Why Are Some Americans Defending an Iranian Terrorist Group?

By Conor Friedersdorf

The People's Mujahedin of Iran is generating fans in the U.S. for their alleged role in killing Iranian nuclear scientists.

Update Feb13 p.jpg

A policeman walks Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan's car, in which he was killed by an explosion / Reuters

The most powerful word in American politics is terrorist. For the first time since the Cold War ended, America has a consensus enemy (never mind that terrorism is a tactic rather than an ideology). Huge majorities support indefinitely detaining accused terrorists without charges, or killing them without due process. So you'd think that a Muslim terrorist group with Marxist roots would be anathema, especially if it was on the official American and Canadian lists of terror sponsoring organizations. But the People's Mujahedin of Iran, commonly referred to as MEK, has its American defenders.

For them, MEK's history of anti-American violence is forgivable. The important thing is that the group is hostile to the regime in Iran. According to NBC News, MEK fighters are assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and are being "financed, trained and armed by Israel's secret service." The group has also waged a sophisticated lobbying effort to be struck from America's terrorist list, paying politicians as diverse as Howard Dean, Rudy Giuliani, and Wesley Clark who vouch for it. Jamie Kirchick says whoever is responsible for terrorizing Iranian nuclear scientists deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Jonathan Toobin names MEK, acknowledges their terrorist past, and argues in favor of collaborating with them. "The MEK may be an unattractive ally," he writes, "but with its Iranian members and infrastructure of support inside the country, it is an ideal weapon to use against the ayatollahs. This is not just the standard and cynical argument about the ends justifying the means but rather an entirely defensible strategy in which a vicious and tyrannical government's foes become legitimate allies in what is for all intents and purposes a war."

Anti-interventionists like Daniel Larison and Global War on Terror critics like Glenn Greenwald are understandably bothered by the hypocrisy in all this. If people are thrown in jail for donating money to terrorist organizations, how can prominent politicians be on the payroll of one without facing arrest? Isn't it hypocritical to decry terrorism as irredeemably evil, only to embrace the tactic when it is used against an unfriendly regime? If Israel is funding MEK assassinations aren't they a state sponsor of terrorism? Aren't these double standards corrosive to the rule of law?

I'd ask MEK enthusiasts a different question.

In your telling, MEK doesn't belong on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations; Rudy Giuliani shouldn't be arrested for taking their money and speaking out on their behalf; Israel shouldn't be declared a State Sponsor of Terror for funding their operations; and President Obama shouldn't send drones to assassinate MEK leaders. By your logic, America's list of terrorist organizations is therefore overly broad; by your logic, patriotic Americans who've done nothing wrong are nonetheless vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment for giving material support to MEK; by your logic, President Obama could unilaterally order the assassination of valuable allies engaged in righteous behavior.

So why aren't MEK enthusiasts alarmed? If you think our list of terrorist organizations is fallible, shouldn't you be calling for it to be reviewed? If you think American citizens are subject to arrest and imprisonment under laws designed to weaken our enemies, even when they're speaking out on behalf of what is actually an ally, shouldn't you be calling for material support laws to be reformed? If President Obama is empowered under U.S. law to order the assassination of certain foreigners, even as you affirm that they're acting righteously, shouldn't you want to curtail his power?

There is no way to be a conventionally hawkish MEK apologist without revealing part of your world view to be deeply wrongheaded. Either you are supporting a terrorist organization -- something you deem cause for assassination without due process -- or else the extraordinary measures you favor to fight terrorists can be legally applied to people who aren't deserving of it.

Update, Feb. 14: The national security reporter Eli Lake draws my attention to a problem with this post. One of my arguments is that MEK supporters should be alarmed by the over-broadness of our terrorism laws if, according to their own analysis, a benign or even righteous group has been labeled an official terrorist organization. That point stands. Being on the official list of terrorist organizations has all sorts of awful consequences for designated groups and their supporters. Contrary to what's implied above, however, being on the list of terrorist organizations doesn't automatically subject a group's members to death by drone strike. To be targeted for assassination, a group or individual must be covered by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, and although it's been stretched to cover a dubious array of aggressive actions abroad, it hasn't yet been stretched so far that it would include the targeted killing of MEK members. For a detailed discussion of related law, go here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/02/why-are-some-americans-defending-an-iranian-terrorist-group/252973/