A top foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney is highly active in a campaign on behalf of an Iranian anti-regime exile group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.
Mitchell Reiss, the president of Maryland’s Washington College who also advised Romney in his 2007 campaign for the Republican presidential nod, has spoken at several events this year aimed at removing the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) from the U.S. terror list. Describing Reiss as taking a “leading role” in the campaign, Salon’s Justin Elliott reported:
“[T]he U.S. State Department needs to delist the MEK immediately,” Reiss said at a pro-MEK conference in Washington in April, where he was joined by a group of other luminaries, some of whom have acknowledged being paid to appear. [...]
In January he spoke at a conference organized by ExecutiveAction, a D.C.-based “problem solving company” that has spearheaded the campaign to delist the MEK. He also moderated a second, similar MEK event in April at the Capital Hilton in Washington and moderated yet another in July at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel.
While Reiss, who was a State Department official under George W. Bush, didn’t respond to Elliott’s inquiry about being paid for appearances, he’s shared the dais with other former officials who’ve admitted to taking money.
The pro-MEK campaign has drawn attention for the millions of dollars behind it. The Huffington Post and Christian Science Monitor recently released long and granular exposés of the shadowy networks behind the campaign and the speakers who take tens of thousands of dollars for speeches that often clock in under ten minutes.
The MEK, a group with roots in an unusual revolutionary mix of Islamic Marxism, has a support network among a small number of Iranian exiles and some of Washington’s Iran hawks, including a few liberal supporters.
Blacklisted by the U.S. in 1997 for terrorist actions undertaken since roughly its founding in the mid-1960s (including killing Americans in Iran in the 1970s), the group fought a terror war against the Shah and, after falling out of favor with the new Islamic regime of 1979, against the Islamic Republic. At the peak of their popular strength in Iran, the group went into exile first in France then in the mid-1980s to Iraq, where it both continued its struggle against Iran and periodically served as a Saddam Hussein mercenary force.
The MEK’s partnership with Saddam during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War caused its popularity among Iranians to plummet, and by almost all accounts few supporters remain inside the country. For these reasons and others, many don’t consider the group a viable Iranian democratic opposition.
Likewise, the MEK’s partnership with Saddam’s brutal regime created hostility toward the group among Iraqis. Much of the pro-MEK advocacy focuses on the 3,400 fighters that remain in an Iraqi encampment known as Camp Ashraf. Forcibly disarmed by invading U.S. troops in 2003, Iraqi security forces occasionally storm the outskirts of the camp, leading to what many critics have called a humanitarian crisis. (Human Rights Watch has also accused the MEK of abusing its members at the camp.)
But the crisis at Camp Ashraf is often conflated with the MEK’s push to get off the terror list. Iranian-American groups as well as members of Iran’s internal opposition Green Movement have advocated for keeping the group on the list because of the potential harmful effects to their efforts inside Iran.
Despite the group’s bizarre founding ideology, today it seems to adhere mostly to adoration of the groups husband-and-wife leadership Massoud and Maryam Rajavi — leading reputable journalists and think tanks to accuse the group of having cultish traits.
While the MEK renounced violence in 2001, in 2003 French police investigated the group for plotting terror attacks inside Iran and Europe. 16 people across Europe set themselves on fire when the Maryam Rajavi was arrested. No charges were ever filed.
But more recently, some pro-MEK activists in Washington hinted that the group may indeed still intend to commit violent acts inside Iran and do it at the behest of the U.S. — a possibility that would open up were the group delisted. The National Iranian American Council, and advocacy group that’s mounted an anti-delisting campaign, reported on a pro-MEK event last week in Washington:
Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney said an MEK delisting should be part of a campaign of “proactive actions” against Tehran. The MEK, he said, is the only “credible overt political-military counterforce to the Iranian regime.”
“We need a very active tit for tat policy,” said McInerney. “So every time they kill Americans, they have an accident in Iran.”
While Elliott reports that Romney has not taken a postion on the MEK, he has used bellicose rhetoric about Iran, calling the Islamic Republic “unalloyed evil.”
In a New Republic piece on the various foreign policies of the Republican field, journalist Eli Lake noted that in Romney’s 2007 campaign for the Republican nod, Reiss served to moderate the hawkish influence of neoconservative pundit Dan Senor (who’s also back advising Romney). But with Reiss so active in a campaign the support the MEK, one shouldn’t expect him to moderate any hawkishness on Iran issues — a pro-MEK stance would even out-hawk some neoconservatives.