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.”
Rubin also believes that an embrace of the MEK, which he calls a terrorist organization, would backfire. “Iranians are perfectly blunt about disliking their regime, [and] even more open about hating the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq,” he told TheDC. “If you want to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to winning Iranians’ hearts and minds, you embrace the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq.”
“Iranians look at them the same way Americans look at [captured American Taliban fighter] John Walker Lindh,” he continued.
The MEK was founded in the 1960s, and is led by husband-and-wife duo Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. The Council on Foreign Relations calls its ideology “a mixture of Marxism, feminism, and Islamism.”
“Initially, at the time of the Islamic Revolution, they were accepted” by the new government, Rubin explained. “They sort of combined Islamism with Marxism, but it kind of just evolved into a freaky personality cult.”
After exile from Iran and a move to Iraq in the 1980s, the MEK allied itself with Saddam Hussein, who in turn provided the group with weapons to attack both the government in Tehran and his own enemies at home.
A damning 2007 RAND Corporation report determined that the MEK would subject deserting members to a show trial, “forced confessions of disloyalty, and even torture.” The report found that up to 70 percent of the occupants of Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s headquarters in Iraq, were being held against their will, and that all Mujahedeen wore cyanide tablets around their necks until American forces demobilized the group in 2003. They were all, in the words of Massoud Rajavi, “living martyrs.”
The group has targeted Americans in the past, and was responsible for the deaths of three American contractors and three American army officers in the 1970s.
Despite its long and well-documented history of violence, the MEK does have a network of American supporters, including Reiss and Howard Dean, a phenomenon explored by journalist and foreign policy expert Elizabeth Rubin (no relation to Michael) in a New York Times piece last August.
The MEK, she wrote, is “spending millions in an attempt to persuade the Obama administration, and in particular Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to take them off the national list of terrorist groups, where the group was listed in 1997. Delisting the group would enable it to lobby Congress for support in the same way that the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 allowed the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi to do.”
“Mrs. Clinton should ignore their P.R. campaign,” Ms. Rubin continued. “Mujahedeen Khalq is not only irrelevant to the cause of Iran’s democratic activists, but a totalitarian cult that will come back to haunt us.”
“What is most disturbing is how the group treats its members,” Ms. Rubin wrote. “After the Iran-Iraq war, Mr. Rajavi orchestrated an ill-planned offensive, deploying thousands of young men and women into Iran on a mass martyrdom operation. Instead of capturing Iran, as they believed they would, thousands of them were slaughtered, including parents, husbands and wives of those I met in Iraq in 2003.”
When confronted by Ms. Rubin about the MEK’s history, several supporters of the group, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, pleaded ignorance about its activities. “I don’t know a lot about the group,” Hamilton, who like Clark had received speaking fees from MEK front groups, said Ms. Rubin.
There are serious arguments for removing the MEK from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. The Washington Institute for Near-East Policy’s Patrick Clawson, for one, believes the group should be de-listed.
“Let me be clear: I think the MEK is a weird cult with no future in Iran’s politics,” Clawson told theDC. “That, however, is no reason to keep it on the terror list.”
According to Clawson, the State Department has acknowledged to the MEK’s lawyers that they believe the group hasn’t engaged in terrorism for years. He also notes that courts in Europe and the United Kingdom have ruled that the MEK should not be listed as terror group.
Critics like the AEI’s Michael Rubin, however, remain unconvinced that the group should be removed. He also believes that much of the MEK’s support in Washington comes from public officials who have been compromised by the group’s largesse.
“It’s basically a simple cult,” Rubin told TheDC. “Every week it seems like there’s another front organization. I know that when I spurned a few of their approaches, I kept getting approached by new Iranian organizations, and now the rule of thumb is if you’ve never heard of the organization before it’s a Mujahedeen-e-Khalq front, and if they offer you more money than you’ve ever gotten before, it’s a Mujahedeen-e-Khalq front.”
“Frankly, who knows what their total budget is?” he continued. “But it seems to have paid off, because they’ve found a number of corrupt officials in Washington. Whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, it may be legal to pay such inflated individual speaking fees, but it shows a fundamental weakness and a fundamental corruption that doesn’t belong in any of the presidential campaigns.”
Jordan Bloom contributed to this report.