Strange bedfellows: Romney and the militias who hate the mullahs

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Saturday during a GOP primary debate that he would work with insurgent groups opposed to the Iranian regime if he were elected president. But while several such groups of rebels are known to exist, the best-known is a shadowy militant organization that has received public support from at least one of Romney’s advisers.

The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, is “the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The MEK has been implicated in numerous attacks against civilians. It also said to have took part in Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Kurdish population.

While there is no direct connection between Romney and the MEK, normally responsive aides to the Republican front-runner are staying mum on whether he believes the U.S. should work with the group.

In response to a question about Iran’s ambitious nuclear program during the GOP primary debate hosted Saturday by CBS News and the National Journal, Romney proposed a multi-pronged approach to destabilizing that country’s regime.

In addition to “crippling sanctions” and diplomatic pressure, Romney said the U.S. should begin “working with” and “support[ing] …insurgents within the country.”

Romney aides wouldn’t answer The Daily Caller’s numerous requests to clarify whether he was referring to the MEK, and what his position is on the organization. At least one of his advisers, however, has said the State Department should remove the MEK from its list of foreign terrorist groups.

Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, who served in the State Department under President George W. Bush and is now advising Romney on foreign policy issues, co-signed an open letter to that effect in October. The letter also bore the signatures of a number of prominent Republicans and Democrats, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

Reiss would not tell TheDC if he had discussed the MEK with Romney, or whether the insurgent group was implied during Saturday’s debate, instead directing all questions to campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul.

Saul did not reply to several messages asking her to clarify Romney’s position on the organization. Another foreign policy adviser for the campaign, former Sen. Norm Coleman, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Romney’s answer mentioning insurgent groups was vague enough to leave open the possibility that he was referring to the “Green Movement,” a coalition of Iran-based activists who have demonstrated against the Ahmadinejad regime in recent years. But either way, his answer troubled Iran expert Michael Rubin.

“It kind of showed Mitt Romney doesn’t understand the issues behind the rhetoric,” Rubin, a scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told TheDC. “Because if you assume he was endorsing the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, that’s problematic to start with. But if at the same time he was referring to the Green Movement as insurgents, he fundamentally misunderstands the Green Movement.”

Most of the activists who populate the Green Movement are reformists who still embrace the idea of an Islamic republic, Rubin noted. “They don’t want a change of the system … They might be the loyal opposition, even if they’re on the ropes. But they’re not insurgents.”

“If Romney thinks the Iranian opposition is Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, he’s badly mistaken, and he’s going to help consolidate the Iranian regime’s hold power,” Rubin said. “If, on the other hand, he thinks the Green Movement are insurgents, he fundamentally misunderstands that they do not want Iranian liberty and freedom; they just want a little softer approach from the current theocracy.”