Former members of Congress and ex-national security officials are calling on the Obama administration to speed up the resettlement of more than 3,000 Iranian dissidents living in Iraq who were recently attacked in their unarmed camp.
At a luncheon Tuesday on Capitol Hill, President Obama's former national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, said the rocket and mortar attack last month on the members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, was most likely carried out with military equipment that the United States supplied to the Iraqi government. He called on the administration to make good on stated commitments to resettle the refugees, who "have counted on our assurances."
The MEK is an Iranian opposition group that has lived in exile in Iraq since the 1980s, when it assisted Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. A Shiite militant group claimed responsibility for the attack. The government of Iraq, which maintains close ties to Iran, considers the MEK a terrorist organization and wants its members to leave the country. They are now living at a decommissioned American military base formerly known as Camp Liberty.
Tuesday's event was not unlike many rallies that the MEK has held in recent years featuring passionate statements of support from some of the most well-known and influential figures of American government. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton both spoke at the luncheon, as did former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, one of the MEK's most vocal supporters. At a large rally in the Washington Convention Center last month, a bipartisan group of policy experts and former elected officials spoke in support of MEK on the same day Camp Liberty was attacked.
In addition to the status of the camp's residents, talk of potential war was in the air at the Capitol Hill event, which was held in the grand Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a member of the Armed Services Committee, told the assembly of congressional staff and MEK supporters that the Iranian regime must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"You have to know how deeply we consider the danger of a nuclear Iran," said Sessions, who had just come from a hearing that touched on US nuclear posture. "The will of the United States on this should not be underestimated." Sessions said that if President Obama took military action against Iran to halt its weapons development "he would have great support in the Congress." Sessions' remarks were greeted with two standing ovations by many in the audience.
The MEK has been remarkably successful at drawing a wide swath of bipartisan support to its cause. But it has had a complicated and polarizing history in Washington. Its members helped overthrow the shah of Iran in the late 1970s, but the group soon fell out with the theocratic regime that replaced Iran's ruler. The MEK, which currently advocates secularism and democracy in Iran, waged a campaign of militant opposition inside the country and from exile in Iraq.
But the MEK was blamed for the killings of US citizens in Tehran, including military personnel and civilians, as well a terrorist attack on US soil in 1992, against the Iranian mission to the United Nations. (The current leadership disavows those attacks as the work of splinter groups.) When the United States started keeping a list of designated foreign terrorist organizations in 1997, the MEK was among the first groups put on it.
But then the MEK renounced violence in 2001, and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, it handed over its weapons to the American military as part of a ceasefire agreement. In 2002, the group also publicly revealed evidence of Iran's secret attempts to enrich uranium, a key component of its nuclear weapons program.
Positioning itself as a force for popular, democratic change in Iran, the MEK made a public and legal bid to be removed from the terrorist list. The State Department was skeptical of the group’s political aims. The MEK’s strongest critics liken it to a cult, and say it demands devotional loyalty to the MEK’s leadership.
“There is nothing in the way they govern themselves that would suggest they’re interested in adopting democratic principles,” a senior State Department official said last year. “We continue to have serious concerns about the group with regard to allegations of abuse that’s committed against its own members”
But in September 2012, following a successful court challenge, the MEK was "de-listed" by the State Department. And despite any misgivings about the group’s culture or its motives, officials recognized that it had credibly renounced violence for more than a decade and posed no future threat.
The MEK’s push to get off the terrorist list was taken up by a retinue of political luminaries who offered passionate, public advocacy. "Rarely in the annals of lobbying in the capital has so obscure a cause attracted so stellar a group of supporters: former directors of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., retired generals and famous politicians of both parties," wrote the New York Times' Scott Shane.
Some of those notables were present at the luncheon Tuesday, speaking now spoke with equal vigor for the United States to assist the residents of Camp Liberty. During the much larger gathering last month at the Washington Convention Center, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani went so far as to demand that President Obama immediately order military aircraft flown to Iraq to pick up the MEK members and bring them to the United States. Others attending the rally expressing their support for the group included Jones and Hamilton, as well as former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former White House counterterrorism adviser Fran Townsend, former Senator Rick Santorum, and ex-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.
American journalists have also spoken in support of the MEK, including Carl Bernstein and the columnist Clarence Page, who was paid $20,000 to speak at an MEK rally in Paris but later returned the money, saying he should have sought permission from his editors at the Chicago Tribune. (Page was in the audience at the event on the Hill but did not speak.)
Advocates for the MEK have taken speakers' fees for their appearances. Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was reportedly paid $160,000 for appearing at seven MEK events.
But the group's supporters also have commented on their own in the press. On Monday, Jones told CNN's Erin Burnett that the residents of Camp Liberty are living in worse conditions than terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some of the advocates have made unpaid appearances, as well, and have described the plight of the MEK members in emotional and personal terms. Jones, for one, has criticized the administration of which he was once a senior member for not making good on its promises to protect Camp Liberty from attack. Technically, the government of Iraq is responsible for the MEK’s security, a situation that its members and supporters find untenable.
The State Department supports the efforts of the United Nations to resettle the Iranian exiles. "There are questions of working through the individual dossiers and matching those who are willing to be resettled with recipient countries," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters last month. "So that process is going on, and UN [High Commissioner for Refugees] is doing that work now."
But the MEK members want more than resettlement. The group sees itself as the most credible opposition force to the regime in Tehran, and they want US officials to back them. In that effort, the MEK has again been aided by former officials, who have called on the Obama administration to utilize the group as an intelligence-gathering network and a voice for democratic opposition in Iran.
The State Department remains reticent. During a background briefing last year, a senior department official said the group was not a credible force for change.
"We do not see the MEK as a viable opposition or democratic opposition movement. We have no evidence and we have no confidence that the MEK is an organization that could promote the democratic values that we would like to see in Iran," the senior official said.
But the MEK has been counted out before and shown remarkable resiliency. If the events of the past month are any indication, its advocacy efforts will now be focused on support for its members, but also increased pressure on the Obama administration to take a harder line against Iran.