Paul Pillar

Consorting with a Cult

One of the most persistent, and mysteriously supported, campaigns in support of a really reprehensible organization has been waged on behalf of the Iranian cult-cum-terrorist-group known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq. The campaign appears to have been stepped up lately, with the immediate objective being to get the MEK taken off the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. Panels have been organized in Washington at which some big-name figures have given paid speeches endorsing the group—such as former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who says he was paid a “substantial amount” to appear on such a panel last month. A combination of pecuniary interests and scant knowledge about the nature of the group may explain some of the support for delisting. A destructively simplistic, zero-sum attitude regarding policy toward Iran explains some more of it. Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA), one of the members of Congress who favors removing the MEK from the list, says that the group should not be considered a terrorist organization because “they are enemies of enemies of the United States.” No, Congressman, even enemies of the United States have enemies that are terrorist groups.

One should recall the main features of the MEK's record. It began its terrorist history during the 1970s when, in the course of trying to undermine the shah's regime, it assassinated six U.S. citizens. It supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the holding hostage of U.S. diplomats, The group broke with the revolutionary regime only after it lost a struggle for power. It subsequently threw in its lot with Saddam Hussein and in effect became an arm of Saddam's security forces. Its members live today at a camp in Iraq where, according to journalists, human rights organizations, and foreign diplomats, its cult-like habits are readily apparent. Members who have managed to exit the group tell of being brainwashed and being held in the camp for years against their will. It is hard to identify what this group, whose ideology always has been a strange mixture of Marxism and Islamic fundamentalism, stands for other than the group leaders' continued control over its members.

To think of the MEK as some kind of policy tool to use against Tehran is both foolish and bizarre. Any positive move toward the group would do absolutely nothing to advance any conceivable U.S. objective regarding Iran. The MEK has virtually no support within Iran, mostly because of its operating on behalf of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and not just because of the terrorist attacks it has conducted within Iran since the war. The Green Movement—the resistance front opposing the regime in Tehran—publicly denounces the MEK. Opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi goes so far as to suggest that the Iranian regime welcomes a revival of the MEK as a way of undermining the Green Movement.

Any favor done to the MEK would not only needlessly complicate any possibilities for reaching understandings with Tehran, on nuclear programs or anything else, but also needlessly antagonize many members of the Iranian public. It would present the United States as a blatantly inconsistent hypocrite on matters of counterterrorism and human rights. Anyone who allows himself to get mixed up in a campaign to legitimize the MEK deserves to be embarrassed.