February 23, 2018

D.C. Circuit Criticizes State Dept. in Dispute Over Iranian Group


The U.S. State Department has four months to decide whether to continue to designate an Iranian dissident group as a foreign terrorist organization, a federal appeals court in Washington said today in an opinion that criticized the agency.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said it will remove the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran from the list if the State Department fails to act in four months, posing a potential foreign relations headache for the government. The court’s opinion is here.

Lawyers for the PMOI in February asked the appeals court to give a 30-day deadline to the State Department to act on the group’s request for removal from the foreign terrorist list. In the alternative, the group’s attorneys, who include Viet Dinh, said the appeals court could, on its own, take the group off the list.

The appeals court strongly criticized the State Department for failing to heed an earlier court order directing the agency to reassess the listing of the Iranian group. A U.S. Justice Department spokesperson was not immediately reached for comment. Lawyers for PMOI heralded the ruling.

“We are grateful for the relief granted by the Court, and we look forward to working cooperatively with the Department of State on the decision to delist,” Dinh of Washington’s Bancroft said in an e-mail.

The PMOI, which claims it has renounced violence, has long sought removal from the foreign terrorist organization list. Inclusion on the list imposes financial restrictions on the group, whose supporters say they advocate for a secular, democratic Iran.

The D.C. Circuit in 2010 ordered the State Department to review the PMOI designation based on the court’s finding that the agency violated the rights of the PMOI. The appeals court ordered the department to give the PMOI’s lawyers a chance to review and rebut unclassified information the government used to justify the continued designation of the group on the terrorist list.

Nearly two years have passed since the appeals court told the government to reassess the PMOI listing. “Since our July 2010 remand, the Secretary’s progress has been—to say the least—slow going,” the appeals court said in a per curiam judgment. The panel comprised judges Karen LeCraft Henderson and David Tatel, and Senior Judge Stephen Williams.

“[B]ecause of the Secretary’s inaction, PMOI is stuck in administrative limbo; it enjoys neither a favorable ruling on its petition nor the opportunity to challenge an unfavorable one,” the D.C. Circuit said today.

The judges wrote that the State Department “has failed to heed our remand.” They added that “the delay has the effect of nullifying our decision while at the same time preventing the PMOI from seeking judicial review.”

“We have been given no sufficient reason why the Secretary, in the last 600 days, has not been able to make a decision which the Congress gave her only 180 days to make,” the appeals court said. “If the Secretary wishes to maintain PMOI’s FTO status, she can do so by simply denying PMOI’s petition.”