There is an old saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” But when it comes to the US foreign policy this dictum should read: “One man’s terrorist is the same man’s freedom fighter.” This schizophrenic policy nowhere is more evident than in the case of the recent US attitude toward Mujahedin-e-Khalq-e-Iran (MKO).
MKO sprang into action as an urban guerilla force against the dictatorial regime of the Shah in the 1960’s. According to many reports, in the 1970’s the group engaged in assassination campaigns against American military personnel and civilian supporters of the Shah. In 1979 MKO joined the Iranian Revolution on the side of the Islamic forces and, purportedly, supported the takeover of the American Embassy and hostage taking. Eventually, MKO had a falling-out with the clergy and found its way into Iraq, where it became Saddam’s mercenary force. In that capacity, MKO helped Saddam in waging war against Iran, quelling the Shiite uprising in 1991, and carrying out numerous assassination and bombing campaigns in Iran.
MKO’s ideology has never been well-defined. Thus the Shah used the oxymoron “Islamic-Marxists” to refer to them. With the passage of time the group’s ideology became even less clear as it turned more and more into a cult led by a deranged individual, Massud Rajavi, whose lifestyle, including wife swapping, was more like a Jim Jones than a revolutionary. The lack of clear ideology, combined with the history of the group as Saddam’s henchmen, means that MKO does not have any popular support in Iran. Thus MKO’s activities appear to be truly terroristic, a series of violent acts with no real consequence, except causing fear among a population.
Yet, despite the cult’s use of violence and its close association with Saddam, many in the US Congress, particularly those associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have continuously supported MKO. Successive US administrations have also ignored the group’s terrorist acts and its ties to the old Iraqi regime. This support, prior to the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, made strange bedfellows out of US, Israel and Iraq. But in the mid 1990’s, feeling the pressure from the corporate lobby to mend relations with Iran and relax trade sanctions, the US Department of State officially designated MKO as a terrorist organization. This designation, however, did nothing to stop the activities of MKO in the US. The group continued to freely operate and raise funds in this country, and, even until a few years ago, it was openly engaged in panhandling in the US airports. The designation of MKO as a terrorist organization also did nothing to reduce its support in the US Congress. Indeed, after the State Department prepared a report on the nature of MKO, some members of Congress, such as Gary L. Ackerman, Robert G. Torricelli and Dan Burton, criticized the State Department for not interviewing MKO members before preparing its report. Furthermore, some US Congressional members, such as Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, elevated this cult to the rank of the main opposition to the Islamic regime, praised it as having a “democratic, pluralistic and secular platform,” and invited its members to testify in Congress. Some of these same Congressional members even attended rallies organized by the cult and urged the Clinton Administration to support MKO as well. By the end of the previous Administration, MKO had become an organization labeled both as “terrorist” and “freedom fighter.”
The Bush Administration re-designated MKO as a terrorist organization after 9/11 but continued the policy of benign neglect. However, when the Administration was trying to make its case to invade Iraq, MKO became a convenient target as a true terrorist organization that must be combated. Thus in his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush justified his policy toward Iraq by saying that in “violation of Security Council Resolution 1373, Iraq continues to shelter and support terrorist organizations that direct violence against Iran.” Of course, a few days before the President’s speech MKO had held a press conference, not too far from the White House, to announce the location of Iran’s alleged secret nuclear facility. Even after the President’s speech, MKO continued its open activities in the US, including holding press conferences in Washington.
With the end of the US invasion of Iraq the status of MKO changed once again. US military forces, which apparently did not understand the nuances of the US foreign policy, initially treated MKO as another dangerous armed group, along with Ansar al-Islam. They therefore bombed the group’s camp, causing some of its members to flee to the Jordan-Iraq border. But on April 19 MKO members demonstrated in Washington and called on their supporters to stop the assault. The US government apparently told the military guys that MKO is no ordinary terrorist organization and must be protected. On April 22 a ceasefire was declared and Massoud Rajavi said: “We welcome the signing of a ceasefire agreement with the US forces.” The cult was even allowed to keep its weapons for a potential fight against Iran and the Iraqi Shiite forces returning to their homeland. The US government, however, continued to maintain that MKO is still a terrorist organization. But as Cofer Black, the Department of State’s counter-terrorism coordinator, told a group of reporters on April 30, MKO “is a pretty special group.” Yes, MKO is indeed a very special group. They are US’s “good terrorists.”
SASAN FAYAZMANESH is Associate Professor of Economics Department of Economics California State University, Fresno. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org