When is an Iranian terrorist not a terrorist? When it comes to the exiled opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq, the answer is simple: whenever the West says so.
The delisting of the MEK as a "foreign terrorist organization" (FTO ) by the U.S. State Department (following similar moves in the United Kingdom and the European Union ) comes after an intense million-dollar lobbying campaign in Washington involving incumbent congressmen, former White House security officials and retired four-star generals. Luminaries such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and presidential also-ran Newt Gingrich have all insisted that the group (founded with a Marxist-Islamist philosophy ) no longer deserves the moniker of FTO, despite having both American and Iranian blood on its hands.
Of course the hypocrisy in this decision is staggering. One of the reasons the U.S. and the U.K. offered for invading Iraq in 2003 was Saddam Hussein's harboring of "terrorists" such as the MEK. Notwithstanding the moral relativism of first condemning and then supporting "terrorism," depending on which way the wind blows, the efficacy of Washington supporting the MEK to achieve its aim of regime change in Iran is also dubious.
Led by the husband and wife team of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, the MEK has been blamed by U.S. officials for the killing of American military personnel and defense contractors working for Rockwell International during the 1970s - a period when Washington supported Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's tenuous grasp on power.
The MEK supported the Iranian revolution in 1979 before coming into conflict with the new Islamic Republic headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Once the clerics consolidated their grip on power, some MEK leaders were tried and executed, thus forcing others into exile. After finding a home in Iraq, the MEK fought alongside Iraqi troops after Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran in 1980, an eight-year conflict that left an estimated one million Iranians dead - a fact conveniently (and shamelessly ) omitted by MEK's U.S. supporters. The MEK also participated in suppressing the Shi'ite uprising in southern Iraq after Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
While "terrorist" groups in Ireland and elsewhere have evolved into legitimate political movements over time, the MEK has been linked to recent assassinations of civilian members of Iran's nuclear program - one outside his daughter's nursery school - reportedly at the behest of Israel and with the tacit blessing of the U.S.
From a hawkish U.S. policy perspective, the logic for the delisting appears straightforward. The MEK opposes the clerical regime in Tehran, the U.S. wants regime change there - thus the two make for natural bedfellows. But the effectiveness of supporting exiled opposition groups has been called into question as a policy strategy by recent events in the Middle East. Both the "Green Revolution" in Iran after the disputed 2009 elections and the Arab Spring clearly show that homegrown opposition movements have the greatest potential to generate real political change.
Backing exile opposition groups has historically been a risky decision. When the Bush administration jumped into bed with Ahmed Chalabi before the invasion of Iraq, they were led up the garden path (some would say willfully ) on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.
In the case of Iran, even former CIA analysts such as Paul Pillar, now at Georgetown University, insist that domestic opposition groups want "nothing to do with the MEK." The MEK has been in exile for more than a generation, and while many Iranians oppose Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, they are still likely to be repulsed by a group that threw its lot in with Saddam Hussein - an avowed enemy who ordered the use of chemical weapons against their fellow citizens. In fact, some commentators have suggested that Tehran could use the delisting of the MEK as an effective propaganda tool to categorize the entire "Green Movement" as U.S.-backed "traitors," rather than an indigenous opposition group with legitimate concerns.
In Chalabi, the United States also supported an exile without a significant support structure on the ground to deal with the chaos that erupted across Iraq after the ousting of Saddam.
We all know how that turned out.
Israel, too, has seen the results of backing Yasser Arafat's long-term Fatah exiles, whose years in Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia ill prepared them to rule in the eventual Palestinian Authority established in the West Bank and Gaza.
Perhaps most important, after its experiences over the past decade, it should be clear to the U.S. that promoting "regime change" as a foreign policy objective will always be a dangerous game.
The Obama administration - by convincing the EU to get on board with tougher sanctions on oil and financial services, and through cyber attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities - has hurt Tehran more in the last four years than in the previous eight of its more belligerent predecessor, while maintaining a relatively safe distance. But by pushing the MEK as a viable alternative to the current Iranian regime, U.S. politicians are violating a basic rule of political science: People do not like to be told what to do, especially by foreigners.
And after the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya by Islamist militants who were on the same side as Washington only a few months ago, the Obama administration should have learned another lesson: The enemy of one's enemy is not always the wisest choice of friend.
Raymond Barrett is an Irish writer and journalist. He is the author of "Dubai Dreams: Inside the Kingdom of Bling." He can be followed on Twitter @RaymondPBarrett.
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