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Congress forms caucus to aid Iranian ex-terror group

Congress forms caucus to aid Iranian ex-terror group

Members are promising to advocate for the Mojahedin-e Khalq, a guerrilla organization facing new scrutiny from its Albanian hosts

Reporting | Washington Politics

Several members of Congress have created a caucus to support the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an exiled Iranian faction that once fought for Saddam Hussein and was formerly listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The lawmakers’ move comes as the MeK, long accused of cult-like abuses and shadowy foreign ties, faces legal problems in Albania over its Ashraf-3 compound.

The MeK announced the creation of the Congressional ASHRAF Protection and Rights Advocacy Caucus in late December, calling it a “bipartisan” group that will be led by Democratic and Republican co-chairs. The current caucus chairman Lance Gooden (R–Texas), and the three other members who have signed on so far are Rep. Paul Gosar (R–Az.), Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R–N.Y.) and Hispanic Caucus chairman Raul Ruiz (D–Calif.).

Gooden’s legislative director Claire Alden stated that the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a pro-MeK group, was lobbying Democratic offices to join the caucus. “OIAC is waiting to hear back from several Democrat[ic] members as I understand it,” Alden wrote in an email to Responsible Statecraft on January 9.

Gooden had sent out a letter on January 8, obtained by Responsible Statecraft, seeking other members of Congress willing “to support the humanitarian and democratic rights of Iranian dissidents living in Ashraf-3, Albania, and worldwide, fighting for regime change and freedom in Iran.” It called the MeK “an opposition movement fighting for Iran’s liberation from one of the most evil dictatorships of the contemporary era.”

The creation of a caucus “immediately gives you allies on [Capitol] Hill,” says Ben Freeman, director of the Quincy Institute’s Democratizing Foreign Policy Program and an expert on foreign lobbying. “They know they’ve got a receptive ear in Congress. They know that if they email [a caucus member’s] office and have a request, at the very least, someone’s going to pick up the phone”

In addition to the members of Congress, two Trump cabinet officials — former Vice President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have also recently thrown their weight behind the MeK.

Last year, Saudi Arabia had reportedly agreed to cut its support for the MeK. A few months later, Albanian police raided Ashraf-3, the MeK’s sprawling headquarters in Albania. The Albanian authorities accused the MeK of cybercrimes and other provocative activities in violation of the agreement allowing the exiles to stay in the country. The exiles accused Albanian police of killing an elderly man with tear gas during the raid.

At the time, the U.S. State Department affirmed Albania’s “right to investigate any potential illegal activities within its territory,” and stated that the MeK is not “a viable democratic opposition movement that is representative of the Iranian people.” Gooden, Malliotakis, Gosar, and Ruiz seem to disagree.

Gosar’s support for the MeK stands out as particularly unusual, given his other foreign policy stances. The congressman, an outspoken “America Firster,” has previously denounced “proxy wars in the Middle East” and vowed to stop Washington’s “nation-building, foreign aid giveaways, and bloody regime-change wars.”

“Congressman Gosar supports freedom in Iran. The Ashraf Caucus shares that goal,” said Gosar’s communications director Anthony Foti in an email to Responsible Statecraft. “The expectation is for peaceful change organically coming from the people of Iran. At no point has Congressman Gosar supported U.S. military intervention in Iran nor would he.”

The MeK is a left-wing faction that participated in Iran’s 1979 revolution and was pushed out by its Islamist rivals. The group soon began promoting itself as an Iranian government-in-exile, and appealed to the Soviet Union for support. After the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, the MeK’s leadership relocated to Iraq and fought for Saddam Hussein’s government. In retaliation, the Iranian government executed thousands of leftist prisoners in 1988, one of the most infamous massacres in Iran’s history.

During their collaboration with the Iraqi government, MeK fighters allegedly participated in the genocidal campaign against Iraqi Kurds. MeK leader Maryam Rajavi was said to have ordered her fighters to crush “the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.” The MeK now denies having any involvement in the anti-Kurdish campaign, and often cites a 1999 letter by a Kurdish fighter absolving Rajavi.

Saudi Arabia, another rival of Iran, also allegedly began funding the MeK at the time. MeK defector Massoud Khodabandeh told Jordanian media in 2018 that a Saudi prince had given the group suitcases full of luxury goods and trucks of gold worth $200 million in 1989. Former Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal al-Saud has spoken at MeK conferences. The group denies receiving Saudi funds, claiming that it is “an independent movement, standing on its own feet both politically and financially.”

After the war, the Iraqi government kept the MeK in bases known as Camp Ashraf and Ashraf-2, considered by critics to be cult compounds. A report by Human Rights Watch in 2005 and a sweeping expose by The Intercept in 2020 confirmed rumors of the abuses that went on inside the camps. Defectors accused the MeK leadership of imprisoning, torturing, and even sterilizing its own members. The MeK again denied the allegations and denounced the “hit piece” against them.

Other factions of the Iranian opposition, who often clash fiercely with each other, are unanimous in their rejection of the MeK. Anti-hijab activist Masih Alinejad has labeled the group a “cult.” Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, who was held hostage in prison on trumped-up charges by the Iranian government for over a year, has insisted that the MeK’s brand is “toxic.” Former crown prince Reza Pahlavi called the MeK “terroristic” in a Belgian parliament hearing last year.

“The fact that a documented cult-like organization with a history of terrorism, human rights abuses, and committing atrocities alongside Saddam Hussein can get endorsed by lawmakers in Washington is a testament to how much money and power is behind the pro-war with Iran infrastructure here,” says Jamal Abdi, head of the National Iranian American Council.

The National Union for Democracy in Iran and Iranian-Americans for Liberty, two pro-regime-change organizations that are often at odds with NIAC, have also publicly argued that most Iranians reject the MeK. Neither group responded to a request for comment about the caucus.

For decades, the United States officially considered the MeK a terrorist organization due to its past attacks on American targets. The MeK had killed at least three U.S. Army officers and three American contractors in Iran before the 1979 revolution. When Iranian revolutionaries released their American hostages in 1981, the MeK complained that refusing to prosecute and execute the U.S. Embassy staff would “embolden and encourage the imperialists.”

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the MeK’s relationship with the West changed dramatically. In the 2000s, the MeK became an early source of information on Iran’s nuclear program, which was allegedly fed to the group by Israeli intelligence services. Israel also reportedly teamed up with the MeK to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists.

At the same time, the MeK embarked on a high-profile lobbying campaign to remove itself from the terrorist list. MeK supporters courted American officials from both sides of the aisle, and sympathetic politicians were offered speaking fees of up to $50,000 to appear at pro-MeK rallies. The MeK prevailed; the Obama administration lifted terrorism sanctions on the group in 2011, and spent $20 million resettling MeK members in a new Albanian sanctuary known as Ashraf-3.

The resettlement deal came after Iraqi forces, some of them loyal to Tehran, launched deadly attacks on the original Ashraf camps. Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department counterterrorism official who oversaw the delisting, later insisted that he wanted to get MeK members out of Iraq in a humane way, not to whitewash the MeK’s “terrorist past.”

But “what that allowed them to do was to hire lobbying and PR firms,” says Freeman, because the terrorist list is one of the few restraints on foreign lobbying under U.S. law. The MeK has several officially-registered lobbyists, and has continued to make large payments to American politicians. Pence, for example, took $430,000 from the group.

Gooden, Malliotakis, Gosar, and Ruiz have all spoken at MeK rallies or conferences since the terrorism designation was lifted.

Responsible Statecraft asked the four members, via their offices, if they have taken money from the MeK or MeK front groups. Foti said that Gosar has never been “paid for giving a speech” during his “congressional career.” Gooden “has never been paid for any appearance,” according to Micah Bock, his communications director. Neither answered the broader question of MeK funding. The other two offices have not answered as of press time.

Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance (NCRI), stands with former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the conference. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance (NCRI), address the conference “Iran: Uprising, Resistance Against the Regime of Executions” at the NCRI Headquarters in the north of Paris. (Photo by Siavosh Hosseini / SOPA Images/Sipa USA) via Reuters

Reporting | Washington Politics
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