. And now the US has to decide whether to do the same thing. The test, does the MEK still have the capacity or intent to commit terrorism? In July 2004 every MEK member at Camp Ashraf signed a document saying they rejected violence and terrorism. But then just four months later, in November 2004, the FBI published details of its investigations into the group.
A Los Angles investigation has determined that the MEK is currently involved in planning acts of terrorism. The planning takes place at MEK bases in Iraq, and at Auvers-sur-Oise location in France. Los Angeles has consensually recorded numerous telephone calls in which the MEK leaders at this French location discussed specific acts of terrorism to include bombings. Joint investigations with the French DST and the German Cologne police department has revealed similar findings from French and German wire taps.
That was 2004. In 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia ruled on an MEK law suit to have their designation as a foreign terrorist organization removed. After reviewing the case the court left the designation in place but required the State Department to allow the MEK to view and rebut all the unclassified material in the their file. But one judge Karen Cliff Henderson gave a brief assessment of the classified material in the file.
“In my opinion the classified portion of the administrative record provides substantial support for her determination that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, either continues to engage in terrorism or retains the capability and intent to do so.”
There is one other consideration. The People’s Mujahedin has a history of reinventing itself. It began opposing the Shah and siding with Khomeini. When Khomeini persecuted them, they joined Saddam Hussein. Then after the Americans invaded Iraq they shifted allegiance to the US and secular democracy. Changing sides that often does create logistical difficulties. In 2003 for example, with the Americans approaching Camp Ashraf, records relating to Saddam Hussein had to be destroyed. And former MEK member Hassan Piransar, who we heard from earlier, claims to have taken part in that operation.
“In our unit they called us, one of the officials, she said to us that today you have to go and you have to find out all the documents that you can find which is about our connection with Saddam Hussein and his government. After gathering all those documents you have to destroy all those documents. So we gathered all those documents and we put them in a hole. We burned all those documents and they told us the reason we want to do that because we are afraid the American coalition forces would come to our camp Ashraf, so they said that we are afraid that maybe the American forces are going to come inside Ashraf Camp and they are going to find those kind of documents, so it is better for us to destroy all those documents.”
The MEK says that Hassan Piransar is now an Iranian agent making up disinformation. So what is the view of Ambassador Limbert who interviewed every member of the MEK when he was working for the State Department? Well he just doesn’t believe them.
“They insist that they are not terrorists any more. I am not convinced. They have transformed themselves numerous times. So there is nothing to keep them from transforming themselves again into whatever shape suits their purpose. So now it suits their purpose to be democratic and nonviolent. I’m sorry, given in the history of the group, given its past, given its records, given its present, I just don’t believe them.”
It’s worth quoting from that landmark British court judgment which in its substantive finding ruled the group was not terroristic, because the court also made some acid comments about the organization’s veracity.
“It is clear that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran regard anyone who appears to take a different view of events to themselves as it disseminating information from the Iranian authorities or acting pursuant to . . .
“The People’s Mujahedin of Iran’s versions of events appears to an objective observer often to change to suit the particular interests
“Representatives of the PMOI have been untruthful in proceedings before this commission.”
This is K Street in Washington, home of all the lobbyists and the MEK have put together an extra ordinary campaign to get themselves delisted, taken off the list of foreign terrorist organizations here in the United States. There are many, many senior retired officials, they are receiving money for speeches, there are other lawyers working on putting forward position papers on the MEK. There is a huge effort on here to get the organization delisted. In fact officials told me this is the most conspicuous lobbying effort they ever seen on a foreign policy issue.
“MEK is Iran’s democratic opposition working for a nuclear free Iran founded on human rights.”
US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton is currently reviewing whether the MEK should remain a listed terrorist organization.
“Secretary Clinton, for democracy and freedom in Iran delist MEK.”
There have been ads on CNN, Fox News and the New York Times urging the Secretary of State to delist the group and the MEK has many senior supporters.
“Former top government officials discuss US security issues concerning Iran. We’ll hear from former CIA director James Wolsey, former FBI director Louie Freeh.”
“If director Freeh and General Shulman and General Montgomery and governor Dean and the rest of these great panelists say that MEK is a force for good and the best hope we have for our third option in Iran, then good Lord take them off the terrorist list. Take them off the terrorist list and “
“The tide is moving your way and I feel the movement that is represented here by Mrs. Rajavi and by you. History is on your side.”
There are around 35 high ranking former American officials who have given speeches to MEK friendly audiences at events in Washington, Brussels, London, Paris, and Berlin. They include former Mayor of New York Rudi Giuliani, President Obama’s former national security adviser General Jim Jones, and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the man who chaired the 9/11 commission report. I asked three of the pro-MEK paid advocates how they were first approached to speak on this issue and what they knew about the group when they were asked. First Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“I knew nothing about them, I did the research, I had some doubts, then looked at who else was on the program at the time. It was President Obama’s former national security advisor General Jim Jones. I figured if he’s going to be on the program that these people couldn’t be terrorists so I agreed to speak.”
So too did Louie Freeh, former director of the FBI.
“I was actually approached by one of my former government colleagues and asked to persist and look at the facts, and this was a group that certainly was not a terrorist organization and one that had been unfairly listed in fact.
Which is also the view of Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania.
“Well when I got the request to speak at a meeting in Washington in mid-July I did some research. I looked into the group itself. I looked into the Americans who were already speaking on behalf of the MEK and it was an impressive group. Colonel Martin who was the commander at Ashraf told me that none of these people were terrorists or anti-US, they are the salt of the earth.”
A journalist on the Huffington post found that of those who had declared payments the going rates is between 20000 and 40000 thousand dollars for a 10 minutes speech. Money though is not a subject with the people we interviewed wanted to dwell on.
“No I don’t get into that and there’s a reason I don’t get into that, it’s an easy story for the media.”
But can I ask you what sort of sums you have been paid for speaking in some of those events?
“It depends on whether it’s domestic or foreign and it’s significant, but other than that, I’m not going to get into it, but it’s significant.”
Mr. Rendell also told me I should be ashamed of myself for raising issues about the MEK’s credibility.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, frankly.”
I should be ashamed of myself?
“Yes you should be ashamed of yourself; you should be focusing on trying to save the lives of innocent people.”
Louie Freeh’s advocacy for the MEK is especially striking. After all, the organization he once ran, the FBI, in 2004 published that report which outlined evidence of an alleged MEK terrorist plot. I asked him what he thought about that document.
“Well, I have seen the report; I don’t think it’s factual, we don’t find any substance to it. A lot of that information was disinformation put out by the MOIS the Iranian IRGC to discredit, you know, what I said was the only credible resistance to the regime.”
And as a former FBI chief you think it is possible that the FBI produced a completely duff report?
“No, I did not say that at all.”
Ed Rendell, Louie Freeh and many others of the MEK’s powerful backers are now being investigated by the US Treasury for possibly receiving funds from a designated terrorist organization. Some people in Washington have turned the money down. As a man who’s publicly criticized the group, Bruce Riddell was never offered any, but he knows people who were and who thought better off it.
“Yes, I know of people who were made offers by the MEK and its affiliated groups to come and give speeches and then took a look at the history of this group and said no I don’t want to be associated with this”
How many people do you know in that category?
“Up to a half dozen or so.”
Do you think the people who have taken the money would be nervous about this?
“I think anyone who has taken money from an organization like the MEK, which is a designated terrorist organization under American law ought to have thought long in hard about the wisdom of doing that before they embarked on it.”
Louie Freeh told me it is perfectly legitimate to be accepting payments for speaking on behalf of a designated terrorist organization and Ed Rendell made a different point, that he has taken money not from MEK itself but from Iranian expats.
Let me ask you about your situation with the Treasury, because you find yourself of being investigated I think for receiving money to speak for them.
“Sure, but investigations don’t mean a thing. “
So what happened to you?
“They subpoenaed my agent to look at whether we got speaking fees.”
Have you any indication precisely where the money comes from to pay you to do your speaking engagements?
“It comes from the Northern California Iranian Association and then when it’s abroad it comes from European speakers bureau. None of it is ever from the MEK.”
It is an important distinction. Doug Jacobson is a Washington lawyer specializing in international trade and sanctions.
“Well, in fact the Treasury Department regulations are very clear that they do allow for certain legal services that do allow for organizations and individuals who have been need specially designated nationals on the specially designated nationals list. But in order to do so, the attorneys who are involved as well as the banks who transmit the funds, must have license issued from the Treasury Department.”
But only for legal services?
“Yes the regulations are very clear about the types of services which are licensable and it relates to the payments of fees for legal services.”
So what about making a speech in favor of delisting a terrorist organization?
“That is not one of the categories of licensable activity that normally would be granted by OFEC.
The people who have done this, these senior figures who have taken this money, say it doesn’t come from the MEK, it comes from, you know various associations in America, Iranian expats and that kind of thing. Is that a defense?
“Well no. Sanctions law 101, [states] that you can’t do something indirectly that you can’t do directly. So therefore if the funds in fact are from MEK in this case that would be an indirect payment which would be prohibited just like the direct payment.”
From what you say the crucial issue in this case is going to be whether the money did come from Iranian expats living in America, independent figures who are not members of the MEK, or whether it came from the MEK?
“That is exactly correct.”
Certainly there are many wealthy exiled Iranians who give money to those to oppose the Iranian regime. But the MEK’s financial history is a bit murky. The FBI’s 2004 report highlighted an MEK social benefit fraud scheme in Germany and in the UK the Charity Commissioner ran a two year investigation and eventually closed Iran Aid which raised millions each year supposedly for Iranian orphans but allegedly for the MEK. The trustees of the charity denied links with the MEK but the Commission said that the money simply disappeared once it left Britain. And when they asked to see the financial records, people occupied the Charity headquarters and the documents were destroyed. The charity was dissolved.
“Down with Khamenei, Down with Maliki”
Huge sums of money are being spent to get the MEK off the US terrorist list, but for many in the United States this isn’t just about money, it also is about Iran. Some in Washington believe that for better or worse the US will go to war with Iran. Which raises the question, what role might the MEK play.
Colonel Wes Martin who commanded Camp Ashraf after the UN invasion of Iraq:
“If a leader could get his three thousand followers to go out on Christmas night in the freezing cold and go across the river and attack Germans, and then, three days later go across that same frozen river and do the same thing again, that leader must have a powerful influence over his people. That leader was George Washington. I see Maryam Rajavi a lot more like George Washington than I see her like Ahmadinejad. I have seen her caring for her people.”
Colonel Wes Martin sees the MEK as an agent of change, but Jeremiah Goulka disagrees. He is the lead author of a report on the MEK for the largely US government funded RAND corporation and is now an independent commentator.
“What we are seeing here is similar to Iraq where it is the people who want war who are pushing the story and everybody else who are saying hang on a second do we really want this are finding themselves not getting into the story because they don’t have the same energy to promote an alternate narrative which we do not need to go to war with Iran. If the MEK is delisted they would present themselves as being now officially supported by the US government and they will take their ability to raise even more money to push even harder to get the United States to go to war with Iran.”
How will they do that?
“I imagine by promoting consistent fears of the Iranian regime; after all it was the MEK who initially publicized the Natanz Iranian nuclear facility in, I believe, 2005, and they will continue to promote fear of Iran in order to cause a war against Iran.”
So does the MEK have a role to play in the future of Iran? Colonel Wes Martin, who is someone who defends the MEK without being paid, believes it does.
“The PMOI is a viable alternative to the Iranian regime. First off, let’s look at the Iranian regime. Let’s look at Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad, or as American comedian Jay Leno says ‘Mahmoud I am a nut job’, and his behavior every time he comes to the United Nations. Let’s look at all the other acts that the Iranian government has done. And then let’s look at Maryam Rajavi herself and the people in her organization. And they are well networked inside Iran. They would be an excellent group of people to work with; one to get a handle on what is going on inside Iran for the immediate, and, should the Iranian government fall, work with to help them in the rebuilding. There is an excellent resource we should be working with instead of against. And in all honesty, our own State Department is stuck on stupid in that they do not understand, they are not even trying.”
The State Department couldn’t disagree more with Colonel Wes Martin. In an exclusive statement for this program, it has gone further than ever before in clearly stating what it thinks of the MEK as a political force. Henry Wooster is a deputy assistant of Secretary of State.
“Let’s get to the heart of the mater on the MEK. They are not a viable opposition. Despite their claims to be the best hopes for democratic reform in Iran. They control their members to measures such as mandatory divorce and celibacy, sleep deprivation, public shaming, and unquestioning devotion to their leader among other techniques. The regime in Tehran notwithstanding the US has no evidence or confidence that the MEK is an organization that could promote the democratic values we’d all like to see in Iran. It would be unwise policy to suggest otherwise.”
Why do people take such strong positions on the MEK? After a month talking to people on both sides of the argument, I am left thinking this. Some supporters are paid. Others see the MEK through the prism of Iran. They’ll support anything that give hope for change there. Many are well motivated but some are naïve taking the MEK’s self-portrait on trust. No MEK supporter I have met has spoken to critical former members, despite their being keen to tell their stories. And the former members? Some are embittered, others just broken. The MEK file is now on Hilary Clinton’s desk and she’ll have to decide whether to follow in the footsteps of the UK and Europe and delist the group. She has said that MEK cooperation in the successful closure of Camp Ashraf will be a key factor in her decision. If she does delist them, the MEK would be free to mobilize its support in the US Congress. So Hillary Clinton faces a big decision. The MEK has a turbulent and controversial history and if it is able to get US funding it might have a bright future too.
The strange world of the People’s Mujahedin was presented by me Owen Bennett-Jones and produced by Gemma Newby. It was a Wisebuddha production.
BBC World Service – Your World