February 19, 2018

U.S. to remove Iranian group from terror list, officials say


The State Department is preparing to remove the Iranian opposition group Mujaheddin-e Khalq from the U.S. government’s terrorist list, siding with advocates who say the controversial organization should be rewarded for renouncing violence and providing intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, senior Obama administration officials said Friday.

The decision to begin the process of formally lifting the terrorist label is expected to be conveyed to Congress in documents as early as Friday, according to two senior officials briefed on the matter. The move comes two weeks before a court-ordered deadline and just six days after the dissident group vacated its former enclave in eastern Iraq, averting a feared confrontation with Iraqis who want the exiles out of the country.

Leaders of the group, commonly known by its abbreviation MEK, have been pressing U.S. officials for nearly a decade to rescind the terrorist designation, which they say has hampered their efforts to find homes outside Iraq. About 3,000 members of the group have lived in limbo in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, unwanted by their host country and fearing imprisonment or worse if forced to return to Iran.

The removal of the MEK from the State Department’s official Foreign Terrorist Organizations list could make it easier for its members to apply for refugee status and seek homes abroad.

It is not yet clear, however, where the exiles would go. U.S. officials have been lobbying European allies to accept as many as 1,000 of the dissidents, while allowing others to apply to emigrate to the United States. The group’s violent past — MEK militants were blamed for the assassinations of several Americans in Iran in the 1970s — and its reputation for cultlike behavior have made some countries reluctant to accept large numbers of the exiles.

U.S. officials who helped mediate a months-long standoff between Iraq and the MEK over the exiles’ living quarters cautioned that the excising of the terrorist label may not end the group’s troubles or the U.S. role in helping find permanent homes for its members.

“We’re very happy that we’ve come this far without a bloodbath,” said a senior administration official privy to internal deliberations over the crisis. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the delicate diplomacy involved in resolving the MEK’s fate. “Now we have to move forward on resettlement.”

Administration officials said the decision to lift the terrorist designation was based on the recent history of the MEK, which renounced violence and turned over its weapons to U.S. forces after waging a decades-long armed campaign against the Iranian government. But the decision also hinged in part on the MEK’s decision to leave its long-time home in Iraq, a former military base known as Camp Ashraf near the border with Iran. Iraq had insisted on closing the base — by force, if necessary — and in recent years Iraqi police had clashed repeatedly with MEK members at the facility, killing dozens of them.

Under a U.N.-brokered arrangement, the group was offered temporary quarters in Baghdad, on the grounds of the former U.S. military base known as Camp Liberty. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in congressional testimony in February that the MEK’s willingness to peacefully depart Camp Ashraf would be a “key factor” in the decision on the group’s terrorist listing.

Nearly half of Camp Ashraf’s residents had completed the move in early summer when the agreement collapsed, with MEK officials decrying alleged mistreatment by Iraqis and what they described as intolerable living conditions at the new camp.

A tense stalemate followed, as the MEK balked at completing the move in defiance of an Iraqi deadline for evicting the last exiles from Camp Ashraf. MEK supporters hired dozens of high-ranking former U.S. government officials and politicians to lobby the Obama administration on the group’s behalf, demanding that Washington back the MEK in its struggles with Iraq.

A breakthrough came last week when the MEK, warned that it could lose its battle over the U.S. terrorist listing, relented and agreed to allow the last major convoys of dissidents to depart for new homes in Baghdad. Even then, as MEK members climbed into vans and buses, disputes erupted over baggage searches and the treatment of disabled dissidents, the senior U.S. official said.

“Friday and Saturday were all-nighters for a lot of our people, as well as the U.N. folks,” the official said. Iraqi officials agreed to allow about 200 MEK members to remain at Camp Ashraf for a few weeks to oversee the property transfers, but “this effectively means the end of Camp Ashraf,” he said.