At the same time, the MEK and its advocates have been clashing with the Iraqi government over efforts to relocate 3,300 MEK members living in exile at a former Iraqi military base since the mid-1980s.
The MEK has enlisted some of the biggest names in U.S. politics and national security. In addition to Giuliani, Rendell and Jones, the group's advocates have included former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Joint Chiefs chairman Hugh Shelton, former U.N. ambassadors John Bolton and Bill Richardson, and Mitchell Reiss, a former State Department official who has been among Republican president candidate Mitt Romney's top foreign policy advisers since 2008.
Rendell, Giuliani and Mukasey were among 16 prominent former U.S. officials who flew to Paris for a pro-MEK rally last month. Also in Paris was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and Republican presidential candidate. In a video, Gingrich is seen bowing to the MEK's co-founder. Afterward, Gingrich appealed for "decisive action" by the United States on the group's behalf.
The MEK and its umbrella group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, denied asking anyone to lobby for them
The dissidents "have not asked anyone in the United States to advocate for them, nor do they have any agents or lobbyists in that country," said Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman. He said State Department officials had asked U.S. supporters to intervene to prevent a "humanitarian catastrophe" at the MEK's Iraqi camp, and noted that more than 100 U.S. lawmakers have co-sponsored legislation to remove the MEK from the terrorist list.
Still, some of the MEK's prominent surrogates have acknowledged accepting travel expenses from MEK-allied groups as well as speaking fees of $10,000 to $40,000 per engagement. Rendell has acknowledged accepting more than $150,000 in expenses from MEK supporters. Before he began speaking on their behalf, he says, he knew very little about the MEK.
The supporters, some of whom have acknowledged intervening on the MEK's behalf with U.S. officials, say their motives are humanitarian. They say pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government have attacked the group's followers since U.S. troops who had protected them left Iraq.
"A number of us are working with the State Department to facilitate the removal of the Iranian dissidents" from the MEK's base in Iraq, Dean said in an e-mail response to a Post query. "Since this is an effort to facilitate U.S. government policy, it does not require any form of registration."
None of the other participants responded to requests for comment.
Federal lobbying law defines a foreign "agent" as someone who acts "at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal, or of a person any of whose activities are directly or indirectly supervised, directed, controlled, financed, or subsidized in whole or in part by a foreign principal." It covers activities that include acting as a publicity agency or political consultant or representing the interests of the foreign group "before any agency or official of the government of the United States."
"The only defense would be if you can claim that you're doing it on your own, unpaid," said a retired senior U.S. official and expert on lobbying law, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss hypothetical cases covered by the statute. "But if you're getting money from the same group to make speeches, it's pretty hard to make the case."
Although the foreign agents act is often flouted in practice, "the fact that it's a criminal statute shows how the government regards this kind of activity," the former official said.
In addition to meeting with the MEK supporters, State Department officials have acknowledged that they have used them to relay messages directly to the MEK leadership to try to resolve what has become a dangerous standoff over the closing of Camp Ashraf, the former Iraqi army base northeast of Baghdad that has served as the group's home in exile since 1986.
With the Iraq government vowing to close the camp by July 20, U.S. and U.N. officials are seeking to relocate its 3,300 residents to the grounds of what was once Camp Liberty, the former U.S. military base near Baghdad's airport.
The controversy over lobbying is the latest wrinkle in an ongoing dispute over U.S. policy toward the MEK, whose name translates as "People's Holy Warriors of Iran," befitting its self-described status as the leading Iranian opposition group dedicated to overthrowing the country's ruling mullahs.
Founded by Iranian students in the 1960s as a Marxist-Islamist movement, the group is accused of killing six Americans in terrorist attacks in the 1970s during its struggle to topple the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Some of its members participated in the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 before the MEK broke with Iran's new Islamic rulers and began attacking the regime with suicide bombings and assassinations. Many of the group's leaders were captured, tried and executed.
MEK officials sought exile abroad, first in France and later in Iraq, where the group found common cause with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The dictator provided the movement with a sanctuary - later dubbed Camp Ashraf - as well as weapons, tanks and other equipment. MEK troops fought against their countrymen during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.