The French diplomatic genius Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.” This is perhaps the best way to describe the US State Department’s recent decision to take the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) off its notorious list of 52 foreign terrorist organisations. It was yet another setback in the negotiations between Iran and the West on the former’s nuclear program.

It is one of those cynical moves that will only exacerbate an already unfavourable diplomatic atmosphere, suffering from a dearth of goodwill and mutual trust. Iran and the US are already stuck in a dangerous game of chicken: Washington is pressing its advantage by increasingly tightening the noose around Iran’s economy, while Tehran is relentlessly pushing the boundaries of its nuclear-enrichment capabilities toward a fait accompli. Meanwhile, sanctions have been biting into Iran’s increasingly vulnerable economy, embittering the Iranian population toward the West, especially the US. Instead of reaching out to the Iranian people, as he repeatedly promised, US President Barack Obama is not only imposing what can be termed in international law as collective punishment, but also accommodating an organisation that most Iranians identify with treachery and deceit.

The MEK decision is also a classic example of how domestic politics can derail high-stake diplomacy, with the fate of international security hanging in the balance. To secure his re-election bid, President Obama is trying hard to look tough on Iran. But what Obama ignores is how his short-term political calculations may carry long-term risks vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear issue.

AN AMBIVALENT

DECISION

The delisting of the MEK came ahead of a court-ordered October deadline, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sending a classified document to Congress earlier, detailing her department’s position on the matter.

In 1997, the State Department placed the MEK on its Foreign Terrorist Organisations List for its history of terrorist activities, especially against US citizens in the 1970s. However, ironically, Washington protected the MEK members in Iraq’s Camp Ashraf after toppling Saddam Hussein, the organisation’s main patron. Later, when the group came under increasing pressure - ahead of US troop withdrawal - by the Tehran-backed government in Baghdad, Washington opposed any violent crackdown on the camp, while exploring means to transfer MEK members elsewhere. Finally, amid a logistical headache and rising political noise, Washington transferred some of the 3,000-strong MEK militia to Camp Liberty, a former US military base near Baghdad International Airport.

The State Department justified its delisting of the MEK on the grounds that the organisation has publicly renounced violence, cooperated in the closure of Camp Ashraf, and has shunned terrorism for more than a decade.

Crucially, the move came in the midst of continuous vilification of Iran as an imminent nuclear threat that “should be met with force”, a narrative enthusiastically espoused by a wide spectrum ranging from hawkish Republicans in the US Congress to pundits in the mainstream media as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The decision is a culmination of years of lavish and aggressive lobbying by the MEK - boosted by growing support from rich Iranian-American exiles opposed to the regime in Tehran - directed at (current and former) top US officials and leaders from both the Democratic and Republican camps. The MEK spent US$1.5m alone to hire three leading Washington lobby firms. It channelled millions of dollars in “speaking fees” to sympathetic American officials and leaders who graced the MEK’s high-profile events, rallies and campaign gatherings calling for the State Department to delist the organisation.

The list of top-notch supporters is astonishing. The former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, has been among the group’s biggest beneficiaries, reportedly receiving up to $150,000 in speaking fees. For the Republican chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the figure stands at around $20,000. Former presidential candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties, namely Bill Richardson, Howard Dean and Rudolf Giuliani, have also joined the fray.

POTENTIAL

DIPLOMATIC FALLOUT

In the initial years of the Islamic Revolution, its supporters had to contend with the MEK, an organisation founded on an eclectic Marxist-Islamist-nationalist ideology, as a major rival in determining the fate of the new Islamic Republic. After all, during the 1979 revolution, the MEK was among the major players within the broad coalition of forces that deposed the Shah. After a series of violent confrontations in the immediate post-revolutionary years, a severely weakened MEK lost whatever measure of popular legitimacy it enjoyed when it sided with Saddam Hussein against Iran during the eight-year “imposed war”.

After its expulsion from Iran, much of its paramilitary capability was concentrated in Iraq, under the generous sponsorship of the Baathist regime. So it practically lost any significant presence within Iran. The MEK is an organisation with few to no roots within Iran’s political landscape, so it is not clear how it could play a critical role in changing that landscape and/or Tehran’s nuclear posture to America’s advantage. This is precisely why successive US administrations have instead reached out to reformist elements within Iran, never seeing the MEK as a viable ally.

It must be noted that Washington’s 1997 decision to include the MEK in the list of terrorist organisations was part of its nascent diplomatic outreach to the newly empowered reformist government in Tehran under president Mohammad Khatami. After all, inclusion of groups in the Foreign Terrorist Organisation list has been generally arbitrary, simply tuned to America’s short-term strategic interests.

In 2002, an MEK-affiliate group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, revealed a laptop containing confidential information about Iran’s burgeoning enrichment activities in Natanz and Arak. Since the MEK does not possess an independent and credible intelligence-gathering capacity, it is widely believed that Israeli intelligence agencies were behind the leaked documents. The revelation marked the beginning of a decade of tense nuclear negotiations between Iran and world powers, which precipitated a severe set of sanctions and repeated threats of military intervention against Tehran.

In April this year, leading investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported that back in 2005, the Nevada-based Joint Special Operations Command trained “Iranians associated with the MEK” as part of the George Bush administration’s broader “global war on terror”. Commentators have also suggested that various Western intelligence agencies, especially Israel’s Mossad, have been working closely with the MEK in a “shadow war” ranging from sabotage against Iran’s key military and oil facilities to the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and sabotage of nuclear installations.

Understandably, the Iranian authorities immediately lashed out against Washington’s decision to delist one of its most long-standing nemeses. Iran holds the MEK responsible for at least 12,000 deaths, including high-profile members of the regime in the early years of the revolution. Iranian state television accused the US of double standards by supporting “good terrorists” who serve its interests by working against Iran and its nuclear program. The Iranian Foreign Ministry warned that the decision would put on the US “responsibility for past, present and future terrorist operations by this group”, just as Rajavi expressed her hopes that the delisting “will lead to the expansion of anti-regime activities within Iran”.

Negotiations on the nuclear program are already in bad shape. Despite repeated overtures by Tehran - from decreasing enrichment activities to the 3-5% territory, to shipping out its stockpile of high-enriched uranium, and opening up of its whole nuclear infrastructure for inspection - to resolve the standoff, the Obama admin has repeatedly refused to meet Iran’s two basic demands: (1) An unequivocal recognition of Iran’s enrichment rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); and (2) reversal of unilateral sanctions battering Iran’s entire economy.

Obama’s accommodation of the MEK will further undermine its nuclear diplomacy toward Iran. It will do nothing but strengthen the hands of Iranian hardliners - at the expense of pro-diplomacy pragmatists - who have called for a withdrawal from the NPT, an increase of enrichment levels to 60%, and preparations for a military confrontation with the West. Beyond regime insiders, the Obama admin has also alienated ordinary Iranians and opposition elements who detest the MEK and view the latest move as another cynical ploy to retard Iran’s scientific progress and bring the country to its knees.   –Asia Times Online