In Bed with Terrorists
A battle is brewing within the ranks of neoconservatives in Washington. Public flashes of private quarrels are uncommon among this rarefied circle of uber-hawks, who have been unanimous in shaping and supporting the Bush administration's aggressive foreign policy. Yet they find themselves at odds over the most unlikely of issues: an Iranian terrorist group.
The neoconservatives have been unanimous in their skepticism that recent European-led negotiations to curtail Iran's nuclear program will hold. But here, unanimity breaks down. One faction of neoconservative Iran hawks believes that the Bush administration should pursue a more traditional set of diplomatic, economic and mi litary carrots and sticks to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations. But another faction argues that the only real long-term solution is to change the Iran regime itself. "Even if you believe that a nuclear Iran is inevitable," Michael Ledeen, one of the leading Iran regime change advocates, recently wrote in National Review, "is it not infinitely better to have those atomic bombs in the hands of pro-Western Iranians, chosen by their own people, than in the grip of fanatical theocratic tyrants?"
And even as they urge the Bush administration to adopt regime change in Iran as its official policy, the hawks disagree on which Iranian opposition groups Washington should work with to depose Iran's current fundamentalist regime.
Until recently, some neoconservatives looked to Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former U.S. ally, the Shah of Iran, who was deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Pahlavi, currently living in a Washington, D.C. suburb, is a potential Ahmad Chalabi-type figure around which the Iranian opposition could unite (at least for Washington's purposes). But those plans now seem unlikely for a variety of reasons, including Pahlavi's own reluctance to assume the political mantle.
As they look around for replacements, one camp is pushing the U.S. to provide financial assistance, communications equipment and counsel to Iranian students and other dissident groups to help engineer a nonviolent revolution, similar to the ones the world has witnessed in Serbia in 2000, last year in Tbilisi, Georgia, and, just this past month, in Ukraine.
Other hawks led by conservative think tanks such as the pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy – dismiss such a plan as unrealistic. They argue that the U.S. should work with the sole Iranian opposition group that has experience fighting the Tehran regime: the People's Mujahedeen (Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK). According to them, the group possesses two irreplaceable assets: an established network of supporters inside Iran that can provide intelligence on Iran's nuclear program; a long history of fighting the Tehran regime.
Ledeen's camp, however, has been vocal in opposing the idea of using the MEK, which received significant military support from Saddam Hussein. And there's just one other problem: in 1997, the State Department put the MEK, and its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), on the official U.S. government list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Terrorists We Tolerate
Founded as an Iranian leftist group in the 1960s with Marxist and Islamist leanings, the MEK participated in the 1979 revolution to overthrow the U.S.-backed Shah. But in 1981, the MEK broke with Iran's post-revolutionary leaders and decamped first to France (where it still has a large following), and then in 1986, to Iraq, where the group fought with Saddam Hussein against fellow Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. They also served as shock troops to put down the rebelling Iraqi Shias in the wake of the first Gulf War. The MEK was also responsible for numerous attacks on Iranian embassies and assassination of Iranian officials carried out by the group in Europe and Iran in the 1990s.
Thanks to this bloody track record, the MEK/NCRI is widely despised by fellow Iranians, including other Iranian dissident groups that are working to overthrow Iran's clerical rulers.
Their history with regard to the United States is just as unsavory. When the State Department designated the MEK and the NCRI as terrorist organizations in 1997, it cited the group's involvement in attacks during the 1970s on U.S. military contractors in Iran, and more importantly, in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Yet the Bush administration's policy toward the MEK has been erratic. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Washington first bombed MEK camps in Iraq but then, in April 2003, signed a ceasefire with the group in April 2003. The agreement confiscated the group's heavy weaponry and confined some 3,800 MEK members to Camp Ashraf in the northeast of Baghdad.
According to reports in the media, in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq campaign, some in the State Department favored turning over MEK members in Iraq to the Iranian government in exchange for al Qaeda suspects being held in Iranian custody even as some hardliners in the administration were lobbying to keep the MEK intact for possible use against the Iranian regime. At the time, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith went on record in a June 2003 press conference to deny the any such plan. Th issue was put to rest this past July, when, after a year-long, multi-agency review, the U.S. government granted MEK members at Camp Ashraf formal protected person's status under the Fourth Geneva Convention – which guarantees MEK members can't be involuntarily repatriated to Iran.
Just as confused has been the U.S. relationship to the NCRI in Washington. While the U.S. government's official line about the MEK has been that "a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist," Washington hardly treats NCRI members the same way as it would, say, Hamas. Former NCRI spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh is highly visible in the media often serving as an expert commentator on Fox News Channel – and frequently attends Iran-related events in D.C. held by conservative think tanks. Neoconservative guru Richard Perle spoke at a charity fundraiser organized by an MEK front group last January to benefit victims of the earthquake in Van, Iran. He later told the Washington Post that he was unaware of MEK's involvement a claim that's hard to swallow since Perle's fellow keynote speaker at the event was MEK leader Maryam Rajavi, who addressed the audience via videophone from Paris.
Despite the organization's cult-like reputation and sordid human rights record, some neoconservatives remain steadfast in their support for the MEK. One of the arguments most often cited by its supporters is its alleged capacity to deliver highly specific intelligence on Iran's nuclear program – information that the MEK claims it receives from an underground network of well-placed sources inside Iran.
"With the need to obtain intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons progress, the MEK is the only organized group capable of providing detailed human-source intel," says Raymond Tanter, a Middle East expert at the pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The MEK has people on the ground in Iran and has information our intelligence community might use to compare with satellite imagery and electronic intercepts."
But what about the MEK's past involvement in anti-U.S. activities? "When you are dealing with intelligence information, you can't pick or choose," Tanter says. "These guys could have information that you don't have."
The information put forward by MEK/NCRI has also been key to neoconservative efforts to oppose the European Union's efforts to broker a deal with Tehran. Last month, one day after European negotiators announced they had won Tehran's agreement to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, the NCRI held parallel press conferences in Paris and Vienna alleging that Iran was hiding secret nuclear facilities that it had failed to declare to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA].
The information put forward by the NCRI has been proved accurate in the past. In an Aug. 14, 2002 press conference, its leaders revealed that, unbeknownst to the intelligence agencies of most countries in the world at that time, Iran possessed an advanced nuclear program that it had been developing for the past sixteen years. The NCRI claims led the UN nuclear watchdog body, the IAEA, to send inspectors to two Iranian nuclear facilities, Natanz and Arak, where they were verified as accurate. They also set in motion more than two years of further such NCRI revelations and subsequent IAEA inspections all of which has served to make Iran's nuclear program among the foremost concerns of the international community and the Bush administration.
In recent months, however, some experts have expressed growing doubts about the group's claims. "I can no longer trust their information," says David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector and director of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. "It is like a barrage they are throwing up, making all of these accusations. That highly enriched uranium came from Pakistan. That there are two enrichment projects that are active. That bomb designs came from AQ Khan. There is not a single bit of evidence that has been offered to back any of this." While the MEK does provide important intelligence, Albright says that their claims now reflect "a political agenda."
The MEK's claims also serve the political agenda of the Bush administration, which is facing tough choices in the wake of Tehran's recent success in outmaneuvering the U.S. In his piece, Iran's Nuclear Power Play, Dilip Hiro reveals how Tehran was able to secure nuclear, political and trade concessions from the Europeans in return for agreeing to temporarily suspend uranium enrishchment. More to the point, Hiro says, "this deal killed the Bush administration's pet plan to refer the Iranian case to the United Nations Security Council for censure or the possible imposition of sanctions for its alleged breaches of the IAEA nuclear protocol."
Stymied for now from getting Iran referred in noncompliance withthe Nuclear Non-Profliferation Treaty to the UN Security Concil, and lacking confidence that it will ever be able to persuade Europe, China or Japan to give up lucrative trade and energy agreements with Iran, Washington is contemplating a set of potentially bleak options: negotiate with Tehran directly, consider military options to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, let Iran go nuclear, or consider making regime change in Iran official U.S. policy.
So it's no wonder that hawks in the Bush administration are lobbying for the MEK as a means to promote their goal of regime change. Some Iran watchers say that a mutual working relationship between Washington and the NCRI/MEK has already been agreed to, one which includes the U.S. debriefing of MEK members at Camp Ashraf in Iraq for Iran intelligence information.
"We will use them, but not de-list them [as terrorists]," predicts Dan Byman, a former Middle East analyst at the CIA now affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. "We have control of MEK facilities in Iraq and we are taking advantage of it, and not shutting them down."
It's too early to tell if the Bush administration's relationship with the MEK will endure in the long run. But many experts worry that the MEK/NCRI may end up playing the same role in the Bush administration's plans for Iran as the Iraqi National Congress did in the invasion of Iraq. In other words, the MEK may become the expedient source of cooked-up intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program designed to justify a pre-determined regime change policy.