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US Investigates American Support of Iranian Dissident Group

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

The U.S. Treasury Department is reported to be investigating at least one prominent American for allegedly supporting the Iranian opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a group on the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. In this segment we look into the extensive - and expensive - public relations campaign mounted by the MEK to pressure the U.S. to rescind the terrorist designation.

MITCHELL REISS: "The U.S. State Department needs to de-list the MEK immediately!"

That was former U.S. Ambassador Mitchell Reiss, in April 2011. He is one of the prominent Americans demanding that the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) be removed from the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Another speaker at that Washington event was former Joint Chiefs Chairman, General Richard Myers.

MYERS: "De-listing the MEK is clearly the right thing to do. It's way past time to do that."

Such speeches on behalf of the MEK, also known as the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, coincide with court actions meant to compel the State Department to lift the Iranian opposition group's terrorist designation, imposed in 1997.

But this advocacy has a price. General Myers has admitted to accepting an honorarium to speak on the group's behalf.

Published reports say many of these American supporters of the MEK were paid $25,000 for each appearance.

Sources report the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating the fees. The department is not saying how many of the speakers may be under investigation.

Washington attorney Eric Ferrari believes the prominence of these Americans, and their advocacy of the MEK, triggered the probe.

"People were asking a lot of questions. Why are they not being investigated? How are they getting away with this?" asked Ferrari.

One American reported to be under investigation is former Democratic Party National Committee head Ed Rendell. Two other MEK supporters, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh, have reportedly retained an attorney because of the investigation. Freeh says he has not been compensated for appearances on behalf of the Mujahedin.

A lawyer representing the MEK says these Americans have a constitutional First Amendment right to advocate for the group despite its listing as a foreign terrorist organization.

"Now that may be a fine line - it may even be a Byzantine line to draw. But, it is a line, and it is an important one, because it goes to the question as to whether American citizens have the right to speak their minds," said attorney Steven Schneebaum.

A critic of the MEK contends the group has evaded U.S. bans and restrictions by paying these Americans through various fronts.

"The MEK has used a number of names, or front organizations, as the conduits for financing this campaign. If you look at some of the big advertisements in the newspapers, it won't say the Mujahedin-e Khalq. It will say something like 'British scholars on behalf of Iran' or something like that," noted Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar.

So far, this public relations campaign has not changed the State Department's listing of the MEK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The group's federal court battle with the State Department to get de-listed will be looked at in the next segment of this series.
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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.