Famed attorney Alan Dershowitz, former Canadian Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel — three prominent Jewish activists who have joined with other prominent people in a bid to remove a group with a blood-soaked history from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
The names on the growing list of influential American advocates to de-list the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK — known in English as the National Council of Resistance of Iran — suggest an effort to give the bid a pro-Israel imprimatur.
On the record, the people involved insist there is no Israel element to what they say is a humanitarian endeavor to remove the movement’s followers from danger.
“I don’t see any Israel issue at all,” Dershowitz told JTA in an interview, instead casting it in terms of Hillel’s dictum, “If I am only for myself, who am I?”
Off the record, however, figures close to the campaign use another ancient Middle Eastern dictum to describe the involvement of supporters of Israel: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
A source close to the effort to bring pro-Israel voices into the initiative cited reports that Israel has allied with the MEK, which reportedly maintains agents in Iran and in the past has published details of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The organized pro-Israel community, however, has been reluctant to sign on. One official at a pro-Israel group said pushing to de-list MEK without a full review could undercut efforts to keep groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah on the list.
“They're listed as a terrorist group, and until the U.S. government says otherwise, we’re not going to deal with them,” said the official, whose group otherwise counsels a tough posture against the Iranian regime.
The MEK, an Iranian exile group that some accuse of being a cult, has maintained a presence in Iraq since 1986, when Saddam Hussein welcomed it as a useful thorn in the side of his deadly enemy. From its border encampment, Camp Ashraf, it conducted operations against the theocracy in Iran. The MEK claims to have ended military activities in 2001.
Subsequent to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that removed Saddam, Camp Ashraf disarmed as a condition of maintaining its presence in the country.
Now, in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, Ashraf’s 3,400 residents feel vulnerable to a hostile regime seen as closely allied with Iran. According to the Associated Press, an Iraqi army raid last year left 34 camp residents dead.
The United Nations wants to move the residents to a former U.S. Army base, Camp Liberty, but the MEK and its advocates say the site is equally insecure — and in severe disrepair and uninhabitable. Four hundred members of the group already have been relocated to Camp Liberty.
“The main issue is 3,400 civilians, without regard what they may have done in the past,” Dershowitz said. “The United States made a promise to them.”
The effort is backed by an ideologically diverse group of prominent former government officials that includes U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Attorney General Michael Mukasey and Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.
In a column this week for the Huffington Post, Allan Gerson, a Washington attorney who served in various posts in the Reagan administration, cited Reinhold Niebuhr, the anti-totalitarian theologian, in asserting that the State Department has “lost its sense of humanity” in resisting moves to de-list the group.
This week Gerson and a number of other lawyers filed a request to a federal appeals court in Washington on behalf of the MEK asking for the group to be removed from the terrorist list. In 2010 the court had ruled that the State Department must respond to the arguments in the MEK's petition to be de-listed.
“Our focus is on reviewing the MEK’s FTO designation in accordance with the D.C. Circuit’s decision and applicable law,” Rhonda Shore, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. “At the conclusion of the Department’s review, the decision will be made whether or not to grant the MEK’s petition to revoke the FTO designation."
Advocates of de-listing the MEK say it would facilitate the removal of the Ashraf residents to other countries, including the United States. At a conference on Saturday at Washington’s venerable Willard Hotel, speaker after speaker made the case for de-listing. Giuliani noted that a number of European nations already had removed the group from terrorist lists.
“I wrote a book on leadership, and one of the chapters says you have to stand up to bullies because if you don't stand up to bullies, you encourage them and they take advantage of you,” Giuliani said. “Best example of that, of course, was the lead up to the Second World War, Chamberlain and Hitler. We are reproducing history yet again.”
Speakers at the conference, organized by a group called the Global Initiative for Democracy, emphasized what they said was the inhumanity of keeping the Ashraf residents in danger. They also used the occasion to call for an end to the Iranian regime.
“It's time for President Obama to become Ronald Reagan and to look [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] straight in the eye and call them what they are, an evil empire,” Giuliani said. “To do what Ronald Reagan did and point missiles at their city.”
Dershowitz, who announced at the conference that Cotler and Wiesel had joined the effort, said the crisis of the MEK followers stranded in Iraq was “part of a larger problem.” Dershowitz accused the Obama administration of “talking with two voices on Iran itself.”
Wiesel and Cotler did not return calls seeking comment by press time.
Opponents of de-listing point to MEK’s bloody past. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, the group, which had Marxist tendencies, is believed to have been behind a number of attacks on U.S. figures working with the Shah’s regime. Then in 1981, the MEK is believed to have been behind two massive bomb attacks that killed dozens in the theocracy’s leadership.
Last year, Elizabeth Rubin, a New York Times Magazine contributor who reported from Camp Ashraf, wrote an opinion article criticizing the MEK’s American advocates and calling the group “a totalitarian cult that will come back to haunt us.” She cited a RAND Corp. study’s suggestion that many of those at Camp Ashraf were being held there by the MEK against their will.
Opponents of de-listing MEK also say that the group’s alliance with the hated Saddam in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq War, means its support is virtually nil among Iranians.
“Iranians by and large have no love for this regime,” said Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council, a group that favors diplomatic outreach as a means of defusing tensions with Iran. “The one group they despise more is the MEK, and the one group that can unite people in the regime's favor is the MEK, so what the government of Iran has done is label all opponents as affiliated with MEK.”
De-listing MEK would play into that narrative, he said, and "undermines support" for democracy groups in Iran.