Tanter Responds to His Critics

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by Raymond Tanter
The National Interest
November 1, 2011

It is a delight to find two critics, Paul Pillar and Muhammad Sahimi, implicitly accepting my argument that the Iranian regime practices disinformation against its principal opposition, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK). The regime’s purpose is to delegitimize and destroy the organization. By eliding my argument and shifting the focus mainly to nonlegal allegations about the MeK, such as calling it an “abhorrent cult” supported by the homeless, there is a presumption of a scant legal basis for tagging the MeK as terrorist.

Such words as “cult/terrorist” are similar to how the Iranian regime describes the MeK, suggesting that Tehran’s disinformation program has been effective. Here is a quotation from the Fars News Agency, a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Fars quotes the Commander of Iran’s notorious Basij Forces of the IRGC, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who said, “Iraqis hate the MKO [MeK] much and the only reason for the presence of the grouplet in Iraq is the US support for this terrorist cult.”

The Iran Policy Committee (IPC) conducted interviews at over thirty rallies of oppositionists who support the MeK in Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, as well as in New York and Washington. We found attendees to be upper-middle-class professionals, such as engineers, physicians, company executives and academics, without any hint of cult-like behavior. Also, the word “cult” is no longer used to describe the MeK in the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism (see 20092010, and 2011).

Can anyone argue that tens of thousands who attended pro-MeK rallies in Paris during 2009, 20102011, and 2012 were homeless and went there for money? That would be an incredible assertion for which evidence is lacking. And what about the tens of thousands of MeK members the regime has executed in the past thirty years? Drawing on a book by Ayatollah Khomeini’s former deputy, The Telegraph reports that over 30,000 political prisoners were massacred in 1988; and most were supporters of the MeK.

A majority of those sentenced to death or executed for their involvement in the post-election 2009 uprisings in Iran were also members of MeK, according to Amnesty International, in statements of 2010 and 2011. Their killings are a reflection of the widespread operations of the MeK in Iran, which results in a disproportionate number of its supporters being persecuted.

Colleagues and I in the IPC conducted a study to assess the popularity of the MeK and other Iranian dissident groups, including organizations not espousing regime change. Using the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) for the period from January-December 2005, we performed a content analysis and determined the MeK was the topic of discussion over 350% more often than all other dissident organizations combined. We reasoned that if the MeK had little support within Iran, the regime would hardly pay so much attention to it relative to other groups. And Iran would not spend its political capital with foreign governments asking them to suppress the group or seek the destruction of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, where 3,400 members of the group reside.

The main legal argument against my October article seems to focus on “capability and intent” as being sufficient to justify retention of the terrorist designation of the MeK.

My September article in The National Interest provided a full legal basis for redesignation. That article states, “For the MeK to be re-designated absent any terrorist activity or terrorism, the State Department has to demonstrate that the group has both the capability and the intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism and that either threatens U.S. national security or the security of American citizens.”

Muhammad Sahimi states that I claim—falsely, he says—that leaders of the Green Movement accept clerical rule. But Sahimi admits such acceptance; in this respect, the relevant citation in his article states, “Both Mousavi and Karroubi…want the Constitution to be implemented completely.” Hence, they do accept clerical rule. In fact, Mousavi praised the Vali Faqih Ali Khamenei before the election and praised Ruhollah Khomeini in December 2009.

Paul Pillar ends his critique by asserting there is a campaign to exert political influence “on what ought to be administrative and legal decisions.” I concur. The decision to delist the MeK should be made on the facts and on the law and not on criteria used to smear members of the group.

[Editor’s note: The National Interest has enjoyed the debate between Raymond Tanter, on the one hand, and Muhammad Sahimi and Paul Pillar, on the other, about the Iranian MeK. This is an issue with sufficient complexities and facets to fuel even further exchanges, but of course we must close it out. We encourage such give and take as one means to be employed from time to time to lay bare important issues and delve deeply into their inner reaches.]

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