Iran Hawks Find New Supporters Against the NIE

Many of us remember the Iraqi exile groups whose tall tales the Administration used to justify the invasion of their country in 2003. Fewer people are aware that similar groups from other Middle Eastern countries frequent the halls of Congress and editorial board rooms carrying their frightening ghost-written books with guidance from pro-war think tanks. The organized challenge against the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) summary on Iran this month included such a group, which for years cried wolf about Iran.

The NIE’s critics are complaining that it falsely weakens the Bush administration’s campaign against Iran. Trusting that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons is suicidal, warn the neoconservatives who prompted the invasion of Iraq in search of imaginary banned weapons. As in the period that preceded the Iraq War, the hawks are now validated by an exile entity dedicated to violent regime change. The Iranian enabler group that has replaced the old Iraqi National Congress is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). In cooperation with leading neoconservative figures, NCRI has for over a decade spared no effort to destroy any chance of a U.S.-Iranian détente.

Eight days after the NIE summary assured the world that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons at this time international media reported that NCRI dismissed the report’s findings. No other Iranian opposition group has actively challenged the new NIE’s credibility.

Going even farther, NCRI’s Washington spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, claimed that Iran’s nuclear program is managed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) scientists during a Fox News interview. As the most trusted branch of Iran’s armed forces, the IRGC was late this year designated by the White House as a sponsor of international terrorism. The exile group has also echoed the Washington war party’s claims that Iran is arming Iraqi resistance groups with advanced weapons resulting in U.S. casualties.

NCRI’s scare campaign against Iran is an attempt to overcome its own infamy. The “Council” is a front group based in Paris for the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (known also as MEK, MKO, or PMOI), according to the U.S. State Department, which bans both as a single terrorist organization. MEK’s pariah status makes it entirely dependent on the goodwill of the U.S. military, which has since the spring of 2003 sheltered its 3,500-plus fighters in northern Iraq after they disarmed.

The militia has for a quarter-century topped Tehran’s “most wanted” terrorist list and is now sought by Iraq’s government for atrocities it allegedly committed in Saddam’s service. It fled Iran in the mid 1980s and fought on the Iraqi side during the Iran-Iraq war, hoping to overthrow the young Islamic Republic. Its campaign to deepen Western distrust of Iran is motivated primarily by the real possibility that its key figures will face capital crimes charges in Iraq and Iran if a U.S. accommodation with Iran ends the militia’s utility to U.S. strategists as a bargaining chip. The latest sign of MEK’s vulnerability emerged December 16 when Iran asked that the next round of U.S.-Iran negotiations in Baghdad address MEK’s status.

Like the old Iraqi National Congress headed by Ahmad Chalabi, the MEK has powerful conservative backers in Western capitals that promote it as a democratic alternative. In Washington, these have included John Ashcroft, Dick Armey, Richard Perle, and members of Congress Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Tom Tancredo, all of whom were and remain advocates of the Iraq invasion. Among officially designated foreign terrorist organizations, MEK is the only one that can obtain street demonstration permits in Washington through its thinly disguised front operations. Poster-size portraits of the husband and wife team that have headed MEK for a generation are in abundance at such rallies, including one held on the grounds of U.S. Congress in 2004.

The surest way for the MEK to stay in business appears to be just the path they are following. They need to make themselves indispensable to the warmongers in the United States by helping subvert accommodation with Iran. (In this, they share the predicament of their neocon masters, who will be out of a job if peace prevails for too long.)

If Washington decides against an all out war on Iran and opts instead for a “low intensity conflict,” as Ronald Reagan’s wars of attrition in Central America came to be known, the MEK can well be the core of a Contra-style mercenary force. Claiming the mantle of the “Reagan Revolution,” the neoconservatives would certainly welcome that as the next best thing to the war that they want badly even after the NIE largely vindicated Iran. There have been persistent rumors over the past year that American military or intelligence agencies have trained selected MEK operatives for clandestine missions in Iran, after having them renounce terrorism and swear allegiance to “democracy.”

If, on the other hand, the Bush administration or its successor chooses sustained dialog instead of confrontation with Iran, the future of the MEK will never be far from the minds of Iranian negotiators. The White House has stressed its twin objectives of strengthening the government of “liberated” Iraq and limiting Tehran’s influence there. Iranian leaders see an inherent contradiction in that policy. They are anxious to find out whether the U.S. will continue to shelter the MEK as an irritant to Iran or will transfer custody of the militia to Iran’s trusted Iraqi authorities as an affirmation of Iraqi sovereignty. As Washington prepares for its next round of talks on Iraqi security with Iran in January, a sure way it can build confidence would be to agree to discuss this sensitive matter.

Rostam Pourzal heads the U.S. branch of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran and is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.