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Iran: Why U.S. Blacklists Iran's Mujahedin

  • Charles Recknagel

When Washington blacklisted Iran's main opposition group last week, it extended for another two years a ban on American support for the group and its alias organizations. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on why Washington condemns the group and how the action is likely to be seen in Tehran.

Prague, 14 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Washington's extension of a blacklisting of the Mujahedin-e Khalq is likely to be viewed favorably by the Islamic Republic, which long has accused the U.S. of supporting it.

The U.S. State Department proscribed the Mujahedin in a bi-annual listing last week of foreign terrorist groups. The designation prolongs for another two years an American ban first placed on the group in 1997 and widens it to cover several of the group's alias organizations. The blacklisted aliases are: the National Liberation Army of Iran, People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, National Council of Resistance, Organization of the People's Holy Warriors of Iran, the Sazeman-e Mujahedin-e Khalq-e Iran, and the Muslim Iranian Student's Society.

The blacklisting means that it is illegal for Americans to provide funds or material support to the group and its aliases, that members can be denied entry to the United States and that U.S. financial institutions must block the organization's funds.

In continuing the blacklisting, the State Department said in a statement that "the Mujahedin is a terrorist organization and continues to engage in terrorist violence."

It also said that "directing terrorism against a government entity with whom [the United States] has differences does not exclude an organization from designation as a foreign terrorist organization."

Richard Murphy, a regional expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told RFE/RL by telephone that the extension of the blacklisting is likely to please Tehran. Murphy says:

"I think that Iran will note with approval -- I would not expect any broadcasts applauding it -- but it will be taken as, yes, a good sign."

That reaction, he says, would be a change in how Tehran has regarded the blacklisting in the past:

"When [the blacklisting] was first adopted in 1997, it was received as good news in Tehran [but] they quickly came to suspect again, given this apparently bottomless well of suspicion in some Iranian circles, that it was meaningless."

Murphy says one reason for Tehran's skepticism was that the first blacklisting did not extend to alias organizations of the Mujahedin, enabling them to take over fund-raising for the group and sidestep the ban. Now that becomes more difficult. The most prominent alias organization for the Mujahedin is the National Council of Resistance, which maintains offices in Washington, D.C. and many other capitals. But analysts say that if Tehran may be pleased by the State Department's actions, the reasons for prolonging the ban reflect Washington's own distaste for the Mujahedin more than any desire to send a diplomatic signal to Iran.

The Mujahedin has existed for some 34 years as an armed opposition group, fighting first against the Shah and then against the Islamic Republic's cleric-dominated government. It has assassinated scores of officials as it has sought to bring Iran an ideology combining Marxism with Islamic ideals of a classless society.

Today, the group claims to have some 50,000 armed fighters in Iraq, where it has been based since the mid-1980s after being driven from Iran. But independent analysts put its forces at between 15,000 and 40,000 troops. Analysts also say it enjoys little popular support within Iran itself, largely because it is mistrusted for having fought alongside Iraq against the Islamic Republic in their 1980-1988 war.

Murphy says the group earned Washington's enmity in the 1960s and 70s, when it killed two U.S. diplomats and several other American nationals in the then Shah-ruled Iran. It also tried to assassinate U.S. President Richard Nixon when he visited Iran.

"America had its own reasons for listing the Mujahedin-e Khalq, MEK, as a terrorist organization. It was engaged in the late Shah's time in Iran in anti-Shah actions. It also at that time -- perhaps because of the identity they perceived between the American government and that of the Shah -- American officials were targets of this group in Tehran and we lost the lives of two of our military attaches."

During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Mujahedin joined forces with supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But by 1980 and 1981 the two sides were locked in a bitter power struggle. The Mujahedin carried out waves of bombing attacks which decimated the clerical leadership until it was crushed in equally ruthless reprisals by the Revolutionary Guards.

Since then, the Mujahedin -- which is closely controlled by its leader Massoud Rajavi -- has won some sympathy in U.S. political circles. But analysts say it has never convinced the U.S. government it can be a democratic alternative for Iran. Murphy says:

The Mujahedin-e Khalq and the National Council of ... Resistance portray themselves as a good friend of the United States, a good friend of the West, and an enemy of clerical rule and the democratic alternative. But, frankly, Washington never bought this. Those that followed the organization closely in the intelligence world were never persuaded."

Analysts say that the renewed blacklisting will hamper the Mujahedin-e Khalq's efforts to build support but is far from spelling the group's end.

Murphy says the organization still enjoys strong support in some quarters of Iranian communities in the U.S. and western Europe and will quickly find new ways to raise its funds. And that, he predicts, will leave the State Department the task of again deciding how to react to it two years from now.

(William Samii, regional specialist with RFE/RL's Communications Division, contributed to this report.)