Close ties between a number of former U.S. officials and an Iranian exile group the U.S. government once deemed a terrorist organization are likely to complicate the selection process for key Trump administration posts.
Two of the officials said to be under consideration for secretary of state, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, traveled to Europe to speak to followers of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, while the group was still on the terrorist watch list.
A third, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also has been an ardent supporter of the group, but he announced Thursday that he would not be a member of President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton removed the group, known as the MEK, from the terrorist list in 2012 after a campaign by a broad coalition that included both Democratic and Republican politicians, some of whom received sizable fees to speak to the exile group’s annual gatherings.
In an interview, Giuliani acknowledged that he’d been paid him for some of his speeches, though not all. He also said he had given the group free legal advice and assisted the group in its negotiations with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
“I think my advocacy of MEK was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’m proud of it and happy to defend it anywhere.”
Giuliani, a close adviser to Trump during the campaign and frequent television surrogate, said the MEK never paid him directly, but that payment came through third parties including “Iranian citizens, Iranian Jews, dissidents living in the U.S., England, Germany; none of whom belonged to MEK.”
Bolton received a standing ovation at a conference in Brussels in early 2011 when he told the group’s followers that he “unequivocally” supported their quest for the overthrow of the government in Tehran.
Bolton did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Putting an open supporter of the MEK in charge of U.S. diplomacy would provoke a backlash in Iran, even among moderates, said Ariane M. Tabatabai, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.
“If they see the United States helping a group that sided with Iraq and perpetrated terrorist attacks, this would not be seen positively,” Tabatabai said.
She said the MEK has minimal support in Iran, although the group had a rumored role in the assassination of four Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012.
The group’s supporters and detractors offer starkly different assessments of the group. Some critics voice astonishment that a group implicated in the assassinations of U.S. military personnel in Iran in the 1970s would have advocates in a Trump administration.
“It’s mind boggling,” said Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of Iranian history and politics at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. “I can’t believe that people like ... Bolton and Giuliani don’t know what the nature of the Mujahedin is. It’s basically a cult organization. It’s like the Moonies” – a reference to the followers of the Unification Church of South Korean preacher, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
The MEK has an office a little more than a block from the White House, but no representative returned calls requesting comment.
Sayeed Sajadi, a suburban Kansas City, Mo., physician and expatriate Iranian who has been working on behalf of MEK for many years, defended the group against claims that it is a “cult.” He labeled the claim propaganda manufactured by the Tehran regime, and noted the roster of former U.S. government officials who’ve spoken on the group’s behalf. Some of that support triggered a Treasury Department investigation into whether the speaking fees violated U.S. laws against doing business with terrorist groups.
Giuliani said he feels “very misrepresented” by the way his and others’ involvement with MEK has been portrayed.
“We did nothing wrong,” he said. “We violated no law.”
He said his actions were vindicated by the U.S. decision to remove the MEK from its list of terrorist organizations and that the Treasury Department dropped its inquiry. The Treasury Department declined to comment.
The group was founded a half century ago by leftist students opposed to the U.S.-backed monarchy that then ruled Iran. Embracing elements of both Marxism and Islam, its fighters were blamed for the murder of several U.S. citizens, including the deputy chief of the U.S. military mission in Tehran in 1973, two other U.S. military officers in 1975, and an American Texaco executive in 1979.
A 2011 State Department report on the group’s activities says some MEK members took part in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and later argued against the release of U.S. hostages.
In the early 1980s, the group broke with Iran’s mullahs and fled to neighboring Iraq, joining Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s bloody 1980-88 war with Iran. The State Department report said the group took part in the Iraqi Republican Guard’s bloody crackdown on Iraqi Shiites and Kurds who rose up against Saddam Hussein’s regime at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991.
The State Department put the Mujahedin on its terror list in 1997, partly because of its collaboration with Saddam. Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, American military forces disarmed the group’s thousands of combatants, confining them to a camp near the Iraqi border with Iran, later moving them to another camp.
Years after the U.S. invasion, the MEK started gaining traction among U.S. politicians, arguing that it was the only group that actively opposed the regime in Tehran. Other notable public officials who took the group’s side included Democratic former Govs. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Howard Dean of Vermont, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Hugh Shelton, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and former CIA directors Porter Goss and James Woolsey.
A Huffington Post investigation in 2011 found at least 33 former top officials who had given speeches on behalf of the MEK over an eight-month period.
“There is not another issue where you can put John Bolton and Howard Dean on the same podium,” said Sajadi, the Kansas City MEK supporter. “That’s the only common ground.”