On May 26, 2006, a representative of the violent Iranian fugitives based in Iraq, known as MEK, addressed a forum — an anti-war forum — sponsored by the liberal Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists in Berkeley, California, as he had done the year before. Introduced as Ali Mirardal, the speaker lamented human rights abuses in Iran and offered the National Council of Resistance, a Paris-based front group for MEK, as the best hope for a democratic Iran. The US State Department has listed both as terrorist organizations.
In Iran, where the militia has been known since its inception in 1965 as Mojahedin, or jihadists, MEK lost all credibility after it became a proxy of Iran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein, in 1986. Anne Singleton, a former insider and now an advocate for penitent MEK activists in Europe, has labeled the militia “Saddam’s private army” in her book-length memoirs by the same title.
A day before the Berkeley forum took place, the far-right daily Washington Times was busy promoting MEK’s annual convention in the US capital. Perhaps you remember a similar cozy relationship the Moonie newspaper had with Nicaragua’s Contra mercenaries and with UNITA, the rebel army that terrorized Namibia on behalf of the Reagan Administration and apartheid South Africa. A Reagan-era Pentagon official and leading architect of the Iraq invasion, Richard Perle, was the keynote speaker at MEK’s 2004 convention.
Everything Unitarian Universalists stand for is contradicted by these and other MEK affiliations. Neil Livingstone, an ally of Pentagon’s Iraqi co-conspirator Ahmad Chalabi and a frequent commentator on Fox News television, is a regular speaker at MEK’s Washington rallies. So is the Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, an immigrant basher who has advocated bombing Mecca and other Muslim holy sites.
Like Perle, Livingstone, and Tancredo, MEK’s other leading defender, Raymond Tanter, is affiliated with the Israel lobby. Tanter is a full-time analyst at the hawkish pro-Israeli think tank, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But he hides that affiliation when he is interviewed by introducing himself as a professor at Georgetown University, where he teaches part-time.
These pro-MEK “national security experts” are core members of the unilateralist Washington elite that sabotages peace in Palestine/Israel, promotes the “liberation” of Iraq, and aggressively pushes confrontation with Iran. The four have personally cheered on the faithful at MEK’s Washington rallies and urged the State Department to remove the militia from its list of terrorist organizations.
Returning the favor, several MEK publicists participate in Washington gatherings of Middle Eastern regime-change conspirators. At the October, 2004 Middle Eastern American Convention for Freedom and Democracy, MEK activists rubbed shoulders with George Bush fundraisers representing such extremist movements as the “Lebanese Forces,” the far-right Phalange militia that carried out the 1982 massacres at Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila camps. A key organizer of the conference was MEK defender and former staff publicist at the Israeli embassy, Nir Boms.
A year earlier, the State Department, a known irritant to neoconservatives like Boms, had expanded its 1997 designation of MEK as a terrorist organization to include the National Council of Resistance. The NCR filed suit and mobilized its friends in Congress, but could not have the infamy reversed. (Canada and the European Union have also officially labeled MEK a “terrorist” organization.) As a last resort, US-based MEK publicists and fundraisers have activated a web of local Iranian American front groups that infiltrate mainstream organizations to build grassroots support against their terrorist “listing.”
The function of the “dissident” groups is to exaggerate Iran’s poor human rights record for consumption by liberal Americans and to fabricate a doomsday scenario of Iran’s nuclear program to impress the rest of public opinion. In this role they follow, of course, a trail well trodden by defectors from other “enemy” states, most notably during the Cold War. The group that was invited to address Berkeley’s liberal community on May 26, the so-called Iranian American Community of Northern California, is MEK’s front organization in the Bay Area.
Bait and Switch
While MEK activists feign humanistic values before mainstream audiences, they work closely with some of the extremist Washington circles that push for preemptive US confrontation with Iran. (Other American unilateralist think tanks prefer to support the rival monarchist Iranian groups here.) For example, the Iranian “security expert” who regularly warns us about Iranian fundamentalism on Fox News television, Alireza Jafarzadeh, is none other than the terror group’s former registered Washington representative.
Jafarzadeh’s office at the National Press Building, located two blocks from the White House, was shut down in 2003 on orders from the then Secretary of State Colin Powell. When confronted by other Iranian expatriates, MEK activists rarely deny the militia’s collaboration with the Washington hawks and Israel partisans. Rather, they insist that the necessity of a coup in Iran justifies any and all shortcuts to victory.
Although it is hard to fathom, MEK’s front groups have a superficial anti-war line, one that Berkeley’s progressive radio KPFA (a Pacifica station) swallowed whole in 2005. It goes like this: “We are against foreign intervention and ask for no help from Western powers. However, the beleaguered people of Iran — whom MEK represents — just want the US government to stop appeasing the mullahs so MEK can free Iranians from tyranny. How can the American public help liberate Iranians peacefully and save civilization from the Iranian nuclear threat, too? Why, of course, they should push the State Department to remove the ‘terrorist’ label from MEK.” But although it presents itself as an antiwar, pro-human rights organization, not a single MEK or National Council of Resistance statement has condemned US actions in Iraq. Instead, the militia’s criticism is reserved for observers who question its sincerity.
KPFA reporter, Joshua Smith, interviewed MEK demonstrators about their demands last July, but did not ask what legitimate connection there could be between MEK’s status in the US and its ability to liberate Iranians. After all, MEK claims at every available opportunity that it relies entirely on its boundless popularity in Iran and therefore needs no foreign sponsor. Could it be that the key to democracy in Iran is more aggressive MEK fundraising in the US — not practical unless the militia shakes off the “terrorist” label — and expanded campaign contributions to American lawmakers?
Nor did the Unitarian Universalists of Berkeley. But what brought together their progressive church and the so-called Iranian American Community of Northern California was not a case of “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Rather, the Fellowship fell for MEK’s “nonviolent change by the people” PR, devised for non-Iranian consumption. (Until MEK lost its Iraqi sponsor in 2003, its Farsi-language satellite television and literature proudly marketed MEK as an aggressive “national liberation army” with ample photos of its Saddam-supplied heavy armor and uniformed fighters in military formation. The militia’s highly secretive, regimented hierarchy is also well-known among Iranians.) This bait-and-switch strategy has succeeded in blunting the Western public’s awareness of MEK, as the militia’s activists approach liberal and humanist opinion-makers in the US, Canada, and Europe through an elaborate network of “dissident” groups.
In 2000, the 100,000-member Feminist Majority Foundation co-sponsored a Washington rally against Afghanistan’s Taliban fundamentalists with the so-called National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran. A quick web search leaves little doubt that the sole purpose of “National Committee” was then and still is to promote MEK. More recently Ron Jacobs, whose political commentaries appear regularly on left-of-center websites, described MEK as “a humane alternative to both Tehran and Washington” whose religious “approach is no different than that of liberal Christian and Jewish denominations.”
MEK’s incessant PR campaign has taken on added urgency with the growing pressure on the US military to withdraw from Iraq, a prospect that would put MEK at the mercy of either international aid organizations or MEK’s former victims who now govern Iraq. So, when extensive research led Human Rights Watch to denounce the militia in 2005 as a cult that mistreats its members, MEK hit back with a costly campaign of press conferences, interviews, “witness” testimonies, and published rebuttals on both sides of the Atlantic to discredit the report. As they always do against their critics, MEK publicists charged that Human Rights Watch was influenced by agents of Iran’s government. One is left with the feeling that the militia’s campaign to spread “tolerance,” like that of neoconservatives, is aimed against its intolerant critics like HRW only.
Fanatic Friends in High Places
Also known as Mojahedin (or Mujahedin), MKO, and PMOI, the militia was armed and funded by Saddam Hussein from 1986 to 2003 for its bloody cross-border terror campaign to overthrow Iran’s government. MEK activists also violently overran a dozen Iranian consulates worldwide in 1992.
Since the US invaded Iraq and placed the fighters (reportedly numbering 3,800) in protective custody, a number of preemptive warriors in Washington have suggested using them to destabilize Iran. To slow down this cabal, Congressman Dennis Kucinich has demanded that the White House explain the Pentagon’s rumored recruitment of MEK mercenaries. American backers of other Iranian defectors have similarly denounced MEK’s influence in Washington.
Rejected widely in Iran for treason and in Iraq for participating in Saddam’s atrocities, MEK must rely on Pentagon’s regime-change hawks to survive and continue its 25-year campaign to unseat Iran’s government. The fighters’ number one priority now, as their numerous websites attest, is to be recognized in the West as the one and only “anti-fundamentalist” safe option for Iran. Their propaganda has, therefore, focused entirely on frightening Western public opinion about Iran, as their neoconservative allies do.
Berkeley’s Unitarian Universalists could have availed themselves of this information before they invited the so-called Iranian American Community of Northern California to their forum. IACNC richly promoted MEK as the sole democratic alternative to the Iranian government at the church last year, too. The Fellowship could also have known what kind of friends MEK has in high places. Investigative journalist Laura Rozen reported in 2005 that former Congressman Dick Armey — a confidante of President Bush — vouched for MEK when the militia needed help to recruit certain high profile American speakers for its convention.
At the 2005 convention, held three blocks from the White House, “The crowd gave rapturous applause to words of support from Republican Senators Kay Hutchinson from Texas and James Talent from Missouri,” reported an official MEK website, referring to the conservative senators’ solidarity messages read by staffers.
The notorious John Ashcroft did not mind backing the mercenaries, either. According to Newsweek, “When Mahnaz Samadi, one of [MEK’s] spokeswomen, was detained by U.S. immigration authorities in early 2000 on grounds that she did not disclose her past ‘terrorist’ ties, including her role as a ‘military commander’ for the MEK, John Ashcroft, then a senator, wrote a letter of ‘concern’ to Attorney General Janet Reno. . . . Ashcroft described Samadi as a ‘highly regarded human-rights activist’ and a ‘powerful voice for democracy.'”.
Added Newsweek, “When the National Council of Resistance staged a September 2000 rally outside the United Nations to protest a speech by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, Missouri’s two Republican senators — Ashcroft and Chris Bond — issued a joint statement of solidarity that was read aloud to a cheering crowd . . . and a picture of a smiling Ashcroft was later included in a color briefing book used by MKO officials to promote their cause on Capitol Hill.”
On the House side, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami is MEK’s leading supporter, as a full-page MEK ad in the New York Times made clear on January 15, 2003. She is a member of the Committee on International Relations and considered a leading contender for its chairmanship after this year’s elections. Re-elected continuously since 1988 with the help of south Florida’s powerful Cuban and Zionist extremists, she is known for authoring or co-sponsoring all legislation that promote sanctions or regime change against Syria, Iran, Cuba, and lately Venezuela. This is how former US diplomat Wayne Smith describes the Ros-Lehtinen’s fondness for friendly terrorists:
[O]n June 15 [2005,] Venezuela again formally asked the U.S. government to extradite [self-described serial bomber Luis Posada] to Venezuela. . . . And how did Posada get out of prison in Panama and return to Miami? Why, because U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and her two congressional colleagues, Lincoln and Mario Díaz Balart, wrote to then-President Mireya Moscoso requesting that she pardon him . . . .
Nor was this the first time Ros-Lehtinen had acted to free terrorists. [Orlando] Bosch, also accused of being a mastermind of the 1976 Cubana airliner bombing, was released from Venezuelan prison under mysterious circumstances in 1987 and returned to Miami without a visa in 1988. . . . Urged on by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Jeb Bush — then managing her election campaign — the administration of George H.W. Bush approved a pardon for Bosch, who has lived freely ever since in Miami.
Based in Washington DC, Rostam Pourzal writes regularly on the politics of human rights.