Hamilton and Zinni are among the many big time former government officials and military leaders who have appeared at recent pro-MEK events sponsored by a group called Executive Action, LLC. (The events true organizers remain unclear, Executive Action's CEO Neil Livingstone would only tell TPM they included Iranian American groups.) Speakers at the events have portrayed the MEK as critical to any chance of regime change in Iran.
Hamilton, who once chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was a co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, told reporter Barbara Slavin he was paid "a substantial amount" to appear at a panel in Washington D.C. in February. Zinni, who spoke at a similar event in January, said he had been paid his "standard fee," without detailing what that is.
According to Slavin, both men said they were unaware of the cultish elements attributed to the MEK. The State Department's 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism, for example, reported the following:
In addition to its terrorist credentials, the MEK has also displayed cult-like characteristics.
Upon entry into the group, new members are indoctrinated in MEK ideology and revisionist Iranian history. Members are also required to undertake a vow of "eternal divorce" and participate in weekly "ideological cleansings." Additionally, children are reportedly separated from parents at a young age. MEK leader Maryam Rajavi has established a "cult of personality." She claims to emulate the Prophet Muhammad and is viewed by members as the "Iranian President in exile."
"They presented me with a platform that was thoroughly democratic," Hamilton told Slavin. "Were they misleading me? You always can be misled."
Zinni was firmer:
"De-listing ought to be done much the way we handled the PLO and the IRA," Zinni said in an interview.
Zinni, who famously inveighed against the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was a fierce opponent of Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, seemed to have no similar compunctions about Iranian exiles.
"The Iranian community outside Iran has much more influence inside than the Chalabis of the world that we ended up supporting in Iraq," he said.
Over the years, the Iranian government has arrested and executed thousands of MEK members. Still, experts say that the group actually has very little support in Iran, where people remember how it fought for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Iranian studies scholar Ahmad Sadri told TPM in February that U.S. support for the MEK would anger ordinary Iranians.
Although it was put on the U.S. terror list in 1997, the MEK has a history of support in Congress. While it originally blended elements of Islam and Marxism, the group and its supporters say it has renounced violence and now advocates for a secular and democratic Iran. After the fall of Hussein, who armed and funded the group for many years, about 3,400 MEK members were consolidated at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad. MEK backers also insist that U.S. forces should be permanently stationed at Ashraf, for protection. (Camp residents have been subject to attacks they blame on the Iraqi and Iranian governments.)
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where several lawmakers urged her to delist the MEK. Clinton said that the State Department is reviewing the MEK's designation in accordance with a Washington D.C. District Court of Appeal's recent ruling, after a suit brought by the MEK.
"You know it's proceeding," Clinton said. "These are very important considerations and reviews and you know as soon as we can we will make such a decision."
TPM reached out to both Zinni and Hamilton for comment.
Additional reporting by Ian Power.