The Hill

The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress

APRIL 8, 2003

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen defends Iranian group labeled terrorist front for Saddam Hussein

A senior lawmaker on the House International Relations committee has defended her ongoing support for a group the State Department says is a terrorist organization fighting against coalition troops in Iraq.

“This group loves the United States. They’re assisting us in the war on terrorism; they’re pro-U.S.,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) in an interview with The Hill.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)

“This group has not been fighting against the U.S. It’s simply not true,” she insisted.
Ros-Lehtinen is the chairwoman of the panel’s Central Asia and Middle East Subcommittee.

The group, known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), is an Iranian opposition group in Iraq. The U.S. intelligence and diplomatic community argues that the MEK is funded by Saddam Hussein and has engaged in efforts by the Iraqi leader to suppress Kurd and Shiite uprisings.

The group killed several Americans during the 1970s. It also participated in the 1979-1981 U.S. Embassy seizure in Tehran. In 1997, the MEK and its various appendages were designated a “foreign terrorist organization.”

Last week, State Department spokesman Greg Sullivan told The Hill the MEK is considered “a combatant” and U.S. officials believe its soldiers “are undertaking some of the action in the south [of Iraq] where enemy combatants have disguised themselves as civilians.”

Ros-Lehtinen vehemently disputed State’s assertion to The Washington Times, calling the spokesman a “weasel” and a “gutless bureaucrat who won’t come out of his cave.” Sullivan did not respond to a request for further comment.

Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the group’s anti-American actions as “past history.” She said, “It has no bearing on what is going on right now in the field.”

“In no meeting or briefing I have ever attended has anyone called this group an anti-U.S., terrorist organization,” she continued, adding that the group has provided useful intelligence to the U.S. government on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Ros-Lehtinen further said that there is “wide support” in Congress for the MEK and that it will be “one of the leading groups in establishing secular government in Iran.”

In November, Ros-Lehtinen released a letter of support for the MEK that she said had the backing of 150 colleagues, whom she repeatedly refused to identify. “Because of the [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami well-funded campaign on propaganda, lies and misinformation, I have decided not to release the names of these signers.”

In October, as Ros-Lehtinen’s letter circulated the House, Reps. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the House International Relations Committee, respectively, also wrote to their colleagues. The lawmakers’ letter sought to give colleagues “full” and “accurate” information on the MEK.

“We are strong opponents of the current government of Iran but do not believe that it is necessary to use terrorism or make common cause … [with] Saddam Hussein to change Iran’s government,” Hyde and Lantos wrote.

“Particularly in view of the fact that the MEK is based in Iraq, has taken part in operations against the Kurds and Shia, has been responsible for killing Americans in Iran, and has supported the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran, we wanted you to have the full background on this organization as most recently reported by the Department of State, so that you may best decide whether to lend your name to this letter” of support. It further advised: “Some colleagues have signed similar letters in the past and then been embarrassed when confronted with accurate information about the MEK.”

Committee spokesman Sam Stratman acknowledged the letter was sent in the fall but declined to characterize its contents. Ylem Poblete, an aide to Ros-Lehtinen, denied that it suggested the congresswoman had not fully informed her colleagues about the group.

“I would not venture to speculate or qualify or attach any assumptions to what Chairman Hyde or Mr. Lantos may have said,” Poblete said. “I don’t think anyone should look into or suggest anything from Chairman Hyde indicating that our information was inaccurate.”

Ros-Lehtinen further said that, upon her instigation, “maybe one, two or three” unidentified lawmakers requested that their names be removed from the list. “I came up to them and asked if they wanted to be removed,” she said.

Spokesmen for Reps. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) told The Hill last week that the lawmakers asked to have their names removed after learning more about the MEK.

Citing an anonymous quote in a 1997 Los Angeles Times article, Ros-Lehtinen said the MEK was named a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) “as a goodwill gesture to Tehran” by the Clinton administration and that its continued designation was a “holdover policy.”

“We’re kowtowing to a regime,” she said. “We became an apologist for this regime” in Iran.

Mike Craft, a counterterrorism official with the State Department, defended the group’s designation.

“The MEK keeps putting out the line that they were put on the list just as a gesture to Iran. I can tell you from watching the FTO process that this is done on a separate, nonpolitical track. This designation process is very cumbersome. It takes months, and these things were in preparation for quite a while.”

Middle East scholars widely dispute the assessment that the MEK is a legitimate democratic alternative to the Iranian regime. “That’s patently nonsense,” said Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute.

“I know about support on Capitol Hill for this group, and I think it’s atrocious,” said Dan Brumberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think it’s due to total ignorance and political manipulation.”

He added: “There’s not much debate [about the MEK] in the academic circles of those who know Iran and Iraq.”

Elahe Hicks of Human Rights Watch said that “many, many Iranians resent” the MEK. “Because this group is so extremely resented inside Iran, the Iranian government actually benefits from having an opposition group like this,” she said.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation agreed. “When they sided with Iraq against Iran in the [1980-88] war, that was the kiss of death for their political future. Even Iranians who might have sympathized with them were enraged that they became the junior partner of their longstanding rival,” he said.

“Some of their representatives are very articulate,” Phillips continued, “but they are a terrorist group. They have a longstanding alliance with Saddam Hussein, and they have gone after some of the Kurds at the behest of Saddam Hussein.”

Ros-Lehtinen dismissed U.S. intelligence reports of the group’s involvement in Hussein campaigns against Kurds and Shiites as “hogwash” and “part of the Khatami propaganda machine.”

Washington representatives for the MEK’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, disputed news reports that the MEK is aligned with Saddam Hussein. “The relationship has been independent, whether politically, militarily, financially or ideologically,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh. “We have never interfered in the internal affairs of Iraq.”