Will US Change Course on Iran and MEK?

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The US Federal Court of Appeals in Washington DC will hold a hearing on May 8 to hear arguments in the case of People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) vs. US State Department on its designation as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the State.

This is not the first time such a hearing has been held, and may not be the last. The same court ordered State Department in July of 2010 to review its designation of MEK as a terrorist organization. Twenty one months after that ruling, the State has yet to reply.

So why the delay? Why doesn’t the US State Department want to review this designation and close this case? The official answer may be because this review deals with sensitive issues and classified documents and takes time, or may be, as State stated in its reply to court this March, Secretary Clinton is too busy.

Anyone listening to CNN or Fox News, or reading any newspaper in the US or abroad, knows that Secretary Clinton is in fact busy, and the primary reason for this is, plain and simple, Iran and its nuclear program. But, isn’t MEK an Iranian opposition group, the same group that exposed Iran’s nuclear program in the first place? And isn’t this the group Iranian ruler’s fear the most, and suppressed the most? Then Secretary Clinton should be busy dealing with the MEK issue as part of her ongoing dilemma on how to deal with Iran’s rulers.

The facts in this case are clear: MEK was included in the FTO list as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian “moderates” in 1997, as reported in the Los Angeles Times back then. This was followed by the UK and EU, who kept their lists in line with United States’. Following the 2002 expose of the Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian rulers used the MEK blacklisting as a bargaining chip in their negotiations over the nuclear program with the West.

After multiple court rulings, MEK was delisted by UK and EU in 2008 and 2009. But, after many court challenges, and despite calls by nearly 100 members of US House of Representatives and dozens of former high ranking political, military, and security officials, United States refuses to do the same.

So what are the consequences of keeping MEK in the FTO list? First and foremost, this designation has been a tool in the hands of Iran to justify its human rights violations under the pretext of fighting terrorists. On the other hand, Iraq, where 3400 MEK members are holed up, has used this designation in its inhumane treatment of these individuals.

The 3400 MEK members in Camps Ashraf and Liberty have been beaten, fired on, run over by military vehicles, and psychologically tortured since 2009, and Maliki’s Government justifies this by pointing to the group’s inclusion in the US FTO list. This despite the fact that all these individuals were interrogated and investigated in 2003-2004 by US intelligence agencies and were cleared of any criminal or terroristic backgrounds.

The main reason United States is not willing to delist MEK may be that it does not want to antagonize Tehran. The issue of MEK is part of the bigger issue of US-Iran relations. After two decades of futile attempt by successive US administrations, the Obama administration still hopes to reach out to the Iranian rulers, namely Khamanei and Ahmadinejad. This is despite the fact that Iran has proceeded with its Uranium enrichment, contrary to international demands; continues to support terrorist and extremist groups in the region and around the world; and continues to brutally suppress its own people, having the distinction of being the premier human rights violator in the world and having the highest rate of executions per capita.

By keeping the MEK in the FTO list, the United States is signaling to Tehran that the will of the Iranian people in demanding freedom and democracy, as demonstrated in the massive street demonstrations of 2009, does in fact fall on deaf ears in Washington. The US is willing to keep MEK in the FTO list unjustifiably, because it still has the illusion that it can deal with Tehran. Numerous rounds of negotiations have shown that Iran’s goal is simply buying time to proceed with its agenda of acquiring nuclear arms and solidifying its hegemony in the region.

At the same time, it has managed to use these negotiations to demand keeping MEK in the FTO list and push the issue of human rights violations to the backburner. The successive demise of Middle Eastern dictators indicates that the era of totalitarian rule in the region is over. Iran is no exception to this and the United States must realize it needs to support Iranian people’s will for freedom and democracy. The best way to start this process is by delisting the MEK.