Why are Newt Gingrich, Joe Lieberman and Patrick Kennedy hanging with members of a terrorist cult?
Several well-known American political figures appeared at a rally in Paris on June 27 in support of an anti-Iran organization that was until recently formally listed as a terrorist group by the United States and Europe. They included Howard Dean, John R. Bolton, Bill Richardson, Newt Gingrich, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and Joseph I. Lieberman. Their appearance and their support for the People's Mujahedin Organization (MEK) as an Iranian "opposition group" demonstrates their cluelessness about Iran. Considering the group's history, its popularity in Iran is comparable to an American-led affiliate of Al-Qaeda.
Among the many victims of MEK terror are innocent civilians in Iran, as well as Westerners including Americans. Its violent history, cultic nature and oppression of its own members spans close to four decades. It supported Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1980s, and its leader even boasted about killing thousands of Iranians while this cult served ex-Iraqi dictator's expansionist ambitions. The scope of their crimes against the people of Iran and Iraq among others is baffling, and yet many Western countries seem to be unwilling to impose serious restrictions on the MEK the way they do with other terrorist groups.
It has also been reported that some in the American foreign policy community are conflicted about there being a possible role for this group in the future of American policy towards Iran. But one must wonder what state of bewilderment has befallen American foreign policy when such a group is seen as even a potential part of a solution to its policy conundrums in the Middle East.
Some American politicians supporting the MEK have claimed that these accusations are merely allegations from opponents in Tehran. In fact, scores of journalists, government agencies, and think tanks from around the world have catalogued these practices. The U.S. Department of State has stated that the MEK is "responsible for violent attacks in Iran that victimize civilians" including "attacks against clearly civilian targets." Adding that the MEK "joined Saddam Hussein's brutal repression of the Kurdish rebellion" in 1991. The State Department has also referred to them as a "repressive cult despised by most Iranians and Iraqis." This is the reason why the Iraqi people, Kurds and Shiites in particular despise this group, not Iranian political influence as some have tried to claim.
U.S. based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has extensively recorded the MEK's oppression of its own members, demanding that they divorce their spouses and "all physical and emotional attachments in order to enhance their 'capacity for struggle.'" HRW also stated that MEK members are exposed to "solitary confinement to beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution, and torture that in two cases led to death."
Recently the French Foreign Ministry decried the MEK's "violent and non-democratic inspirations," its ''cult nature" and "intense campaign of influence and disinformation."
U.S. officials attributed their removal from the list of terror groups to what they deemed the MEK's "public renunciation of violence." But the MEK's stated renunciation of violence also involved the claim that it had never itself targeted civilians - an assertion the State Department has clearly said is false. After the September 11 attacks, the MEK understood that their fate would lie in the hands of the West and that they could no longer rely on their benefactor, Saddam Hussein. The decision in 2001 to lay down arms and stop murdering civilians was a tactical decision - not a moral epiphany - that can be overturned if the aforementioned strategic calculation was ever to change.
Moreover, in 2009, the State Department submitted information in court stating the MEK had trained individuals "to perform suicide attacks" and a declassified FBI report from 2004 similarly found that MEK cells around the world were "actively ... planning and executing acts of terrorism." Most importantly, none of the members of the organization have ever been brought to justice by the Western governments who give them shelter.
Instead Washington lobbyists and former American politicians and officials have accepted millions of dollars from the group, as campaign donation or speakers fees - the exact amounts of which most refuse to disclose publicly - in return for which they have publicly supported the MEK, claiming them to be an opposition group that deserves the protection of the U.S. By undertaking these efforts that the Rand Corporation called "cultic practices and its deceptive recruitment," the group managed to get itself removed from the terror list.
The dual nature of standards against terrorism is likely the greatest threat being faced by international efforts to stop terrorism today. If politicians are to be selective in opposing one terrorist group while supporting another based on their potential geopolitical usefulness, many nations would have many reasons to support various terrorist groups. When fighting terrorism, reaching for moral consistency cannot be seen as a possible option or an inconvenience; it must be considered a necessity.
It remains unclear why an organization with such a violent history would be allowed so freely to operate in many Western countries, raise money, build institutions, and ultimately be allowed to engage in a multi-million dollar political campaign. It's simply impossible to imagine al-Qaeda or Boko Haram having the same level of freedom to operate.
The principle of the prevention of impunity dictates that acts of terror must not remain without legal consequence and those responsible must be brought to justice. The many victims of the MEK, those who have been killed or maimed and their family members deserve justice and the principles that Western nations claim to be unflinchingly dedicated to in the context of the so-called war on terror are trampled on every day that they accommodate terrorists, rather than contribute to their prosecution.
Hamid Babaei is counselor for the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations.