Politicking The Terror List

Once again, the United States (U.S.) is considering removal of the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation from North Korea — this in response to reported progess in the long-running effort to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Three days of negotiations ended on July 20, with no concrete timeline for North Korea to complete a series of steps agreed upon in February 2007, but the International Agency for Atomic Energy has confirmed that North Korea closed five main nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.

Yet, despite the uncertainty surrounding difficult issues regarding North Korea’s nuclear stockpile, atomic reasearch programs, stored components, secret facilities, and proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, there is talk in Washington about removing North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Such removal would hand North Korea a much-desired — and as-yet unearned — reward for which it has pressed insistently for years.

Now, contrast the North Korean situation with that of the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), the oldest, best organized, and most dedicated of all the secular democratic Iranian opposition groups. The MEK, which began its struggle for democracy as a student group opposed to the Shah’s autocratic monarchy in the 1960s, since 1979 has battled the savage regime of the mullahs — a regime that repeatedly has been designated by the State Department the top state sponsor of terrorism in the world. As we may recall, too, both Iran and North Korea figured among the trio named to the “axis of evil” by President Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address.

At the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the U.S. bombed MEK camps in Iraq with neither provocation of any kind nor a single shot fired in return. After complete disarmament and a lengthy multi-departmental U.S. government investigation concluded in 2004 that none of the 3,800 MEK members living at Ashraf City in northern Iraq could be charged with any wrongdoing or terrorism, the MEK was granted “protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The U.S. military has been providing protection to the group ever since.

Official documents, including speeches of top MEK leadership from the early 1980s, and the platform of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the umbrella organization to which the MEK belongs, assert dedication to a secular, democratic government in Iran that eschews nuclear weapons and support for terrorism, and is dedicated to equal opportunity and protection of minorities. The values and objectives of the MEK closely echo our own hopes for reform in the Middle East.  

And yet, incredibly, the MEK remains on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list, where it was placed by the Clinton administration in 1997at the express request of the terrorist clerical regime in Tehran!

Both the designation of state sponsors of terror and placement on the FTO list supposedly are governed by specific criteria that must be met for initial inclusion and reviewed at each redesignation. In the case of North Korea, however, the removal of its terror designation has been made contingent primarily on its agreement to end its nuclear programs — which, aside from well-founded concerns about proliferation (especially of its advanced missile technology) to Iran or other states that sponsor terrorism, actually has little to do with terrorism. An October 2006 joint declaration in which North Korea reportedly denounced terrorism and committed itself to an exchange of data on international terrorism amounts to a token gesture without mechanisms for deadlines and enforcement; the same goes for promises to sign any United Nations-sponsored anti-terrorism treaties. So, we may understand that if hurdles related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are ever met, North Korea may be removed from the state sponsors of terror list with small regard for its long involvement in criminal and terrorist behavior.

Such behavior, at a minimum, would include the following:

-1987 bombing of Korean Airlines flight 858

-Weapons dealing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines

-Sale of weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

-Sale of weapons to the Wa State Army, a drug-trafficking group active in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle

-Large-scale support for biological, missile, and nuclear programs in rogue states such as Iran and Syria

-The manufacture and peddling of large quantities of heroin, amphetamines, other weapons, and counterfeit U.S. dollars around the world.

For groups on the FTO list, the criteria are closely linked to behavior related to terrorism. U.S. law requires that for a group to be listed on the FTO, it must meet three requirements:

• Foreign origin

• Conducts terrorism

• Such terrorism threatens national security of the U.S. or security of American nationals.|
In the case of the MEK, only the first of these criteria is met. And yet, the MEK has been redesignated to the FTO list every two years since 1997.

The consequences of inclusion on a terrorist designation list are significant: for a country such as North Korea, it is prevented from receiving aid, loans, and investment from multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For a group such as the MEK, pitted against one of the most ruthless regimes on earth, it means an inability for its members to travel, raise funds, speak out, or organize the opposition movement — all actions that would be in the best interests of both democratic reform for the oppressed people of Iran and the broader objectives of the U.S. to encourage development of civil society and democratic rule of law in the Middle East.

In the final analysis, both Iran and North Korea fully deserve inclusion in an “axis of evil” that has deployed every criminal and terrorist means at its disposal for decades to attack the forces of liberal democracy. The U.S. must monitor and evaluate carefully the implementation of any agreements with North Korea that seem to indicate progress towards dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program. Removal of North Korea’s designation as a state sponsor of terror is not a mere bargaining chip to be traded away in return for dubious commitment to nuclear goals that leaves its support for global terror untouched.

Nor should inclusion of the MEK on the FTO list be a mere bargaining chip either — to be tossed on the roulette table as we watch a terrorist regime spin its radical Shi’a expansionist strategy in calculated bid to dominate both the region and the international Islamist movement. North Korea eventually may or may not merit removal from the state sponsors of terror list; Iran is unlikely to do so. But neither the MEK nor NCRI ever belonged on the FTO list and should be removed immediately.