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Iranian Dissident Group Seeks to Shed Terrorist Label

This is part 1 of a 3-part series. For part 2, click here. For part 3, click here.

Much attention has been focused on the Iranian dissident group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. In this series we look at how the Marxist-Islamist group grew to be part of the revolution that led to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran and now plays an outside opposition role to Iran and its ruling clerics.

The Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq is pursuing a two-part campaign to get off of the U.S. State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

One part is a public relations effort involving prominent American supporters. The other, a court case against the State Department.

The MEK says it renounced terrorism years ago. But the group's bloody origins remain, as recounted by Georgetown University's Paul Pillar.

"The MEK has a history that does go back to the time of the Shah in the 1970s. It was a group that propounded an ideology that mixed Islamism and Marxism," noted Pillar. "And, among their earliest operations were lethal operations against U.S. personnel, including U.S. military personnel, in Iran."

In the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the MEK backed Ayatollah Khomeini and the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

"They opposed any movement to settle it. At certain times, they were calling very loudly, very vocally for our trial and our execution," recalled former hostage John Limbert.

By 1981, however, the MEK split with the cleric-based regime, launching a bombing campaign that killed Iran's president and prime minister. Then, its leadership fled to Europe.

The MEK sided with Iraq in its 1980-1988 war with Iran.

In 1986, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein set up an enclave called Camp Ashraf for the group north of Baghdad.

In 1991, MEK forces allegedly assisted Saddam in putting down uprisings by the Kurds in Iraq's north, and the Shi'ites in the south.

Then, in April 1992, the MEK attacked Iranian embassies and facilities in 13 countries.

In 1997, a new U.S. law put the MEK and 29 other groups on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Britain and the European Union also put the MEK on terrorist lists.

Then, in 2002, the group said it had uncovered Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and elsewhere.

The next year, U.S. and coalition forces toppled Saddam Hussein. When U.S. troops reached Camp Ashraf, MEK members there signed pledges renouncing weapons and terrorism.

Also in 2003, French authorities arrested MEK leader Maryam Rajavi and some 160 supporters for allegedly financing and planning terrorist attacks. Rajavi was later released.

Today, Camp Ashraf residents are being moved after attacks by Iraqi forces in 2009 and 2011.

But an American attorney for the group says the U.S. designation of the MEK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is a major roadblock to the resettlement effort.

"Do I believe that the maintenance of the MEK on the FTO list severely hampers their ability to be resettled abroad? I believe that fully," said Gerson.

The next segments of this series will examine the MEK's public relations campaign involving prominent Americans, and the group's court fight with the U.S. State Department.
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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.