The United Nations Human Rights Council’s announcement last week that it would name a special investigator to monitor and report on human rights in Iran marked a major step forward for human rights in Iran and for Iranians struggling for democratic and human rights reform inside their country. It was also an important vindication of the Obama administration’s reinvigoration of U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations, and specifically its decision to rejoin the Human Rights Council, which conservatives heavily criticized it for doing. The administration’s victory in support of Iranian human rights is in danger of being significantly undercut, however, by the possible removal of the Iranian group Mujahideen-e Khalq, or the MEK, from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Iranian pro-democracy activists, including Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, have been calling for a special U.N. investigator for some time. They argue that, unlike the Iranian nuclear program, which enjoys broad support among the population, the regime is sensitive to criticism about Iran’s human rights record, especially in multilateral venues.
Indeed, the Iranian government’s own frantic lobbying against the measure—including, as reported by the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, personal phone calls from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Ecuadorian president—shows that, for all of its bluster, the regime does fear the international condemnation and potential isolation that a U.N. decision entails.
But removing the MEK from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations could nullify this achievement. The MEK was founded in Iran in 1965 as a resistance group fusing Islamism and Marxism. It took up armed activities in Iran in the 1970s, including hijackings and bombings that allegedly killed six Americans. They were part of the revolutionary coalition that overthrew the Shah but they soon broke with the new government and began a campaign of terrorism after Ayatollah Khomeini attempted to crush them.
The MEK transferred its base to Iraq in 1986. There the group assisted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in his devastating war against Iran, which means it lost any credibility it might have had inside Iran as a legitimate opposition. The MEK also fought alongside Hussein’s forces after the 1991 Gulf War to put down the Shia uprising in Iraq’s south and the Kurdish uprising in the north. They were driven by MEK leader Maryam Rajavi’s infamous command to “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”
The MEK have enjoyed protected status and continue to be headquartered north of Baghdad in their compound Camp Ashraf since the U.S.-led toppling of Hussein’s regime in 2003. Human Rights Watch alleged significant human rights abuses inside the camp in a 2005 report, including subjecting “dissident members to torture and prolonged solitary confinement.”
Iranian democracy activists are deeply concerned that they could be tarred through connection to the MEK. Indeed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other regime figures have attempted to cast the Green movement—the collective name for Iran’s pro-democracy and civil rights coalition—as MEK allies since the Greens first arose in the wake of Iran’s controversial 2009 presidential elections. Green movement leader Zahra Rahnavard defiantly responded at the time that “the Green Movement is a people’s movement that is alive and dynamic and holds a wall between itself and the MEK.”
Green movement spokesmen Mohsen Kadivar and Ahmad Sadri wrote recently that if the United States removes the MEK from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations it “promises to spell disaster for the pro-democracy movement in Iran, and will be a devastating setback in the country’s attempts to move forward.” Members of the Green movement rarely comment on specific aspects of U.S. policy on Iran. The fact that Kadivar and Sadri chose to do so now should indicate how serious an issue MEK is for Iran’s democratic opposition.
Through his engagement policy, President Obama has been able to put significant pressure on the Iran regime by denying it the ability to portray the United States as the recalcitrant, aggressive actor. By eschewing the belligerent rhetoric of the previous administration and making clear that the United States is not interested in being in conflict with Iran, he has also enabled Iran’s democrats to keep the focus where it belongs: on the abuses and mismanagement of their own government. This is focus that any perceived support for the MEK could dangerously blur.
Matthew Duss is the National Security Editor at American Progress.