An Iranian group tagged as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997 has challenged the Secretary of State's designation of the group in court. According to legal experts the group may have a real chance, as the circumstances since the original designation have substantially changed.
The case was heard by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit on Tuesday, January 12. The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran v. US Department of State, is yet another chapter in the group's unrelenting battle to clear its name from terror lists in Europe and the United States.
The PMOI has won hard-fought legal battles in Britain and Europe as competent courts ruled to remove it from terror lists on grounds that there is no evidence to support a terror designation.
The State Department claims that it can designate the group as "terrorist" by merely resting on classified information, the veracity of which is unknown, despite the fact that the group's members, mostly in a refugee camp in Iraq, are voluntarily disarmed and internationally protected persons. The PMOI has refuted any connection to terrorism. Its leaders continually call for democratic change in Iran as it has shown its commitment to the rule of law everywhere in exile.
The State Department branded PMOI (MEK) as an FTO in 1997 in what a former administration official described as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government. A policy that stemmed from a naÃ¯ve reading of Iran and based the FTO designation on politically expedient foreign policy goals rather than facts, the PMOI contends.
PMOI officials content that hampering the movement was a strategic mistake that set back the goal for a pluralistic, secular democracy in a non-nuclear Iran, and peace in the region.
But how can the PMOI possibly plea a case if the evidence against it is wholly classified? In court on Tuesday, the Secretary of State's counsel admitted that former Secretary Rice, who denied the group's petition in January 2009, relied entirely on classified material to do so.
"Did you provide them with unclassified material before the January 2009 decision?" asked Judge David S. Tatel of Douglas Letter, the Secretary of State's counsel. "Not really," replied Letter.
"Are you arguing on behalf of the Secretary of State that the unclassified portion of the administrative record provides substantial support for her decision?" asked Judge Tatel. "We are not, Your Honor," replied Letter.
Andrew Frey, the PMOI counsel argued, "I don't know what's in the classified record. However, we're confident that there is nothing of any substance there." Frey pointed to the State Department's decision to review the PMOI's case in just 2 years even if the organization does not petition for a review, and said "I would not believe that she would have made such a statement if there was substantial support in the classified material for the proposition that the PMOI is engaged in terrorism."
"The second part of what you just said is almost certainly true," observed Senior Judge Stephen E. Williams.
The three-judge panel clearly voiced skepticism that the evidence offered substantial support for the Secretary of State's case.
Judge Tatel probed the Department's legal counsel on the veracity of highly questionable information of unknown origin. "The report says at the end that the ultimate source of the information was unknown, that the motivation behind it was unknown and the veracity of it was unknown. Does our standard of review allow us to say that the Secretary of State cannot rely on that sort of evidence?" asked Judge Tatel.
Despite the proscriptions, PMOI took its case to courts in the EU and US. Resorting to the legal recourse makes one thing clear: the PMOI is both confident of its conduct and serious in its commitment to democracy and rule of law.
Nearly 100 people, mostly PMOI supporters, showed up in court on Tuesday. Many Iranian-Americans are keenly hoping that the legal battle will finally allow them to channel their opposition to Iran's theocracy through the PMOI which they regard as the leading organization in the Iranian resistance movement.
"This is a critical time for Iran, in which decision-makers in the US and elsewhere, are making decisions about policy towards Iran. The PMOI is a key player in that debate...yet neither it nor its members or sympathizers are allowed to participate in the debate," lead counsel for PMOI argued in court. "The court's role is not simply to rubberstamp the Secretary of State's decision," he pleaded.
The court will have to issue judgment on the case soon and decide whether the Secretary of State's decision was supported by substantial evidence. There is also the question if reliance on wholly "classified" information is compatible with Congressional intent and concepts of judicial fairness. But as the unrest in Iran grows, the Iranian regime will pile pressure on its Iraqi allies to destroy a PMOI camp in Iraq. Over 3,400 PMOI members and sympathizers in Camp Ashraf today increasingly represent defiance to mullahs' rule.
The Iraqi government will justify its hostility to Camp Ashraf residents by pointing to the US terror list. The Iranian regime too will use the US list to legitimize its suppression of even family members of PMOI sympathizers, never failing to mention that the US too calls them terrorist. Ironically, the US list has become an instrument for inhibiting democrats in Iran and reinforcing a brutal dictatorship.
Events in Iran are moving to a dramatic pace. Courts in Europe have confirmed the fallacy of the terrorism label against the PMOI. It would be prudent for the US to drop its obstacles to their democratic efforts and not aid or abet the Iranian regime by pressuring its opposition.
The uprising in Iran has been a watershed event that has been extensive and sustained. Circumstances in Iran have changed. So have the circumstances of the PMOI. If the court finds no substantial support for the Secretary of State's designation in the classified material too, then Iranians will soon be able to freely get on with the business of organizing peaceful democratic change in their country without the impediment of the US list.
Jubin Afshar, is Director of Near East Studies at Near East Policy Research in Washington, D.C.