Brennan Linsley  /  AP file
A Mujahhedin al-Khalq (MEK) fighter guards the road leading to the group's main training camp, which is watched over by a U.S. Army Bradley fighting vehicle, in a photo from last May.
By Senior correspondent
updated 5/9/2005 4:51:32 PM ET 2005-05-09T20:51:32

Iran's insistence that it has the right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, if it so chooses, has cast a pall over talks in New York aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. While Iran has pledged to continue talking to European representatives to resolve the dispute diplomatically, it has used the occasion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty talks, held every five years to review progress on proliferation efforts, to make it clear that it won't be kept from the exclusive nuclear club by angry American rhetoric alone.

The European effort, led by Germany, Britain and France, is regarded with some skepticism in Washington. Not surprisingly, then, the United States is looking for a “Plan B,” some alternative way to put pressure on Tehran that falls between hard-to-enforce threats of economic sanctions and outright war.

Ray Tanter, a nattily dressed Georgetown professor and former Reagan national security aide, thinks he has the answer.

University of Michigan
Georgetown University professor Ray Tanter, who heads the Iran Policy Committee.
Tanter heads a group called the Iran Policy Committee, a collection of well-connected Republicans and former generals who have been talking up an Iranian group called the Mujahhedin al-Khalq. The MEK, as the group is known, is a historical orphan of sorts: a band of armed Iranians who oppose the current Islamic regime but whose chief sponsor was Iran’s arch rival, Saddam Hussein. Saddam armed the MEK after his long war against Iran in the 1980s ended in stalemate, and as long as he remained in power, the MEK’s encampment on the Iran-Iraq border gave them a base for bloody forays into their native land.

Unsavory past
But there is a problem. The MEK has been on the State Department's list of "Foreign Terrorist Organizations" since 1997, a status confirmed on April 27, when the most recent update of the list was made public. The MEK denies some of the exploits laid at its doorstep. But the State Department report lists a long litany of terrorist activity, including the alleged murders of American contractors during the reign of the Shah, whom the group also opposed, and one spectacular attack on the Islamic regime in 1981 using car bombs that killed 70 high-ranking Iranian officials, including the country’s chief justice, its president and prime minister. There were also reports that the group participated in the brutal repression of Kurds and Shiites who rose against Saddam at America's behest in 1991.

When American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the MEK negotiated the surrender of its tanks and other heavy weapons to U.S. forces, and have since then been living in fear of being deported by the Shiite government expected to emerge in Baghdad.

Now, aided by Tanter and his influential friends, the group is battling to get off the terrorist list. To many, including many inside the Bush administration, the MEK seems like a perfect candidate to work on behalf of the United States, collecting intelligence on Iran's nuclear program for now, possibly forming the core of a covert war against the mullahs if it comes to that.

“What you want are organizations with the resources and the ability to move undetected inside the target country," says Rick Francona, an MSNBC analyst and former military intelligence officer who helped run CIA operations against Saddam during the 1990s. "They can collect intel, broadcast propaganda, move people in and out of Iran. And if it comes to it, they can be the nucleus of a covert action policy.”

Already, contacts between the MEK and U.S. intelligence are in the works, and not only in Iraq. News reports also suggest that there are active contacts between the U.S. officials MEK members based in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, on Iran’s eastern border.

Tanter, who is in constant contact with the group’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, acknowledged cooperation between the U.S. military in Iraq and the MEK, as well as reports of activity in Baluchistan.

David L. Phillips, who until last year was a senior adviser to the State Department on the region, says “the MEK has long had defenders within the [Office of Secretary of Defense] who wanted to transform them into a fighting force.”

The Pentagon did not return a call to inquire about it.

Phillips, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, just published a book highly critical of U.S. policy in the region and argues that the idea of using covert guerrilla action to pressure Iran is absurd at this point. “The time to do anything of the kind was several years ago, when we were wasting our time on Iraq,” he says. “Now, as I understand it, Iran’s nuclear program is so dispersed and so urbanized that there’s no way to  deal with it in just a series of airstrikes.”

Target October
Still, Tanter and his well-connected group are determined to get the MEK off the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, where it has appeared regularly, sandwiched between the Tamil Tigers and Columbia’s right-wing vigilantes, for over nearly a decade. And with the Bush administration unenthusiastic about the prospects of a verifiable deal with Tehran on its nuclear ambitions, Tanter believes the MEK’s time has come.

“This administration is much more favorably inclined to obtain intelligence from the MEK than was (former Secretary of State) Colin Powell and (his former deputy) Richard Armitage,” Tanter says. “I think the die is cast, and eventually the MEK will be taken off the list.”

Today, Tanter says, opposition to the idea still exists, “but it’s not the 7th floor (of the State Department) that’s the problem. With Rice and (deputy secretary of state Robert) Zoellick replacing Powell and Armitage. The problem now is on the 6th floor." That's where the State Department’s intelligence, counter-terrorism and arms control units reside.

Turning up the heat, two weeks ago, MEK's political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, organized a convention in Washington’s Constitution Hall to demand that MEK be recognized as the legitimate resistance to the Iranian regime. Tanter attended, as did several members of Congress. Also among those attending and addressing the conference was Capt. Vivian Gembara of the U.S. 4th Infantry division, a military lawyer who helped negotiate the MEK’s disarmament during the invasion, and daughter of a legendary special ops officer from the Vietnam era. Having helped disarm the MEK during the war, she is now part of the sophisticated campaign to embrace the group, penning a piece for a specialist website frequented by intelligence and military professionals, Iran Focus.

“It is merely reckless to continue to detain and alienate the [MEK] as we face a more mysterious and formidable threat in Iran,” she wrote. “Though September 11th left us wearier of over reliance on technology and military might, the U.S. handing of the [MEK], and other potential human intelligence resources, hardly suggests we are that much wiser.”

A verified success
In fact, the MEK has shown promise as an intelligence gathering tool. In 2002, it was the MEK that funneled information about nuclear weapons development activity at an Iranian site — Natanz — to the United States, something acknowledged by President Bush recently when he noted that the information was only made known “because a dissident group pointed it out to the world." An inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency subsequently verified the MEK’s tip, though U.S. intelligence agencies have insisted they knew about Natanz already.

The term “dissident group” as applied by Bush to the MEK was music to Tanter’s ears. The White House later denied the president was taking sides on the MEK/terrorist list issue, but the group’s backers sense they are gaining ground. Earlier this year, Rice made a similar statement, and the MEK also has been granted “protected person status” by the U.S government, a Geneva Convention label that places them under the direct protection of American troops. That move raised eyebrows at the State Department and led to a spirited back and forth between department spokesman Adam Ereli and reporters  as the spokesman attempted to explain why American troops would protect 3,800 people regarded by U.S. policy as terrorists.

Tanter, for his part, sees no way the MEK will remain on the list come the fall. A long-time professor of Middle Eastern affairs and a regular in Washington conservative circles, Tanter is a rarity on several counts. He was one of the few African-Americans to serve in influential position during the Reagan administration, when he was a senior staff aide on the National Security Council before taking a leading role in nuclear arms negotiations. And, he’s an unabashed neo-conservative.

Most of all, he seems to relish academic controversy in a field that prefers peer review. This has made him something of a pariah among the small but elite group of Iran experts in Washington.

“I recognize that I’m alone in the scholarly community. There are some great Iran specialists, Michael Eisenstadt, Patrick Clauson, Kenneth Pollack at Brookings, and none of them knows what to do about Iran. They admit they’re on the horns of a dilemma. But I say we can’t afford to sit around and wait. Regime change is the only way that you can decrease the likelihood of a radical Islamist regime will have nuclear weapons. That doesn’t make me popular, but that doesn’t make me wrong, either.”

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