By Guy Taylor
An array of high-level former U.S. officials, both Democrats and Republicans, were in France over the weekend calling for regime change in Iran and throwing their collective weight behind an Iranian dissident group once designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
"You've got an assortment of former generals and senior politicians from all over the world here," Howard Dean said as he headed to the annual rally held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The group is an umbrella organization of Iranian opposition groups, the largest of which is the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which was removed from EU and U.S. terrorist lists in 2009 and 2012 respectively.
The event was scheduled to include former U.N. Ambassadors John R. Bolton and Bill Richardson, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former Sen. Joe Lieberman and others.
"I think the thing that brings us together is human rights," Mr. Dean, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, told The Washington Times when asked how such a diverse collection of U.S. dignitaries agreed to speak at the rally.
Mr. Bolton went further, telling The Times that the event, which drew more than 30,000 Iranian dissidents to Villepinte, France, was about raising "the larger issue of the illegitimacy of Iran's mullahs and their regime in Tehran."
"My personal view," Mr. Bolton said, "is that it ought to be U.S. policy to overthrow the regime in Tehran because I think it is still our principal opponent in the Middle East."
The catch is that, despite such support from the former U.S. officials, questions remain in the wider foreign policy community about the role the council might play if Washington ever pursues a policy of regime change rather than engaging the Iranian regime on targeted issues.
The organization's leader, Maryam Rajavi, said outright during a speech at the rally Friday that the message of the gathering was that the "religious fascism" governing Iran "must be overthrown."
Although officials in many Western capitals may agree, the message is coming from an organization with ties to the MEK, which has emerged in recent years as perhaps the most organized Iranian dissident movement in the world outside of Iran.
Although former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was among the dignitaries showing support, the French government raised alarm about the MEK's involvement in the gathering.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal was quoted by The Associated Press on Friday as condemning the MEK for having "violent and non-democratic inspirations," for espousing a "cult nature" and an "intense campaign of influence and disinformation."
A checkered past
Controversy over the MEK has long revolved around the question of why the State Department moved to list it as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
The MEK, which engaged in a power struggle against leaders of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, was known to have carried out terrorist attacks against Iranian government targets during the 1980s. Although U.S. officials say it also participated in attacks on Americans, MEK representatives have long argued that the terrorist listing was never driven by any legitimate U.S. national security concerns.
The group's representatives in Washington say that during the late 1990s, officials within the Clinton administration engaged in a calculated smear campaign against the MEK and ultimately listed the group as a terrorist organization as part of an ill-conceived strategic attempt to improve relations between Washington and Tehran.
MEK fighters fled Iran for Iraq during the 1980s and, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, joined forces with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Although the group was listed as a terrorist organization when U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, its status and fate would soon become deeply entangled in the U.S. military mission.
Disavowing all violence and laying down their arms in Iraq, MEK supporters began living under the protection of U.S. military forces at an Iraqi compound known as Camp Ashraf. Over time, the group's supporters outside Iraq engaged in a growing public relations campaign to get the organization removed from Washington's terrorist list.
A central issue for the MEK is the plight of some 2,800 of its members living inside Iraq. There once appeared to be momentum for airlifting the members out of Iraq, but finding another nation to accept them proved difficult because the group remained on the U.S. terrorist list until 2012.
Upon the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Camp Ashraf was placed under the control of the Iraqi government. In the years since, repeated reports have suggested that Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki — himself seeking to win the support of Iran — has authorized Iraqi military attacks on the camp, killing dozens of unarmed MEK members and forcibly relocating others to a new compound known as Camp Liberty.
Many MEK supporters say the group was dealt a duplicitous hand by Washington and argue that the Obama administration has essentially left its members to be massacred in Iraq, where Iranian government influence is now seen to be growing and even publicly supported by the White House.
Mr. Dean hammered that point last week, asserting that his own presence at the rally in France was driven by a feeling that the United States should be "keeping our word."
"The 2,800 people at Camp Liberty are locked up essentially by al-Maliki," he said. "We are supporting al-Maliki, who is basically a troupe for the Iranian government. Our Iran policy is in shambles, and I think the president is facing a moral dilemma. He's going to have a foreign policy that's going to kill nearly 3,000 people if he doesn't do something to protect Camp Liberty."
"The U.S. said to these people, 'We'll protect you,' but we've actually walked away from them and basically hung them out to dry," said former Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was among the U.S. dignitaries at Friday's rally.
Gen. Shelton, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, said he believes NATO should engage in "a massive airlift to fly them out of there to a place to be determined by the U.S. government."
Who's using whom?
With the outcry over the MEK's treatment inside Iraq as backdrop, questions over the extent to which it may or may not be in Washington's best interest to support the group continue to swirl through Washington's foreign policy community.
The biggest question centers on whether the NCRI is truly representative of the wider Iranian opposition community — inside Iran and around the world.
Finding informed sources willing to speak openly on the question, however, is known to be difficult. One source approached by The Times said it was unthinkable to speak openly against the NCRI because doing so would result in "death threats from this group."
"Nothing signals cluelessness about Iran more than treating NCRI as a legitimate opposition group," said the source, who agreed to be quoted only on the condition of anonymity. "It sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, so its popularity in Iran is on par with that of the American Taliban who fought alongside Osama bin Laden against the U.S."
Ali Safavi, the NCRI's spokesman in Washington, said such characterizations are nonsense and argued that the organization's reach and popularity inside Iran are deep and were instrumental in bringing about the 2009 uprising against the government in Tehran that was ultimately and violently crushed by Iranian authorities.
"The National Council of Resistance of Iran has a widespread network of activists and supporters inside the country, which, given the state of absolute repression in Iran, operates clandestinely," said Mr. Safavi, who asserted that Iranians see the council as "representing the diverse political and ideological views inside Iran and the focal point of hope for a free and democratic Iran."
Asked about where the organization gets its funding, Mr. Safavi asserted that financing "has been and continues to be the Iranian people inside and outside Iran" and that "over the past three decades hundreds of Iranian merchants, industrialists and businessmen have been executed by the Iranian regime for providing financial assistance to the Resistance."
All of the former U.S. officials who spoke with The Times for this article acknowledged that their travel and accommodations expenses in France were being paid for by the NCRI. However, each also asserted that it is common practice for them to accept payment for speaking engagements and stressed that their support for Friday's rally and the plight of the MEK had nothing to do with money.
Pressed for a deeper explanation, each also acknowledged that some of their respect for the MEK stems from the group's history of having shared intelligence with Washington about Iran's disputed nuclear program and the Iranian military activity inside Iraq.
The MEK has provided U.S. military officials and successive U.S. administrations with "all types of good intelligence," said Gen. Shelton, who added that during the mid-2000s the group's members revealed how the Iranian government was moving explosives and teams of fighters into Iraq to attack U.S. forces occupying the nation.
"We gained much more," Gen. Shelton said, "including about the Iranian nuclear program based on sources that they had inside Iran."
"Even at the State Department, people will quietly, off the record, admit that [the MEK's] intelligence, not just on the nuclear program, but on other things as well, is much better than what we have," Mr. Dean said. "They have people inside the regime, all over the place and are quite helpful.