Today an important step will be taken in determining whether an injustice created nearly two decades ago by our executive branch will be corrected by our judicial branch. At issue is a challenge, before the U.S. Court of Appeals, which will hear oral arguments on the issue, to the Secretary of State’s refusal to revoke the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation of the main Iranian opposition group, known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) or People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI). The outcome of the Court’s decision can affect a foreign policy with Iran, which, under the two U.S. Presidents in office since the FTO listing, has remained toothless. Making the right decision to revoke MEK’s FTO status now would tell Iran the era of appeasement is over.
Founded in 1965 by progressive Muslim intellectuals, MEK’s early objectives ran contrary to those of the U.S. While U.S. interests focused on keeping an ally—the Shah—in power, MEK’s focus was on toppling him. As such, in the early 1970s, MEK’s top leadership were killed or arrested under a massive nationwide crackdown by the Shah’s secret police. What original leadership survived was released from prison weeks prior to the Shah’s fall. MEK’s popular network took part in the 1979 movement to turn him out and usher the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in. But it did not take long to realize the mullahs’ extremism undermined the democratic, post-Shah Iran MEK had envisioned. For example, MEK’s view Muslim women were equal was rejected by Khomeini, who removed women from positions of authority, claiming they lacked the brain capacity of their male counterparts.
Soon the differences between Khomeini and MEK leadership turned violent. In 1981, MEK-led peaceful demonstrations against Khomeini’s brutality resulted in the head mullah’s orders to shoot protesters in the streets. Most of MEK’s senior cadres were executed. Its core leadership relocated to Paris, where it re-asserted the group’s influence.
Recognizing the threat MEK posed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khomeini worked hard to expel them from France. He used his terrorist proxy group in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to gain leverage over the French government. After Hezbollah took several French citizens there captive in 1986, Iran offered to negotiate on behalf of France for the citizens’ release—but only if Paris kicked MEK out of the country. As Iran controlled Hezbollah, Khomeini knew the captives’ release was achievable. Winning the release, he gained MEK’s expulsion from France in 1986.
Forced to relocate again, MEK found an unexpected new host. Although MEK’s membership, like Iran’s mullahs, were primarily Shi’ites, the organization was offered residency by Iraq’s Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. Embracing the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Saddam allowed MEK to establish itself at Camp Ashraf, on the border with Iran. Between 1987-1988, MEK undertook cross-border raids into Iran, attacking military targets, particularly those of the brutal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Noted for their lion-like courage, MEK fighters instilled fear into the mullahs’ military forces.
Although Khomeini died in 1989, the mullahs’ hatred for MEK did not. MEK posed a lethal threat to Iran’s theocracy. But Tehran knew, as long as Saddam remained in power, there was no way to affect MEK’s expulsion from Iraq as was done in France.
When Bill Clinton occupied the Oval Office in 1993, Tehran set its sights on trying to isolate MEK—with U.S. help. When Mohammad Khatami became president in 1997, he gave every appearance of being interested in adopting a more moderate foreign policy towards Washington. To move this forward, it was suggested to Clinton a carrot was needed—MEK’s isolation. Although MEK was continuing its armed resistance against Iran, the last alleged attack against US interests was in the mid-1970s. Despite this, in 1997 Clinton declared MEK an FTO, simply to placate Iran. The UK and European Union (EU) followed suit, pushing MEK toward political and financial isolation. Khatami’s ruse worked, isolating MEK without any corresponding improvement in US/Iranian relations occurring.
It is understandable why Tehran fears MEK. It seeks to overthrow the theocratic thugs who rule under strict Islamic law. MEK, meanwhile, seeks a non-nuclear secular democracy for Iran—one committed to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), ensuring various freedoms for all humanity.
In 2002, it was MEK that played an important role in revealing to the world Iran was engaged in a clandestine effort to build nuclear weapons. Enraged over MEK’s revelation, Tehran’s hatred towards the group only intensified as it was determined to see it eradicated. The mullahs saw the opportunity to do so with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Tehran secretly sought to cut a deal with Washington. In exchange for U.S. efforts to neutralize MEK, Tehran would stay out of Iraq. Unsurprisingly, while the U.S. kept its side of the bargain, Iran did not.
As U.S. forces invaded Iraq, MEK was targeted. Although attacked, MEK refused to return fire, voluntarily standing down. Confined to Camp Ashraf, the group then voluntarily disarmed. Members were interrogated and investigated concerning charges of terrorist activity. Not one member was charged. After the invasion, Camp Ashraf residents received “protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention—prohibiting extradition to Iran, forced repatriation to any country or relocation in Iraq while US forces remain in Iraq.
Not content to see the MEK lion defanged, Iran now focused on its eradication. With Saddam gone and the mullahs’ allies dominant within Baghdad’s controlling Shi’ite block, Tehran began pressing Iraq to expel MEK and return its members to Iran. Such pressure led to an unprovoked and violent encounter in July 2009 when Iraqi security forces stormed Camp Ashraf, arresting some members and killing others—before an international outcry ended the crisis. Iraq justified its actions based on MEK’s FTO status.
Meanwhile MEK has methodically sought—through peaceful and legal means—to be de-listed as a terrorist organization by the UK, EU and US. It has been an arduous task as the Iranian propaganda machine continues to portray the group as violent. Despite this, MEK has made some extraordinary advances.
In May 2008, the English Court of Appeals ruled—after reviewing classified information—MEK had renounced violence in 2001, surrendered its weapons in 2003 and adhered to non-violence during the interim—thus meeting the legal requirements for de-listing as a terrorist organization. In June 2008, the UK government implemented the Court’s order. This was followed in December 2008 by a similar ruling from an EU court—representing the first time ever a terrorist group has been de-listed by the EU.
Now the spotlight is on the U.S. Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments as to whether MEK has demonstrated under U.S. law, both by its words and actions, it does not belong on the FTO list and should be removed.
Hopefully the Court will see the injustice that has been imposed upon MEK by an intimidated executive branch fearful of getting tough with Iran. Only the Court’s three judges can now right this wrong. Their failure to do so would spell doom for Camp Ashraf’s residents who will then be thrown to the Iranian wolves. On the other hand, their correction of this injustice will send Tehran the message an MEK lion—determined to bring democracy to Iran—has just been unleashed.
Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father—Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc.