MEK: Terrorist Organization or Freedom Fighters?

Representatives of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a.ka. People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI) and by many other names, this week told judges for U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia that the PMOI/MEK should be removed from the U.S. State Department’s foreign terrorist organization (FTO) list.  PMOI/MEK has been on the list since 1997, added as a goodwill gesture to the Tehran regime. The State Department has twice re-affirmed the group’s status after mandatory five-year reviews of the listing decision  — once in 2003 and again in 2008.

PMOI/MEK was added to the proscribed organizations list in United Kingdom in 2001 and to a similar list in the European Union in 2002.  However, court cases in those countries have resulted in removal of the proscription on June 24, 2008, and June 26, 2009, respectively. Canada and Australia continue to list the group as an FTO.

About 3,400 PMOI/MEK members, according to the U.S. State Department, are in Diyala Province at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad about an hour from the Iranian border.  Camp Ashraf last made significant news in the United States on July 28 when PMOI/MEK unsuccessfully resisted the establishment of an Iraqi police presence at the camp, an action that left several PMOI/MEK members dead.  

Iraqi government officials have repeatedly assured the United States "that Camp Ashraf residents will be treated humanely, in accordance with Iraq’s Constitution, laws, and international obligations, and will not be forcibly relocated to a country where they will be tortured or persecuted based on their political or religious beliefs" according to the State Department, which says PMOI/MEK has not conducted a terrorist act since 1997.

MEK as Source to Iran’s Nuclear Secrets and Opposition to its Government

Part of the sympathy for delisting PMOI/MEK as a terrorist organization stems from the perception that the organization has supplied critical information about Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, which Iranian officials insist does not exist.  Such reports citing U.S. government officials have circulated widely in mass media stories.

“U.S. reluctance towards crushing the MEK is related to the group’s exposure of elements of Iran’s nuclear programme that were previously unknown to the international community and the IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency],” says a March 23, 2009, House of Commons Library report, People’s Mujahadeen e Khalq (MIK): An update.

“In August 2002, the NCRI revealed information about previously unknown nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak,” the report says.  “Following this disclosure, Iranian Vice President Reza Aghazadeh admitted to the IAEA Iran’s undisclosed activities in the nuclear fuel cycle, leading to multiple IAEA visits to Iranian facilities throughout 2003.  Consequently, the MEK is not only seen by the US as the largest armed opposition to the Iranian theocracy.  It is also able to provide essential intelligence on the Iranian regime.”

The most recent information regarding Iran’s nuclear program was released in an October 2, 2009, Institute for Science and International Security report.

A State Department official who agreed to speak with HUMAN EVENTS on background downplayed the significance of information supplied by PMOI/MEK.  “The MEK is not a source of valuable information on Iran to the U.S. government,” the official said. “Information from the MEK is not what the MEK claims it to be.”

There is also a view expressed recently on some editorial and op-ed pages that the MEK is worthy of international support because it is an enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Member of Parliament Andrew Mackinlay, a supporter of delisting PMOI/MEK in the U.K. during a July 20, 2006, parliamentary debate, told colleagues during the debate on PMOI/MEK status for the U.K. that, “we want reassurance that there will now be some objectivity, and that the organization will not continue to be proscribed merely to appease the rotten regime in Tehran.”  Mackinlay’s statement was included in the House of Commons Library report.  

State and Defense Department Differences

That House of Commons report also identified an apparent rift between U.S. government departments over the MEK: “The US Defence Department appears to be resisting the State Department’s desire to eliminate the MEK and imprison its commanders.”

Toward the end of the Bush administration, Ambassador Dell Dailey, then the State department’s top counterterrorism official and a former U.S. Army lieutenant general, pushed unsuccessfully to delist the MEK as an FTO, according to an August 1, 2009, New York Times story. Dailey, who now heads PAE, a division of Lockheed Martin “specializing in expeditionary construction, logistics, operations and maintenance, and training,” according to a recent company news release, did not respond to repeated queries for this story.

A 2009 Rand Corporation report identifies sources for confusion in U.S. policy regarding PMOI/MEK, in particular the fact that U.S. Department of Defense was confused about which law to enforce.  “The United States had adopted the contentious policy of not applying the Geneva Conventions to foreign terrorists fighting in Iraq, though it did apply them to enemy forces in OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], and OIF planners had named the MeK an enemy force.”

In June 2004 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “designated MeK members as civilian ‘protected persons’ under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” says the Rand report, The Mujahedin-e Kahalq in Iraq, A Policy Conundrum.  Rumfeld’s “decision controverted [Department of State], International Committee of the Red Cross (IRC), and Office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recommendations,” the report says.

A document dated August 8, 2004, from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that was declassified and redacted, refers to the designation of PMOI/MEK individuals in Iraq as “protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention and considers the restrictions placed on MEK travel outside the compound and on visitor entry as ‘measures of control’ permitted under Article 27” of that convention.

The designation no longer applies, said the State Department official speaking on background.  That “protected persons” status ended when the Iraqi transitional government stood up and assumed legal sovereignty in place of the multinational forces in Iraq.

“The Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to the MEK,” the official said.  “Regardless of our disapproval of the MEK as a foreign terrorist organization, we are concerned about 3,400 human beings [at Camp Ashraf] and doing what can be done to give them humane treatment.”

A PowerPoint slide supplied by the State Department and sporting seals from State and the Department of Defense, avers that the MEK are not refugees nor are they “Protected Persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention.”  In addition to the U.S. Government positions and actions already mentioned, the slide says the U.S. government:

• Supports the human rights of the 3,400 individuals at Ashraf
• Opposes the perpetuation of the MEK terrorist organization on Iraqi soil or elsewhere
• Supports Iraqi sovereignty over Ashraf and responsibility for the MEK
• Expects the Iraqi Government to honor its written assurances that it will treat MEK members humanely and not forcibly relocate them to a country where they will be persecuted based on religious or political beliefs or tortured
• Supports international participation in resolving the MEK situation

Unites State Central Command, headed by Gen. David Patraeus, did not respond to queries about the MEK or the quality and value of its information about Iran.

While there’s no predicting when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will render its decision in People’s Mojahedin Org of Iran v. DOS, the court’s opinions are posted on its Web site on Tuesdays and Fridays.


• Sept. 6, 1965, PMOI/MEK founded
• June 21, 1981, PMOI/MEK declares armed struggle against the government of Iran
• August 1981, National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) founded
• October 1997, U.S. State Department lists PMOI/MEK as a foreign terrorist organizations
• March 28,2001, PMOI/MEK added to the U.K.’s proscribed organizations list
• May 2002, European lists PMOI/MEK as a terrorist organization
• June 24, 2008, PMOI/MEK removed from the UK’s list of proscribed organizations
• January 1, 2009, Government of Iraq takes responsibility for Camp Ashraf and PMOI/MEK
• Jan. 26, 2009, PMOI/MEK removed from the EU list of proscribed organizations
• January 12, 2009, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia hears arguments re removing PMOI/MEK from the State Department’s FTO list.