A controversial Iranian group that the U.S. declared a terrorist organization nearly 15 years ago has been taken off the terror list in the wake of a high-profile political campaign aimed at Washington, D.C. decision-makers.
The State Department released a statement today saying the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a group of dissident Iranian nationals based in Iraq, has been removed from the official list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, meaning that the group is no longer subject to financial and material restrictions by the U.S. government.
The MEK was added to the list in 1997 after the American government accused them of being behind the murders of several U.S. servicemen and civilians in Iran during the 1970s. The group also reportedly allied itself with Saddam Hussein's regime in opposition to Iran in the 1980s and 1990s and, most recently, Iranian officials have accused the MEK of being linked to the assassinations of nuclear scientists there. The group has said that it renounced violence a decade ago but still pushes for the overthrow of the Iranian government.
"With today's actions, the Department does not overlook or forget the MEK's past acts of terrorism," the State Department said. "The Department also has serious concerns about the MEK as an organization, particularly with regard to allegations of abuse committed against its own members. The Secretary's decision today took into account the MEK's public renunciation of violence, the absence of confirmed acts of terrorism by the MEK for more than a decade, and their cooperation in the peaceful closure of Camp Ashraf, their historic paramilitary base."
The MEK has lived for the past quarter century at Camp Ashraf, a refugee camp in Iraq, and have recently been in the process of giving up their weapons and moving from the camp -- which the State Department said the MEK had historically used as a paramilitary base -- to a former U.S. base, Camp Hurriya, before being re-settled in a third country.
The decision to de-list the group, first reported by The Associated Press last week, comes in the wake of a dogged campaign in support of the dissident group that featured prominent American former military men, security officials and politicians from both parties including the first Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former presidential candidate Howard Dean. Two former CIA directors, James Woolsey and Porter Goss, also threw their support behind the group.
"The United States should not just be on your side," Giuliani told MEK supporters at a conference in Paris in 2010. "It should be enthusiastically on your side. You want the same things we want."
In an editorial for Fox News in January, Ridge said that the previous failure to de-list MEK "continues to stymie prospects for democratic change in Iran" and said the group has provided the U.S. with "valuable intelligence" about Iran's controversial nuclear program.
However, a senior State Department official said that the new decision was "not made to appease any group of lobbyists, no matter how famous they are."
"The United States government is not going to take anyone off the list if it genuinely believes that they pose an imminent threat, that they're going to commit terrorist acts or that they are somehow wedded to violence that is the key desideratum," he said. "That's how we do this."
"I should add that the United States Government has not claimed that the MEK was involved in the assassination of scientists in Iran," the official said.
Earlier this year, the Treasury Department reportedly began probing whether paid speeches by the MEK-supporters amounted to doing business with a terror group -- a serious crime under U.S. law. The MEK's delisting, however, nullifies such an inquiry, according to The Associated Press.
The MEK has also come under fire from critics for appearing to be a cult-like organization. A 2009 study by the RAND Corporation said its leaders "imbued the MEK with many of the typical characteristics of a cult, such as authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labor, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, and limited exit options." Similar allegations are made in a 2005 Human Rights Watch report.
MEK members and supporters reportedly object to such accusations, saying it's all Iranian propaganda.