September 29, 2005

Foreign Policy: With Friends Like These

I was recently interviewed for, and subsequently quoted in, an article written by Erik Sass for Foreign Policy journal.

Here is the text. If you wish to read it in its original format, see

With Friends Like These
By Erik Sass -
Posted September 2005

An Iranian group has killed American civilians, allied itself with Saddam Hussein, and holds a spot on the State Department’s terrorist watch list. So why might it become America’s newest friend in the Middle East? Hint: Tehran.

In August 2002, intelligence reports revealed secret nuclear facilities in the Iranian cities of Natanz and Arak. The revelation left officials in Tehran speechless, in large part because the evidence was not gathered by the United States or any of its allies. Rather, the courier of such sensitive intelligence was the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), a decades-old Iranian dissident group. In most cases, dissident groups who could work so effectively within rogue states would be natural friends with Washington. But in the case of the MEK, it’s more complicated: The U.S. State Department lists the MEK as a terrorist organization.

There is no doubt the group has a darkly violent past. The MEK opposed Iran’s Shah in the 1970s, and during its militant opposition, killed U.S. military and civilian personnel in Iran, and backed the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran. Though the MEK initially was supportive of the 1979 Islamic revolution, it eventually opposed the clerical regime that came to power. In two 1981 attacks, the MEK killed the Iranian president, premier, chief justice, and 70 other Iranian officials. And with the support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the MEK launched attacks on Iran beginning in 1987, during the brutal endgame of the Iran-Iraq war, later claiming that they killed 40,000 of their countrymen during these campaigns.

Decades later, Iran is still a rogue state. But some say that it’s time to rethink the MEK. “I say the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says Raymond Tanter, a former Middle East analyst on Reagan’s National Security Council, now Washington’s leading MEK booster. “They have eyes and ears on the ground. And they can provide us with human intelligence that we just don’t have.”

That presence on the ground, and its clear opposition to Iran, is winning the MEK support in Washington. President Bush recently called the MEK a “dissident group,” a clear hat tip, and several U.S. legislators want the MEK removed from the terrorist list, which would allow it to raise money in the United States. MEK fundraisers have challenged the group’s terrorist status in court, so far without success. The Iran Freedom Support Act, a House bill clearly intended to help the group, was introduced in April by longtime MEK backer Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. It remains tied up in committee. MEK supporters on Capitol Hill are likely waiting on the State Department’s official revocation (or reaffirmation) of the group’s terrorist status, expected to take place in early

October.Retro Radicals

With a curious ideology somehow melding Marxism and Shiite Islamism, the MEK is a relic of a different time—a group of aging student activists who cling to their 1970’s radicalism. Comparable American and European groups like the Weather Underground and the Red Brigades faded away long ago, but the MEK has lived on in isolation. Despite its claims to be “democratic,” the group is actually a strict authoritarian commune, with frequent reports of beatings and torture of members who try to leave. Critics of the MEK don’t hesitate to call it a cult, and even some supporters concede that the group is rather unusual. The group’s leadership is a “gynocracy,” with women making up 30 percent of the fighting force and holding a disproportionately large share of military and political leadership positions. All members are subordinate to the “President-Elect,” Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud. Maryam’s face appears on t-shirts, signs, and pamphlets, and her slogans are repeated by followers with an eerie mantra-like insistence.

But the group’s bizarre nature isn’t the problem for gaining American backing. Rather, it’s a more important question: Has the MEK really given up terrorism? The group has foresworn violence, outwardly at least, as it desperately tries to scrub off the terrorist label. The centerpiece of the MEK’s new program is a peaceful “Third Way” to regime change, calling for a highly implausible referendum on a new Iranian government. Now that the group is angling for U.S. patronage, it has dropped the anti-American and overtly Marxist rhetoric from the group’s early days, and instead talks of free markets, liberty, freedom, and democracy. “The law says if they haven't engaged in terrorist activity for two years, and they don't have the means or intent to perform terrorist acts, they get off the list,” argues Tanter, “I say, follow the law.”

For now, the Bush administration seems to be trying to have it both ways. At a 2004 House International Relations subcommittee hearing, John Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that while the MEK is a terrorist organization, he didn’t think that it “prohibited us from getting information from them.”
During the MEK’s long cooperation with Saddam Hussein, it assisted in the brutal suppression of the Kurds and Shiites, earning the enmity of both groups. So it came as no surprise when Iraq's new Shiite-dominated interim Governing Council issued a decree in 2003 (never enforced, by dint of U.S. inaction) saying that the MEK would be expelled from the country. The group got a temporary reprieve from the Iraqis, but is under enormous pressure from official and unofficial groups, including the Shiite Badr Brigade, to leave Iraq as soon as possible, a large-scale relocation that will require American support and diplomatic muscle.

Meanwhile, the MEK’s transformation into a tool of U.S. intelligence is fast becoming a fait accompli. U.S. forces have disarmed its military wing in Iraq and news reports suggest demoralized fighters are deserting their base at Camp Ashraf. According to Massoud Khodabandeh, a former MEK security officer who left the group in 1996 and recently testified against its leadership on trial on charges of terrorism in France, “more than 300 members have fled…[and] 1,000 disaffected members approached the U.S. army and requested to be separated from the organization.” Both the mujahedin who have sought protection in U.S. custody and the hardline supporters still with the group clearly need something to do—and the Pentagon is holding all the cards.

“I'm not saying I always approve of the tactics that the group used in the past,” cautioned Shirin Nariman, a longtime MEK member and fundraiser who joined the group in the late 1970’s. “The whole world has changed, so of course it requires different strategies. And they don't require an army.” (Though a member of the MEK, Nariman often refers to the group in the third person). Former member Khodabandeh is blunter: “They have this dilemma. On one hand they have [used] violence for 30 years. On the other hand they have to get some support from someone (in America or other places) to survive after Saddam.” He dismissed the “peaceful” rhetoric as tactical posturing by the group, masking its terrorist character.

Friends in Need

When the Iran-Iraq war ended, an MEK commander asked about the future of the group said, “We have always adjusted tactics in our fighting. The form of fighting is secondary.” Predictably, the group is retooling itself again, and according to some sources, moving its operations to a new frontier.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has granted permission for the MEK to operate from the Baluchistan province of Pakistan, which borders Iran. This decison suggests to some that there is a possibility that the CIA may be deploying the MEK in western Afghanistan as well, to the provinces of Herat and Farah, thus doubling the length of Iranian border open to infiltration. As with Pakistan, the MEK is familiar with that terrain, having infiltrated western Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

Asked what the MEK might be doing, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Rick Francona, a former Air Force intelligence specialist with experience in the Middle East, says: “The primary focus will be the collection of intelligence, possibly even setting up infiltration and exfiltration routes and identifying agents in place inside Iran.” Francona explains that MEK teams could work in conjunction with any of these activities: “While U.S. technical intelligence sensors—electronic and visual—are useful, it is always better to have a human source that can penetrate the facility, tell us what is going on inside the buildings, who is doing what, intentions, progress, and so on. A good spy is hard to beat.”

But is MEK intelligence any good? Current and former U.S. officials have told Newsweek magazine that they knew of the major revelations about Iran’s nuclear program before the MEK made them public, and the group has a record of exaggerating intelligence or sometimes simply making things up. U.S. officials have learned to take MEK claims with very large grains of salt. David Kay, the former intelligence official who spent years investigating Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, expressed a balanced view: “They're often wrong, but occasionally they give you something.”

More alarming, however, is Khodabandeh’s warning that the MEK has been heavily infiltrated by Iranian intelligence, and is of limited utility. However, he concedes, “Having said that, I think it is the job of CIA officers to use the available forces on the ground.” Khodabandeh also notes that the CIA might be able to “clean” the organization of Iranian infiltrators, restoring some of its usefulness as a covert ops force. An alternative method, suggests Francona, would involve culling small operating groups of trustworthy individuals from the MEK’s ranks, employing them in isolated “cells” to limit the damage if any one of them is discovered. “There is precedent for this,” he says, although he refuses to elaborate.

Meanwhile, the latest U.S. intelligence assessment released recently now projects that Iran is a decade away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb. But MEK supporters say the assessment is both na├»ve and out of date, because of the subsequent election of ultra-conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president in June. Tanter warns, “What the elections did was consolidate power under supreme leader Khamenei in such a fashion that there’s now very little need to conciliate the moderates in the Iranian government. I anticipate that Iran will take a tougher line on negotiations on Europe.” Iran’s recent rejection of a seemingly generous European “grand bargain” as “insulting” would appear to confirm Tanter’s prediction.

Despite the political changes on the ground, it is still hard to imagine the MEK playing a large role in any future regime change in Iran. With no more than 3,800 aging members, the group could hardly destabilize the Iranian government itself, but it may prove useful as an intelligence asset. With its allies currently frustrating U.S. efforts to refer the Iran nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council, Washington may be in need of friends and any help may be appreciated. The question is whether the MEK are the kind of friends you can count on.

Erik Sass is a freelance journalist.