Iranian Terrorist Group M.E.K. Pays Big to Make History Go Away

Iranian group M.E.K. lobbies hard, pledges peace as it pleads case to be delisted. D.C. listening.

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Come October 1, a federal appeals court decision will force the State Department to decide whether the exile-Iranian group Mujahadin-e Khalq, or M.E.K., belongs on the list of designated foreign terrorist organizations.

As recently as 2007, a State Department report warned that the M.E.K., retains "the capacity and will" to attack "Europe, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, and beyond."

The M.E.K., which calls for an overthrow of the Iranian government and is considered by many Iranians to be a cult, once fought for Saddam Hussein and in the 1970s was responsible for bombings, attempted plane hijackings, and political assassinations. It was listed as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.

If the State Department does decide to delist M.E.K., whose name means "People's Holy Warriors of Iran," it will be with the blessing of dozens of congressmen.

A congressional resolution that urges Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to remove M.E.K. from the State Department list of foreign terrorist groups was signed by 99 politicians, including Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from Washington, D.C., and Alabama Republican Sen. Spencer Bachus.

Those signatures may have been obtained with real money to grease the wheels. A U.S. News investigation found that three major lobbying firms were together paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by U.S.-based Iranian-American community groups with ties to the M.E.K. to drum up support for the resolution.

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Victoria Toensing of DiGenova & Toensing, a lobbying shop famous for its involvement in the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, was paid $110,000 in 2011 to lobby for the resolution. The firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld dedicated five lobbyists to getting signatures for the resolution, and was paid $100,000 in 2012 and $290,000 in 2011 to do so. Paul Marcone and Associates similarly lobbied for the resolution, and received $5,000 in 2010 and $5,000 in 2011 for its efforts.

"It's a worthy cause," said Toensing, who believes the M.E.K. has reformed from its violent past. "Have you ever seen a more bipartisan disciplined group as the one that supported this issue?"

(Akin, Gump, et al. declined to comment to U.S. News. Paul Marcone said despite its history, the M.E.K. "has every right to petition the government on resolutions.")

While dozens of congressmen have signed on to the delist resolution, those no longer holding office appear to be even more supportive of the group.

Last week, at a Paris rally for the M.E.K., Newt Gingrich was captured on camera bowing to the Iranian exile-group's leader, Maryam Rajavi. (The M.E.K.'s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has its headquarters in Paris.)

Also in attendance were former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, and former Bush U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton.

Video of the rally in Paris shows what appear to be tens of thousands of M.E.K. supporters waving flags and holding up pictures of Rajavi, who has called democracy "the spirit that guides our Resistance." Some assert the M.E.K. would prefer Iran to become a Marxist state, as it was founded by Marxist-Islamist Iranian students in the 1960s.

"The MEK are trying to portray themselves as a popular and democratic opposition to the current Iranian regime," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The reality is that they're neither popular nor democratic."

A prominent Iranian journalist, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions from the M.E.K., said that despite the group's attempts to present itself as the main Iranian dissident group, the majority of the Iranian diaspora "does not want to get close" to it. A  2011 New York Times story said most Iranians and Iraqis see the M.E.K. as a "repressive cult."

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The "cult" descriptor isn't just popular opinion. A 2009 Rand study of the M.E.K. described the group as having "cultic practices" and "deceptive recruitment and public relations strategies."