WASHINGTON -- The State Department is poised to remove a militant Iranian dissident group from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, the culmination of a long, multi-million-dollar lobbying effort to sway U.S. politicians, officials and members of the group said Friday.
Supporters of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, better known as the MEK, gathered for an early celebration rally in front of the State Department hours after the news leaked that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sent word to Congress about the decision. Officially, the decision isn’t yet public, and lawyers for the group said they were advising caution in case there were unforeseen conditions attached to the delisting.
“The department is now in the process of sending a classified communication from the secretary to the Congress today regarding the designation of the MEK. I’m not in a position to confirm the contents of this because it’s classified,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Diplomats privately confirmed the group’s upcoming removal from the foreign terrorist organization list, with a formal announcement expected in the next week. A court order had given the State Department until Oct. 1 to determine whether the MEK still belonged on the list, based on its capacity and intent to commit acts of terror.
The group’s detractors argued that MEK operations in the 1970s killed or maimed not only Iranian targets, but also American military officers and defense contractors. The National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group for Iranian-Americans, said in a statement that it “deplores” the decision to remove the MEK because the group is widely unpopular among ordinary Iranians, including dissidents who don’t share its singular mishmash of Marxist and Islamist ideology.
“The decision opens the door to congressional funding of the MEK to conduct terrorist attacks in Iran, makes war with Iran far more likely and will seriously damage Iran’s peaceful pro-democracy movement, as well as American’s standing among ordinary Iranians,” the council’s statement said.
The group’s leadership countered that the MEK had renounced violence more than a decade ago and was committed to working with the U.S. and other Iranian opposition groups toward the peaceful ouster of the theocratic regime in Tehran. Criticism of the MEK as a dangerous, cultlike group stems from regime propaganda, members and supporters said.
“We’re jubilant, so happy,” said Shirin Nariman, a Virginia-based MEK activist who joined the rally outside the State Department. “It’s been 17 years that we’ve been fighting this. We’ve paid a heavy price, with so many dead or in prison.”
Financed by deep-pocketed donors around the world, the MEK had embarked on an ambitious lobbying effort, hiring top lawyers to represent it and paying high-profile American speakers tens of thousands of dollars each to address its cause.
The MEK convinced several retired generals, politicians and Cabinet members to support its removal from the blacklist, leading to a Treasury Department investigation this year into whether the officials were providing illegal support to designated terrorists, according to news reports. That inquiry is probably moot now.
“The MEK was placed on the FTO list in a misguided attempt by the Clinton administration to gain favor with the government in Tehran,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said in a statement Friday. “The MEK are Iranians who desire a secular, peaceful and democratic government. Nothing threatens the mullah dictatorship more than openness and transparency.”
An investigation by Britain’s Guardian newspaper found that Rohrabacher had received thousands of dollars in donations from MEK supporters this year alone. The paper’s report adds that Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, has accepted at least $20,000 in campaign donations from Iranian-American groups, or their leaders, that support the MEK. Other members of Congress were flown to France to address pro-MEK events, and a Washington lobbying firm received nearly $1 million to work on getting the MEK off the terrorist list, according to The Guardian.
“The multi-million-dollar lobbying campaign undertaken by the MEK and its supporters seems to have paid off,” said Jamal Abdi, the policy director of the National Iranian American Council.
The MEK took part in the Shiite Islamist overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah during the Islamic revolution of 1979. But the group quickly fell out with the ayatollahs, according to news reports, and thousands of its followers were killed, imprisoned or exiled. The MEK carried out a string of bombings and assassinations targeting regime officials. In 1997, the United States declared it a terrorist organization.
Under former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, the MEK was given land just outside Baghdad upon which it built a self-sufficient camp, Ashraf, where the group’s female commanders tooled around in tanks and residents produced their own cola and ice cream. Throughout the day and night, fax machines chirped as MEK informants in Iran sent dispatches to the camp in Iraq.
But the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq ushered in an Iranian-friendly, Shiite leadership that was extremely hostile to the MEK, in part because the group is said to have aided Saddam in crushing rebellions in the 1990s. U.S. forces disarmed the camp, guarded the group for years and quietly helped facilitate repatriation to Iran for MEK defectors who agreed to an amnesty program offered by Tehran.
The Iranians who stayed in Iraq turned into virtual prisoners, an enclave of dissidents within the notorious Sunni Triangle during the bloody sectarian war of the mid-2000s. Iraqi forces raided the camp last year, leaving 34 residents dead.
The group uses footage of the attack to urge resettlement for its remaining members in Iraq. Third-party nations resisted admitting MEK members in large part because of the terrorist designation, activists said.
Last week, the U.N. mission in Iraq oversaw the transfer of 680 Ashraf residents to Camp Hurriya, which is to serve as a holding facility in Baghdad until a resettlement plan is reached. Of the 3,280 residents originally in Ashraf, only a small group remains to handle the closing of the camp, according to a U.N. statement.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.