As the US Department of State is contemplating whether to remove the Iranian Islamic Mujahedin-e Khalq group (MEK) from its terrorist list, a debate is taking place among pundits with some arguing for the removal and some for the status quo. The MEK has already been taken off the terrorist list of the EU, and in the US the group is being treated as if it is not listed.
Opponents of delisting rightly remind us that the MEK has been involved in acts of violence against Americans, Iranians and their own members, and that the group is a cult-like and anti-democratic force. Founding members of the MEK murdered several Americans in Iran in 1970s, and the group actively supported taking Americans hostage in Tehran in 1980.
The MEK supported Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran in 1980. That “long war,” when Iraq also used chemical weapons, left some 500,000 Iranians dead and maimed, destroyed about 120 Iranian cities and towns, and caused close to $120 billion in economic loss. The MEK also helped Saddam Hussein to suppress the Kurdish rebellion in 1991 following the first US war with Iraq.
It is no wonder that the MEK is despised in both the US and Iran. It is a terrorist group to the Americans, a “Monafegh” (hypocritically Muslim) group to the Islamic Republic, and a “khaen” (traitor) group to most Iranians. Even MEK’s past members have charged that it forbids internal democracy and treats members critical of the group’s activities quite savagely.
While the MEK is building support among western officials, it is still censured by most Iranians. This was not the case in its formative years in 1970s when the guerilla group was a hero to young Iranians contesting dictatorship of the Shah and American domination. The original MEK included Islamists and Marxists; before long they split violently and the Islamists took over.
The tragic conversion from a loyalist to a traitor group began in 1979 when the MEK parted with the Islamic Republic, murdered state officials, including a president and a prime minister, and joined Saddam Hussein. Ever since those early blows, a tragically vicious cycle of violence has continued between the Islamic Republic and the MEK, resulting in several thousand deaths.
Opponents of delisting rightly suspect that the group may never become democratic or even pragmatic. However, it is ridiculous to assert, as they do, that removing the MEK from the US terrorist list will strengthen the Islamic regime, demoralize the Iranian reformers, threaten the freedom of Iranian-Americans, and give the MEK the power to impose a US war on Iran.
First, Iran’s “rising” power and reformers’ adversity occurred while the MEK was on the terrorist list. Second, a delisted MEK could hardly bully Iranian-Americans in a democratic America. Finally, the US’ Iran policy is designed to avoid war while intensifying “targeted sanctions.” Short of an accident, failure of sanctions can be used to justify a war - a la Iraq.
Not all opposed to delisting are genuinely concerned about its upshot; some are moved by sheer self-interest - anti-Iran activism is a business. These people use MEK as a facade to conceal their own deleterious acts, e.g., supporting sanctions and calling for the surveillance of Iranian scientists. Delisting will expose these foul-crying groups who deceptively single out the MEK as the only wicked force.
Enemies of the Islamic Republic have often used the MEK as a bogyman even if the group has been a failure. To them, delisting will mean public funds and more power. More money sure, but delisting will weaken the MEK as it becomes one among many contesting opposition groups. The Islamic regime will publically scorn the US, accusing it of hypocrisy in fighting terrorism; privately, however, Tehran will welcome delisting as it pacifies the MEK.
Delisting the MEK might indeed be a step in the right direction. Iranian patriotism has suffered for the fact that a group among them has been on the terrorist list of the US, a nation which many of them cherish. The MEK in the past was the most anti-American of all Iranian groups. US delisting the MEK is then a step toward normalizing relations between Americans and Iranians.
The Iranian people will welcome any moderating influence on the MEK, which has been a source of extremism, violence and fear in a nation that is longing for peace and reconciliation. A delisted MEK will have to transform itself from a paramilitary into a political group. If this were to happen, the Iranians would be relieved and Iran’s vilified image will be somewhat rectified.
By delisting the MEK the US will lose a useless bogyman, but gain a redundant anti-Iran propaganda machine. This can cost America tax dollars, image and a better Iran policy unless the delisted MEK is put on a tight leash. This control must begin by demilitarizing the MEK, which along with delisting helps resolve the humanitarian crisis in Camp Ashraf in Iraq where some 3400 reside including children.
Delisting will make the US look hypocritical for supporting human rights in Iran given the MEK’s dreadful human rights record. Yet, delisting can advance US-Iran relations and Iranian reconciliation - the musts for democracy in Iran. To strike such moral victory, the US must also renounce regime change and use of force while incrementally lifting sanctions and easing Iran’s security concerns. In return, Iran must gradually address American/IAEA’s nuclear concerns.
The ball is in the US court of goodwill.
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