Laying the Groundwork for War With Iran

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes on John Bolton’s appointment as ambassador to the United Nations Tuesday, they will do so having never asked him about his support for a group called the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group that was backed by Saddam Hussein for almost two decades and has a place on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

In comments to Congress a year ago, Bolton said he would not have “any inhibition” about working with the group in an effort to gather intelligence on Iran. Bolton is not alone in his sentiments. Congressmen and prominent neoconservatives are pushing for the U.S. government to rearm the group.

What opponents of the Iranian regime like about the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) is its terrorism. According to the State Department, the MEK conducted near-simultaneous attacks on Iranian Embassies and installations in 13 countries in April 1992, demonstrating the group’s ability to mount large-scale operations overseas. Then, in 1999 the group assassinated the deputy chief of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff. In April 2000, they attempted to assassinate the commander of the Iranian government organization responsible for coordinating policies on Iraq. In 2000 and 2001, the State Department reports, the MEK was involved regularly in mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids on Iranian military and law-enforcement units and government buildings near the Iran-Iraq border.

Some lawmakers on Capital Hill say that’s just the thing the U.S. government should support.

“I don’t believe they should belong on the terrorist list,” says Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, who is one of the group’s biggest supporters in Congress. “I believe a new look should be placed upon them and we’ll see that they are not anti-U.S.”

Ros-Lehtinen is author of a bill that would impose sanctions on all countries that trade with Iran, similar to the Helms-Burton Act restricting trade with Cuba. The bill, which is making its way quickly through Congress, would also make millions of dollars available every year for Iranian opposition groups – and the favorite of neoconservatives is the MEK.

That’s not exactly music to the ears of most opponents of the Iranian regime.

“In the middle 1980s, they made an alliance with Saddam Hussein,” notes Shaul Bakhash, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at George Mason University. Saddam “gave them a home and financial material support, and there are credible charges that Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in his own campaigns.”

Bakhash says the MEK is universally despised inside Iran because the group fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s army during the Iran-Iraq war. He notes, however, that after the U.S. military toppled Saddam’s government in 2003, the Bush administration did not force the group to disband or even abandon its bases in Iraq.

“I imagine they’re enjoying a degree of American protection. It’s very hard to believe that when there is an independent Iraqi government, they will suffer the presence on their soil of a group that is committed to the overthrow of a neighboring country.”

For now, though, the group cannot legally receive any overt help from the U.S. government. Los Angeles Democrat Howard Berman is one of Ros-Lehtinen’s co-sponsors on the bill to support Iranian opposition groups.

“I don’t have any great insights into that,” Berman told me after voting for Ros-Lehtinen’s legislation in a House subcommittee. “I know they’re on the U.S. list of organizations that support terror, and whether that’s a justified placement or not I can’t tell you, but as long as they are I don’t think we can talk about it in terms of how to democratize and change course in Iran.”

But consensus inside conservative Washington circles is building to remove the organization from the terrorist list. A prominent panel of neoconservatives called the Iran Policy Committee recently released a report, “U.S. Policy Options for Iran [.pdf],” which advocates arming the group and using it the same way the U.S. military used the Northern Alliance as proxy fighters for the war in Afghanistan.

Arming the MEK, according to the report, would “send an unambiguous signal to the Iranian regime that it faces an enabled and determined opposition on its borders.”

Retired Marine Corp Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, a Fox News analyst and one of the authors of the report, told a Congressional committee the time to prepare for war is now:

“After the events of September 11th,” he said, “we had a target, the target was Afghanistan. We stood up bravely as a nation and said ‘We’re going to Afghanistan.’ What about the next 9/11? What if the next 9/11 is two weeks from now? What are we gonna say – that we’re going to Iraq? No! There’s going to be a clamor by Americans to strike at somebody to show that we’re powerful, and the logical candidate out there is Iran.”