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Among the new faces: former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton (D), who once chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and who served as vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission; Ambassador Dell Dailey, who was the State Department's Coordinator for Counterterrorism from July 2007 to April 2009; General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009; and not one, but two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe and ex-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) also spoke.
The State Department's website states that during the 1970s, "the MEK staged terrorist attacks inside Iran and killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians working on defense projects in Tehran," but the decision to place the group on the U.S. terror list in 1997 has been described as a nod to Iran's then-new reformist president, Mohammad Khatami. (The group now blames the killing of U.S. citizens on a splinter group that usurped the MEK name.) Still, it remains unclear what popularity the MEK maintains inside Iran, where many remember how the group fought for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.
At the event on Saturday, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C., speakers called on President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to remove the MEK from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, saying the designation hampers the group's ability to organize and operate.
Speakers also called for the protection of the 3,400 MEK members who reside in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Despite their ties to Hussein, MEK members in Iraq agreed to a ceasefire and surrendered their weapons after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and were eventually consolidated at Ashraf. Since the transfer of power, Ashraf appears to have gotten caught in a diplomatic no-man's zone between the governments of Iraq, the U.S. and Iran, and residents have been subject to attacks by Iraqi forces and other privations.
The MEK says it renounced violence several years ago, and several speakers on Saturday praised MEK leader Maryam Rajavi's 10-point platform for Iran, which calls for universal suffrage, separation of church and state, and a country that is nuclear free. The MEK's political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has voted Rajavi President-elect.
At the Mayflower, Ambassador Dailey spoke about the "awful humanitarian conditions" at Camp Ashraf and about the importance of removing the MEK from the terror list. He said international pressure must be maintained on the government of Iraq, so that the increased sovereignty of the country does not occur "at the expense of the residents of Camp Ashraf."
Dailey said that the State Department is "continuing to reconsider its efforts in retaining the PMOI on the Foreign Terror Organization list," and said that "for Iraq and the United States, members of Camp Ashraf and the PMOI are the best counterbalance to Iranian terrorist and nuclear aggression." Dailey praised the group for its contacts, insights, cultural awareness, and a past record of providing information about Iran.
"No other internal or external organization has been this productive in obtaining such information, we should not let it fall idle," he said. "To best make this Iranian opposition effective, the United States must revoke the terror designation."
Former Rep. Hamilton spoke about the "extraordinary difficulty" that the United States has had in dealing with Iran over the years, and about Iran's push to build a nuclear program. "I understand that much of the information that we have in this country with respect to the Iranian nuclear program comes from you, and from those that you know well," Hamilton told the audience, which included many Iranian-Americans.
"We all know the complexity of this problem, the difficulty of it," he said, adding. "What do we do about it?"
For one, Hamilton said the Iraqi government must live up to its commitment to protect those who live in Ashraf. "I've talked to several of you in recent days about that situation," he said, "You have educated me a good bit on what has gone on there." Hamilton said sanctions on Iran must be tightened, and loopholes closed. And Hamilton called for "support for the opposition in Iran."
Of the MEK specifically, Hamilton admitted that "I'm one of those people that Bill [Richardson] referred to in his remarks, that has not paid enough attention to this issue."
"From where I stand now, I'm really puzzled," he said. "I do not understand why the United States has kept the MEK on the terrorist list for all these years. I have had access to classified information, I know some things may have happened in the past, but I just don't understand why."
He called it a "factual question" about the conduct of the MEK, and said he was "not aware of any facts that require the MEK to be on the terrorist list."
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton said the time for change in Iran is "now." Shelton was among the speakers who brought up the recent unrest in Egypt. He said he was concerned about the "fundamentalist, or radical element" that is present in Middle Eastern countries, and said he feared the Iran regime sees an opportunity to exert greater influence in Egypt and the region. Therefore, while "all of us are excited about the Egyptian people now being out from under what turns out to be a very oppressive leader," Shelton said he was concerned about where the Egyptian government will go from here, and what will become of its relationship with the West and the U.S.
What was key in Egypt, Shelton said, is that the Army refused to side with Mubarak. In Iran, meanwhile, he said the only people who don't want change in Iran are the people who are armed and in control. "In Iraq we had this very same issue," Shelton said. "It was very difficult for them to make that change until we intervened."
"Iran's issue is compounded by the fact that the largest organized resistance to Iran's current regime has been put on the FTO list, the MEK," he said. He called for that "mistake" to be "rectified immediately," and said that the "MEK is obviously the way that Iran needs to go."
"The MEK is not a perfect organization, they've made mistakes -- so have we," he said. "But I think the MEK, when you look out into the big picture, they provide hope for the Iranian people that far exceeds anything that we or our allies can offer, excluding direct intervention, at this point."
Gen. Peter Pace, the 2nd former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak at the event, said that the U.S. has had enemies turn into friends in the past: Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan. Countries change, he said, and Iran will. But for now, Iran is a threat "to the region, to Europe and to the United States." He warned that the current regime obtaining a nuclear weapon is "unacceptable."
Pace then went through possible responses. He stressed that direct military response was the "least best option," but said that for credibility, it has to be on the table, and added that the U.S. military is quite capable of "handling any new threat." Of negotiations, he said: "the entire Iranian nuclear program has been undertaken during negotiations." He said talks were important, but he couldn't see how Iran would be dissuaded.
"That leaves why you are all in this room: uprising, of the people," he said.
And though Pace too praised the group's 10 point plan, and said he saw no reason to keep the group on the FTO list, he did take some time in his remarks to address the questions surrounding the group's history:
A couple things that were said to me this week, as I was trying to delve into, why is it [that the MEK is on the terror list]. I'm not saying i agree with these things, but they are things that people believe, and that you in this room, therefore, still have not overcome. One is, the history, since 1965. The 10 points that were read today are wonderful. I would support each of those 10 points if I were an Iranian citizen. And I certainly do as a citizen of the world. But somehow, that promise of rejection of violence and these 10 principles has not yet translated into trusting and believing amongst some folks whose voices matter. And figuring out how to address that, in a way that's understandable and trusted is key to where you want to go. Some folks said to me this week, well if the United States government took the MEK off the terrorist list, it would be a signal to the Iranian regime that we had changed from a desire to see changes in regime behavior, to a desire to see changes in regime. My response to that is: sounds good to me.
But you can't get where you want to go if you don't understand what the obstacles are. And there's another obstacle out there. And it is, folks believe that a lot of people in Iran do not trust the MEK, because of the alliance between Saddam Hussein and the MEK during the Iran-Iraq war. And that fear is also holding back many individuals, and it has to be overcome if you want to get to where you want to go, in regard to the MEK.
The speakers at Saturday's event did not spend much time discussing the Green Movement, or the relationship of the MEK to the antigovernment protesters who were gathering in various parts of Iran over the weekend -- part of the largest demonstrations in Iran since 2009. According to The New York Times, the Iranian government "mounted a stultifying security presence in the capital, with the police making arrests and using tear gas to try to prevent the unrest from escalating." On Saturday, in an apparent attempt to keep people away from the protests, the semiofficial Fars news agency -- which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps -- warned that the MEK planned to fire weapons at the demonstrators.
After the event at the Mayflower, several dozen MEK supporters gathered outside the White House gates, holding flags of Iran and the MEK, pictures of Rajavi and executed MEK members, and chanting a number of slogans, including: "Ahmadinejad, no! No! No! Rajavi, yes! Yes! Yes!" and "Obama! Obama! Are you with us or mullahs?" The demonstrators called for Obama and Clinton to "take action" and remove the MEK from the U.S. terror list, and for U.S forces and U.N. monitoring teams to be permanently stationed at Camp Ashraf.
When it was founded by students in the 1960s, the MEK's philosophy blended elements of Marxism and Islam, and it later developed a strong feminist bent. After the overthrow of the Shah, the group fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khomeini, and members were targeted and arrested. The MEK responded with a bombing campaign that killed dozens of Iranian government officials, including Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, President Mohammad-Ali Rajaei, and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar. The regime responded with an expanded crackdown, and has detained and executed thousands of MEK members over the years.
After first fleeing to, and then being kicked out of France in the 1980s, the MEK was received by Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1986. Hussein armed the group, provided them funding and deployed them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. The State Department says that Hussein also used the MEK to crack down on Iraqi Shia and Kurds in the early 1990s, a charge the group vigorously denies. According to the State Department the group's last acts of violence came in 2000 and 2001, when it says the MEK was involved in regular mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids against Iranian military and Iranian law enforcement personnel. In April 2000, the MEK allegedly attempted to assassinate the commander of the Nasr Headquarters, Tehran's interagency board responsible for coordinating policies on Iraq.
Since the fall of Hussein, who provided the MEK with millions of dollars in Oil-for-Food program subsidies, the State Department maintains that the group has had to "rely on front organizations to solicit contributions from expatriate Iranian communities."