A report in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that the State Department may move to remove a controversial Iranian militant group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) from a list of terrorist organizations has startled several people who work on Iran in and out of the U.S. government.
American officials said the issue almost never came up at a late April all-hands Iran conference that included the entire State Department Iran team of almost 40 people working in Washington and as Iran watchers abroad.
The timing of the report– some 10 days ahead of high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran due to be held in Baghdad May 23—also baffled some Iran watchers, leading one to wonder if “someone got to Clinton” –with an agenda to try to scuttle the talks.
But other Washington Iran hands and legal experts said the decision on whether to remove the MeK from the U.S. list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) does not appear to be imminent and noted there are still several moving parts.
“If this story is accurate – and I have no way to know if it is – then it should not have a significant impact on the upcoming talks in Baghdad simply because of the timing,” said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now with the Saban Center on the Middle East at the Brookings Institution.
U.S. lawyers this month told a court that a decision on whether to delist the MeK will be made within 60 days after their former paramilitary base in Iraq, Camp Ashraf, has been vacated.
“Since there are still 1200 residents of the camp, it would appear that no decision will be made in the foreseeable future,” Maloney noted. “It has taken years to reduce the population from 3000 to 1200, and given the complex security and legal issues at stake for the individual residents, I can only presume it will take months or more to completely vacate the camp.”
“The Obama administration is moving to remove an Iranian opposition group from the State Department’s terrorism list, say officials briefed on the talks, in an action that could further poison Washington’s relations with Tehran at a time of renewed diplomatic efforts to curtail Iran’s nuclear program,” the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Soloman and Evan Perez wrote.
“Senior U.S. officials said on Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to make any final decision on the MeK’s status,’ the report continued. “But they said the State Department was looking favorably at delisting MeK if it continued cooperating by vacating a former paramilitary base inside Iraq, called Camp Ashraf, which the group had used to stage cross-border strikes into Iran.”
Some legal experts said the decision may not be a done deal.
The issue “has been under review for a long time,” international trade lawyer Douglas Jacobson told me. There’s “no certainty it will be done any time soon.”
“I have full confidence that everyone involved in that review and decision are fully cognizant of the implications for broader US policy issues, and I genuinely believe that these State Department officials would not be influenced in the least by the false presumption, cultivated by well-paid lobbyists, that the MeK has a useful role to play in Iran today,” Brookings’ Maloney said.
“There are simply no illusions about the MeK in any corner of the State Department, although unfortunately that is not the case with the Congress,” she said.
But some Iran experts said whatever the reality, the perception of any decision to delist the MeK will be seen as politically influenced.
“There are several possibilities. One is the simplest, that State is pursuing legal requirements according to timing that is entirely internally driven,” Jon Alterman, director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
“Another is that this is a way to remind the Iranians that the United States can do a range of things the Iranians find objectionable,” Alterman continued. “After all, listing the MEK in the first place was a ‘confidence-building measure’ with the Iranians, so politics have always been in the mix. Iran’s strategy before talks has rarely been a long period of good behavior. Instead, it’s often reminded others of its ability to do mischief, boosting desires to encourage positive behavior.”
Update: Former State Department Iran desk officer Reza Marashi writes to dispute Alterman’s contention, above, that the original 1997 designation of the MEK was done as a confidence building gesture to Iran–though he agrees with the point that a decision to delist would be perceived as politically motivated.
“Listing the MEK in 1997 was not a confidence-building measure,” Marashi said by email. Then Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs “Martin Indyk helped lead the process, and he wrote on page 220 of his book ‘Innocent Abroad’ that the MEK was put on the list because they deserved to be there. I participated in numerous reviews of the MEK’s designation and I can say unequivocally that it has nothing to do with confidence-building vis-a-vis the regime. Even the Bush administration — with its open regime change policy — repeatedly redesignated the MEK.”
(Photo: An Iranian woman (C) holds a picture of her relative, who she said was killed by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), during a rally in front of the French embassy in Tehran June 28, 2010: REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl)