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Iranian Activists Warn That MKO Delisting Would Send Negative Signal To Iranians

Iranians protest against the EU's decision to remove MKO from its list of terrorist organizations in 2009.
Iranians protest against the EU's decision to remove MKO from its list of terrorist organizations in 2009.
Iranians hardly ever agree on anything. But there's at least one thing on that most Iranians share a common view, and that is their dislike of the Iranian opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO).

For this reason, talk of removing the group's designation as a terrorist organization, which the United States is currently considering and which the European Union did in 2009, is sure to spark protests from Tehran.

But the issue also draws protests from a less likely source -- members of Iran's Green Movement who themselves are critical of the exiled group and are wary of attempts by the MKO (aka People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran) and by the Iranian government to portray them as allies in opposition.

And Green Movement members also warn that removing the MKO's terrorist designation could inadvertently send a negative signal to people in Iran and tarnish their view of the United States.

Labeled As Traitors Among Iranians

The MKO's involvement in a series of violent acts in the 1970s and 1980s in Iran, and its decision to side with Iraq during the bloody 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, led to the group being labeled as traitors among Iranians.

So much so, that opposition member and former lawmaker Ali Mazrouei believes removing the MKO from the State Department's terror list would not be well-received.

"It will be definitely viewed very negatively by the people," he says. "This group is one of the most-hated political groups among Iranians, because during the difficult time of the war it joined the enemy that had attacked Iran's territory and fought against the Iranian nation."
"Newsweek" correspondent Maziar Bahari believes delisting the MKO could have damaging implications.

In the international arena, the group has proven to be a sticking point for decades. Following its founding in 1965, MKO members took up arms against the Iranian shah and were involved in the killings of several U.S. citizens working in Iran in the 1970s.

After initially supporting the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the MKO went underground when an uprising against the new regime failed. The United States put the group on the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997 in what was widely considered to be a goodwill gesture to former President Mohammad Khatami.

Nevertheless, following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, coalition forces considered MKO members on Iraqi soil a "protected people," in keeping with the Geneva Conventions.

MKO members were provided refuge at Camp Ashraf, where their numbers today stand at around 3,000. But the handover of control to the Iraqi government clearly exposed the controversy over their presence on Iraqi soil, with Iraqi officials openly suggesting that Iran's extradition requests be heeded, while the UN reminded the Iraqi government of the MKO members' rights as minorities.

The MKO, as the State Department reviews their status, has argued that it has renounced violence and claims to be working for democracy in Iran. It has also launched an extensive campaign to push for its reclassification.

According to Tehran-based political analyst Nejat Bahrami, the delisting of the MKO would make average Iranians frustrated with the United States.

"The messages [President Barack] Obama has sent to the Iranian people on several occasions, including for Nouruz, have been very encouraging," he says. "But I think [the delisting of the MKO] would neutralize those positive statements. And it might lead to frustration with U.S. policies and even hatred."

Current Regime 'Preferable' To MKO

"Newsweek" correspondent Maziar Bahari, who was jailed in Iran amid the unrest that followed the country's contentious 2009 presidential election, believes the move could have damaging implications.

"Despite the historical mistakes the U.S. government committed -- from the 1953 coup d'etat to its full support for the shah's regime -- many Iranians still believe the U.S. can be their potential ally in their fight for freedom," Bahari says. "The delisting of the MKO would send the wrong signal to those young Iranians who have been pushing for democracy peacefully in the past 2 1/2 years."

The thought of MKO members portraying themselves as united oppositionists does not sit will with Green Movement members.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one Green Movement member in Iran claims that if he had to choose between the current leaders in Iran and the MKO -- which is led by Maryam Rajavi and Massoud Rajavi (who hasn't been seen or heard from in the past several years) -- he would definitely "keep" the current regime.

"I know they claim abroad they're part of the Green Movement [but] it's a big lie," he says. "We don't want to have anything to do with them."

Recognition Could Fuel More Repression

Analysts and opposition members believe delisting MKO would also play into the hands of the Iranian establishment, which has a well-documented history of silencing voices of dissent.

"The Iranian establishment could use this as yet another excuse to repress the opposition and critics and imply that they're all the same as the MKO," says opposition member Mazrouei.

A student activist in Iran who did not want to be named says several of his friends who were arrested following the protests over the reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad faced accusations over alleged ties with the MKO.

He maintains that the tactic was used by the Iranian government to intimidate the activists who he says were neither members nor supporters of the group.

Bahrami says the removal of the MKO from the U.S. blacklist would give an even freer hand to the establishment to bring more of these accusations against critics and opposition members.

The Iranian government sees the MKO as one of its worst enemies. Thousands of MKO members and sympathizers were executed in Iran in the 1980s.

Yet Bahrami believes the Iranian government might actually benefit from the possible delisting of the MKO, because the move could feed Tehran's propaganda machine and give it more ammunition to attack U.S. policies.

"If the delisting takes place, Tehran would say U.S. policies are contradictory," he says. "At a time when the U.S. claims it fights terrorism, the Islamic republic can refer to MKO's past actions and challenge the U.S."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected in the coming weeks to make a final decision about whether to keep the MKO on the terror list or remove it.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.