US diplomats: "Plainly wrong" to conclude US must remove MEK from terror list

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American diplomats firmly pushed back Friday on reports suggesting that the U.S. must remove a controversial Iranian anti-regime group, the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MEK), from a U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations.

“MEK leaders appear to believe that the Secretary has no choice now but to delist them,” the State Department's counter-terrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin said in a call with reporters Friday. “That conclusion is quite plainly wrong.”

“In short, the court did not order the Secretary of State to revoke the MEK designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization,” Benjamin continued. “The court has told the State Department that it must act by October 1, but it did not mandate a particular result. I think that’s very important to underscore. The Secretary thus retains the discretion to either maintain or revoke the designation in accordance with the law.

The State Department call was prompted by an impasse in efforts by the United States and United Nations to persuade members of the cultish group to leave their former paramilitary base in Iraq, Camp Ashraf.

To date, about 2,000 MEK members have been persuaded to leave Ashraf for the former U.S. Camp Liberty military base in Iraq, where they can be interviewed for possible relocation to third countries. But the last relocation convoy occurred in early May, and some 1,200-1,300 MEK members remain in Ashraf, and are apparently issuing new demands, emboldened by the perception the group's terror designation may soon be revoked.

American officials have sought to encourage the relocation from Ashraf by indicating that cooperation in doing so will be a key factor in determining whether the group remains on the U.S. terror list. But a US court decision last month has interfered with that message.

In June, the US court of appeals ordered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue a determination by October whether the MEK should be taken off the US terror list or its terror designation should be reissued.

Meantime, the Iraqi government is threatening to forcibly close the camp, and the United States is concerned about possible violence and a potential humanitarian disaster should relocation efforts continue to stall.

Despite the group's terrorist designation, several prominent former senior American officials have taken large speaking fees to lobby for delisting the MEK. Among them, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, former DHS chief Tom Ridge, former UN ambassador and top Mitt Romney foreign policy adviser John Bolton, former UN ambassador Bill Richardson, and former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani. The Treasury Department issued subpoenas this past spring to determine who is paying for the massive lobbying effort on behalf of a designated terrorist group, and whether US criminal laws have been violated.

But American diplomats said Friday such lobbying will not impact the Secretary's decision on the MEK's designation.  Continue reading

Some US Iran hands blindsided by report US may move to delist MEK

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.” Continue reading