All too often, in international affairs, America makes decisions based on the least worst choice. Administrations on the left and right, from World War II to the Cold War to the GWOT, have found themselves sharing the covers with unsavory bedmates. These relationships underpinned containment and have facilitated geographic strategy. Occasionally, they’ve even been used for the imprimatur of legitimacy. (In the building hubbub about the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s interesting to note that one part of Kennedy’s efforts to stymie the Russians was the backing of the Organization of American States, which even then was perpetually unable to reach consensus. Somehow the OAS unanimously approved the quarantine—helped, no doubt, by the chits called in from more than a few South American dictators.)
Alliances are not always clean, nor clear, nor, for that matter, consistent. One such bedfellow has been the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK.
The MEK dates back to the 1960s, but became more prominent in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. For a time, the group presented an accepted alternative to Khomeini. In 1981 managed to carry out bombings in Iran that claimed the lives of several high-value targets, including the head of the Islamic Republic Party, Iran’s second elected president, and the prime minister. Eventually these activities forced most of the leadership to flee the country. By 1986, they were based in Iraq, and were fighting on Saddam Hussein’s side during the Iran-Iraq War. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that. After the war, the group became both more entwined with Saddam and more insular. There were accounts of the group acting on Saddam’s behalf to attack the Kurds. But the word “cult” started to be associated with the group, as well, and it turned inwards. In 1997 the MEK was placed on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
By the time of the start of the 2003 Iraq War, the group was considered to be so closely aligned with Saddam that coalition forces bombed the MEK’s compound near Fallujah. As Iraq devolved and America sought to pick partnerships, MEK members and their lobbyists began to make significant progress in rebranding the group as a viable opposition force to employ against Khamenei.
Much of this was covered well—and analyzed better—in a RAND monograph co-authored by a friend of mine, Jeremiah Goulka. (Jeremiah, whose recent essay on his evolving political beliefs went viral, also wrote an American Prospect article suggesting the MEK would “steer the United States toward war.”) In general, however, the group has not necessarily been front-page news.
In the past weeks that changed. Several recent articles, among them Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker piece and a Guardian article, have made reference to their tangled history. And today, Secretary of State Clinton took MEK off the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations. While not much has been heard from the various lobbyists who have sought this for years (including Rudy Giuliani, Porter Goss, John Bolton, and Howard Dean), opposing entities have made clear their dissatisfaction with the decision.
What prompted all this? Obvious explanations include the prominence of the MEK’s supporters, or humanitarian concern for MEK members.
But other possibilities exist. Early this week, Iran claimed that explosives were used to sabotage power lines leading to the Fordow enrichment plant. There’s no endgame imaginable in which the MEK finds itself holding legitimate power in Iran, as its members imagined in the early days of the revolution. Nevertheless, members still have knowledge of and contacts in Iran, and possibly networks, even if they have no popular support. It’s certainly not impossible to imagine that they’ve been able to conduct covert operations in their former homeland, and that they’ll be able to continue doing so. After all, in addition to the alleged power-line sabotage, someone’s been killing scientists associated with Iran’s nuclear program.
If one accepts that preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear capability is a vital American national interest, and that forestalling the Israelis from taking unilateral military action prior to November 6 is a vital administration interest, and if the previous paragraph’s musings are correct, then Secretary Clinton’s—and, in all likelihood, the president’s—calculus regarding wiping the MEK slate clean becomes a bit more clear. It remains troubling, however—although what in the region is not?