Iran blaming terror group that was neocon favorite

In a new attempt to blame ongoing protests on outside influence, Iran looks at an organization with some U.S. ties

Published June 22, 2009 5:35PM (EDT)

Throughout the protests now rocking Iran, the nation's clerical leaders have frequently blamed the unrest on unnamed Western nations and the U.S. However, some members of the Iranian government have also begun to accuse the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq or MEK of playing a direct role in the upheaval.

The MEK is an Iranian militant group in exile that has a long, sordid history with both the U.S. and the Islamist government in Iran. Its role became especially complicated during the Bush administration: The U.S. has officially listed the MEK as a terrorist organization since 1997, mainly because of the work it did for Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, but that didn't stop many neocons -- and Fox News -- from supporting the group.

Despite the fact that MEK carried out attacks against Americans in the 1970s, Fox News has employed a former spokesperson for MEK's political wing as an Iranian affairs analyst on the network. The network acknowledged that Alireza Jafarzadeh worked for the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), but did not point out that the group is ostensibly a front for the MEK, even though Jafarzadeh advocated for the organization on the network and in his writing for Fox.

And MEK has its proponents in the U.S. government. None other than Guantanamo Bay-loving, terrorist-hating Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo) lobbied former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in favor of the group. The group allegedly helped to inform the U.S. about Iran's progress towards obtaining a nuclear weapon, which made it very attractive to neoconservatives, who argued on MEK's behalf inside the Bush administration.

Yet, while many neocons viewed the group as a viable alternative to the Islamist government in Tehran during the Bush years, most Iranian experts acknowledge that the MEK is hated inside Iran. Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi (including his wife), the main opposition candidate contesting the nation's June 12th presidential election, have made a point to emphasize that they don't agree with MEK's political ideology. Some Mousavi proponents are even worried that any involvement by MEK in the protests could undermine Mousavi's legitimacy.

It's not hard to see why Mousavi supporters would want to avoid affiliation with the MEK. The MEK began in the early 1960s as a neo-Marxist organization opposed to the Shah. While the group took part in the 1979 Islamist revolution in Iran and supported the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, after the revolution it quickly broke with the conservative clerical leaders that took over Iran. Once in power, the government of Ayatollah Khomeini executed the leadership of the MEK. In 1981, the remaining members of the MEK were driven from the country and resettled in Paris. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s, the MEK supported Iraq and the organization developed a close relationship with Saddam Hussein -- so close in fact, that the MEK moved its base of operations to Iraq in 1986.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, the MEK carried out (or attempted to) a wide variety of attacks and assassinations against targets in Iran, including Americans who were in the country. The group has been responsible for a large number of major acts of violence, including a 1981 bombing in Iran that killed 70 people.

During the Iraq War, the U.S. disarmed the MEK members living in Iraq at Camp Ashraf outside Baghdad, but then protected them. At the beginning of the war, the MEK had an incredibly well provisioned military wing, with more than 2,000 tanks and armored vehicles. At the start of the second term of the Bush administration, some inside the military speculated that the CIA was attempting to use the MEK to counteract Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The MEK finds itself in a precarious position. Now that Hussein is no longer in power in Iraq, the current Iraqi government is forcing the roughly 3,400 MEK members who remain in Iraq to leave the country. MEK members fear that if they return to Iran, they will be executed.

By Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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