In 1997, US President Bill Clinton added Iran’s People’s Mujahadeen (Mujahideen Khalq in Persian, or MEK) to the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, and in 2012 his wife Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took them off.
One of them erred and erred badly.
The MEK fought hard against the Shah Reza Pahlavi before and during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Afterward, when the Islamist faction led by Ayatollah Khomeini emerged the strong horse in the ensuing struggle for power, they fought the new government alongside Iran’s leftist movements and lost.
Iran’s government insists on calling them terrorists and convinced Bill Clinton to do so as well.
They’re based in France now. They have to base themselves somewhere outside Iran because they’ll be tortured and executed if they go home. And they’ve formed a larger umbrella organization that includes other opposition movements called the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Every year they hold a huge rally in Paris that’s broadcast live on television (via satellite, of course) into Iran.
They invited me this year, so I went.
I was a little bit skeptical at the outset. Hillary Clinton only took them off the terrorist list a couple of years ago. Their roots are quasi-Marxist and Islamist. Their most strident critics insist that the MEK is some kind of a cult and that nobody inside Iran likes them. But I went anyway because…why not? I don’t work for them or answer to them. I can write whatever I want. I could denounce them as a gaggle of hysterical charlatans and propagandists and nothing bad would happen to me.
And they get that. “We won’t tell you what to write,” said Ali Safavi, the man who invited me. “We wouldn’t dare.”
He isn’t stupid. If they pressured me to write anything positive—or even anything in particular—I’d bust them for it in public and warn my colleagues in the media to avoid them.
I won’t, though. Whatever they were when they started out back in the 70s, they’ve gone mainstream in the meantime—not by Middle Eastern standards, but by Western standards.
They were squishily Marxist at the beginning, though they were never communist or even socialist, really. Mostly they belonged to Ali Shariati’s school of wild-eyed anti-imperialism. Since the United States backed the Shah, they were anti-American.
In the 1970s, when the Shah was still in power, they violently attacked Iranian targets. Some accuse them of attacking Western targets as well. Supposedly they bombed American-owned buildings and assassinated US military personnel in Iran. They insist, however, that they never attacked Westerners, that those hits were carried out by the communist splinter faction Peykar.
I don’t know who’s right. Maybe they didn’t do it. Maybe they pretend that they didn’t because they’re pro-American now and need American help. Either way, the 1970s were almost half a century ago. It’s not clear to me how much it should matter today even if they’re guilty.
What else was going on during the 1970s? Vietnamese officials were executing landlords and sending dissidents to “re-education” camps. Their soldiers killed tens of thousands of ours. (Ours killed many times more of theirs, of course.) America’s relations with Vietnam today are outstanding, though, because the past is the past. People change, parties change, governments change and history rolls ever onward.
Likewise, our relations with the MEK are outstanding. They haven’t even allegedly done anything bad to America for at least three and a half decades. Why would they? We have common enemies now. They’ve been ruthlessly persecuted by Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Khomeinists insist the MEK is “contaminated” with atheism and the “Western plague.”
Here’s another reason the regime hates them so much: the MEK is the only major Middle Eastern political movement led by a woman, Maryam Rajavi. She is Iran’s Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled woman who wishes to overthrow an illegitimate government by rallying forces around her from abroad. (Unlike our Game of Thrones heroine, Rajavi is not angling to be queen, nor does she command any dragons.)
During the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK assassinated a number of regime officials and military officers inside Iran. Hence Iran’s designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization.
There is a difference, though, between guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Declaring that any and all violent action against a tyrannical regime is terrorism ignores the vast moral and political differences between the likes of Osama bin Laden and Thomas Jefferson. The imbecilic answer that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is not going to cut it. Crashing civilian airliners into the World Trade Center was an act of terrorism by any and all definitions while the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation was in practice and spirit its opposite.
Bill Clinton didn’t designate the MEK a terrorist organization because of what it did during the 1970s or even the 1990s. He added it to the list because he was trying to improve relations with the Iranian government after the alleged “moderate” Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 and Khatami asked him to do it. Never mind that Khatami wasn’t a real moderate or even Iran’s head of state. Iran’s head of state, then as now, was “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei. Iran during Khatami’s time was no more “moderate” than it was with the bombastic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as its president.
Want to know what real Iranian moderates look like? Take a look at the MEK’s 10-point platform for a future Iran.
1. A republic based on universal suffrage.
2. Individual freedoms, including free expression and a free press.
3. The abolition of the death penalty.
4. Separation of mosque and state.
5. Gender equality.
6. The rule of law.
7. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
8. Private property and a market economy.
9. A foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence.
10. A non-nuclear Iran.
There’s nothing Marxist or Islamist in there. Those ten points read like the first draft of a constitution in a modern liberal democracy.
Under what theory should the West spurn these people in favor of a government that tortures dissidents, supports terrorist armies all over the Middle East and hangs homosexuals from cranes in the capital?
It’s disgraceful that the United States called them terrorists at the behest of a totalitarian regime, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when we try to make peace with our enemies before they’re ready to stop being our enemies. At least Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had the decency to reverse what her husband did, but not until after a years-long legal battle finally forced her.
The event in Paris was a grand spectacle. It lasted eight hours.
Roughly 100,000 people attended, the vast majority of them Iranians living in exile. Never in my life have I seen so many human beings in one place. The MEK may not be popular inside Iran, but it sure as hell is in the European diaspora, which suggests its popularity back home may not be quite so near the floor as its critics allege.
The gathering was out by the airport. It couldn’t be held anywhere near the center of Paris. None of the Haussmann-era buildings are even remotely large enough to hold so many people.
Honestly, I thought I’d be bored. I was jet lagged and exhausted, and if I’m going to spend a few days in France, I don’t want to be stranded in the suburban asteroid belt near the airport. I want to hang out at a café in the Latin Quarter and peruse the Musee d’Orsay.
Yet I wasn’t bored for even five minutes. The organizers managed to keep things interesting and engaging with a splendid diversity of programming, including thunderous speeches, riveting films, and music and dance.
Most of the speakers weren’t Iranian. They were high profile officials from the United States, the European Union and the Middle East, including Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal. He delivered a real stemwinder in Arabic, opening with heartfelt praise of the high accomplishments of Persian civilization since the time of the Zoroastrians—Persians are not accustomed to hearing this sort of talk from Arabs—and ending with a clarion call for regime-change in Iran.
Thanks to the MEK’s reputation and past, I expected the event to be strange, perhaps even a little surreal, but it was as conventional as the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, partly because the organization is so wired into Washington now.
Here is but a sample of who attended from the American side of the Atlantic:
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia)
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean (Democrat)
Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (Democrat)
Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island.)
Former Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey)
Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (Republican)
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) was also scheduled to be there, but couldn’t make it.
How far the MEK has come. From an officially designated “terrorist organization” to an organization with bipartisan clout inside Washington rivaling Britain’s.
Every single one of those speakers flew to Paris not only to support the Iranian opposition, but also regime-change in Iran. “The regime is doomed,” Howard Dean said during a pre-event panel discussion, “and we’d like to help it along on its path to doomsday as fast as possible…It stands for everything that is evil and bad about humanity. Our job is to make sure they don’t succeed, and the faster we get them out of there, the better.”
It was refreshing to see so many American officials from across the political spectrum on the same stage agreeing with each other about something so fundamental. They all made the current occupant of the White House and our current White House contenders look pale by comparison. Nice to see Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, but it would have been even better if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump decided to come.
Unlike Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich, Clinton and Obama are not calling for regime-change in Iran. Clinton almost certainly privately wants it, but there’s no real evidence that Obama does. Clinton is more skeptical than Obama about Washington’s new arrangement with Tehran, but she’s campaigning in part on his nuclear deal.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, would have prohibited every single one of the MEK’s members and supporters from even entering the United States on a tourist visa before he finally climbed down from his ludicrous proposition to ban every foreign Muslim on earth from setting foot on American soil.
Critics say the MEK has little or no support inside Iran, in part because it opposes the nuclear deal. That deal is extremely popular on the Iranian street. It partially ends Iran’s international isolation and should, at least in theory, boost Iran’s anemic economy. Perhaps the critics are right. Honestly, I have no idea.
What I do know, without any doubt whatsoever, is that whatever these people were in the 1970s, today they’re genuine liberals and moderates. They are not the fake moderates of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iranian presidency. Nor do they resemble, in any meaningful way, Turkey’s false moderate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is rapidly transforming himself from the Middle East’s Hugo Chavez into its Stalin. No, these Iranian folks are the real deal, and it’s nice to see Western capitals treat them accordingly.