"One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter." It's a cliched expression of the moral relativism that too often shapes elite attitudes in the West concerning what constitutes legitimate political action.
According to this view, the acts of radical Islamists, ultranationalists, and other violent groups and states are morally abhorrent only when judged from our perspective as citizens of powerful liberal democracies and beneficiaries of "entrenched interests." The designation "terrorist," under this line of thinking, is a purely political one.
In reality, of course, such sentiments are the privileged province of those who have not been victimized by political terror, whether meted out by nonstate actors like Al-Qaeda or totalitarian regimes like Iran's. The rest of us should recognize terror when we see it.
Left-leaning members of the organized Iranian-American community were right, then, to cry foul in response to renewed congressional efforts to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MKO, or MEK), the Iranian opposition sect based in northern Iraq, from the U.S. State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).
On August 2, dozens of Iranian-American luminaries and their allies took to the pages of the "Financial Times" with a joint statement denouncing the proposed move. "The [MKO], an organization ... that enjoyed the support of Saddam Hussein lost any following it had in Iran when it fought on Iraq's behalf during the 1980-88 war," they wrote. "Widespread Iranian distaste for the [MKO] has been cemented by its numerous attacks against numerous innocent Iranian civilians."
The Mullahs' Praetorian Guard
Which is all very true. The MKO is indeed a bizarre, Islamo-Marxist cult with a long record of gruesome terrorist attacks against civilian targets and little support among Iran's young democrats.
Yet the statement's authors -- which include many prominent proponents of the failed "engagement" strategy for dealing with Tehran -- have missed the bad faith of the outfit spearheading their campaign: the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), often accused of serving as an unofficial lobby for the Islamic republic and led by the enigmatic Trita Parsi.
The NIAC is the last organization Iranian-Americans -- not to mention Washington -- should turn to when it comes to moral clarity on the issue of terrorism.
After all, just a few years ago, Parsi and the NIAC were busy urging the State Department not to add another, far worse organization to its list of FTOs: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), often called the mullahs' Praetorian Guard.
Heading the regime's repressive apparatus, including the vicious paramilitary Basij force, the IRGC has far more innocent blood on its hands than the puny MKO. The IRGC and Basij force's brutality against average Iranians captured Western headlines in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in June 2009 and the subsequent crackdown against peaceful protestors seeking to assert their universal rights.
Numerous witness statements say torture and abuse have been the norm in IRGC-run political prisons.
But the Revolutionary Guards' criminality did not begin in 2009. In the aftermath of a student uprising in 1999, for example, the IRGC helped set up a parallel intelligence apparatus designed to crush internal dissent.
As extensive reporting by the independent Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC) and numerous witness statements attest, torture and inhumanity were the norm in IRGC-run political prisons during this period.
"I was beaten for two weeks," one arrested dissident told the IHRDC. "They did not beat me on the face and those body parts which were easily visible. They were beating my back and my head against the wall."
Menace Not Confined To Iran's Borders
Nor is the IRGC's menace confined to Iran's borders. It was the Revolutionary Guards who, in 1982, engendered the Lebanese terrorist organization Hizballah, responsible for the Beirut barracks bombing that claimed the lives of 241 Marines -- the single biggest loss for U.S. armed forces since World War II.
Today, through its elite Quds force, the IRGC continues to provide Iraqi insurgents with improvised explosive device equipment and training, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen and other U.S. military officials.
Dozens of American and Iraqi personnel and civilians have died as a result of these weapons.
Elite Revolutionary Guard special forces participate in military manoeuvers near the Persian Gulf
Nevertheless, as late as August 2007, Parsi published a memorandum on NIAC's website urging the State Department not to designate the IRGC as an FTO lest such a move "further entrench…U.S.-Iran relations in a paradigm of enmity."
Pointing to the IRGC's domination of the Iranian economy, Parsi argued that targeting the Revolutionary Guards' business dealings would merely increase the costs of the regime's policies without altering them.
More fundamentally, Parsi suggested, designating the IRGC would "strengthen and prolong the dominating narrative in the United States, which reads that stability in the Middle East can only be achieved through Iran's containment and defeat."
Needless to say, the memo contained nary a mention of the Revolutionary Guards' brutality at home or nefarious activities abroad. In Parsi's view then, the IRGC carried no responsibility for the enmity between the superpower and the aspiring regional hegemon.
A Mind-Boggling Volte-Face
Today, the NIAC is eager to claim credit for State Department sanctions imposed on individual human rights violators in Iran, including members of the IRGC.
This about-face is mind-boggling. It also raises some important questions: Were the Revolutionary Guards any less vicious toward oppositionists back in 2007?
Were they not actively engaged in undermining American efforts to stabilize Iraq? If not, then why did the NIAC seek to protect the IRGC's business interests in Washington at that time while now helping to isolate this monstrous entity?
And why does the MKO -- a mostly irrelevant group as ideologically coherent as Lyndon Larouche's cult and just as ineffective -- so raise Parsi and the broader engagement community's ire?
That the NIAC so struggles to reconcile these underlying ideological tensions or win broader support among the diaspora it claims to represent is a testament to its moral bankruptcy.
Its hypocritical approach to the MKO further compounds the impression that it does not represent the values of the Iranian-American community, which, having experienced terror first hand, knows how to consistently recognize it.
Sohrab Ahmari's writing appears in "The Boston Globe," the "Weekly Standard," and "Commentary," among other publications. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL