One of Iran's key demands to the U.S. concerns this Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that has conducted terrorist attacks in Iran and elsewhere, but also is accused of supplying intelligence to the U.S.
The Iranians hoped that the demise of the Saddam regime would ultimately destroy the MEK. I don't think the Iranian government is afraid of the MEK. The MEK is not popular in Iran. It is seen as collaborators with the Saddam regime during the Iran-Iraq war. But the MEK has killed many people in the Iranian leadership, friends and comrades of people who are now in positions of power. So there are old blood feuds that the Iranian government would like to settle.
Secondly, the MEK operated in Iraq as a arm of Iraqi intelligence against Iranian operatives in Iraq, against Shi'ites and against the Kurds. And, in fact, one of the major pressures on the United States to round up the MEK and put them in a camp did not come from Iran; it came from [Iraqi President] Jalal Talabani. ... And I think at a third level the Iranians look at the MEK issue as a test of U.S. goodwill. ...
[Then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs] Ryan Crocker assured [the Iranians during a January 2003 meeting] that the MEK was a group that we had on our list, ... and the Iranians didn't need to worry about that. And I remember the senior Iranian who had joined the talks was concerned that they'd been hearing mixed messages. ... He said that he had heard of others in the administration, particularly from the Pentagon and from the vice president's office, who did not see the MEK as a terrorist organization and in fact could see the MEK as an organization that, after Iraq was liberated, could then move on and liberate Iran or help be part of an invasion force into Iran. And so he was very concerned about that, and we tried allay his concerns.
During that meeting Ryan Crocker said what to allay those concerns?
That the United States viewed the MEK as a terrorist organization, we had designated it as such, and that we saw it as part of Saddam's military.
And that it would be on the target list?
That's what I recall. ...
... I've heard through some interviews that in some of the discussions leading up to the invasion that Ryan Crocker had said to the Iranians that the MEK would be treated as part of Saddam's army, the implication being [it would be] on a target list, which wasn't exactly what happened after the war.
I don't know about that specifically, but we had discussed the MEK more pointedly after the invasion. And there were some in the administration who wanted to use the Mujahideen-e Khalq as a pressure point against Iran, and I can remember the national security adviser, Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice, being very specific about it, saying no, a terrorist group is a terrorist group.
That was exactly the point of view of the State Department as well. We wanted the U.S. military to disarm the MEK and contain them. ... And eventually we did disarm the major weapons [from] the MEK. Then we ... engaged in a broad effort to try to resettle these people, but we were very unsuccessful in getting them settled in foreign lands. ...
But the idea was that they could be useful in what way?
The MEK had given intelligence on Iran to us, and [indicated] that they might have capabilities in Iran of a covert nature. To my knowledge, at least when I was active, we didn't use them in this way. ... And from my point of view -- I actually served in Iran; I lived there for a year, and it was during that time that our people were killed by the MEK, assassinated.
Yes. So from my point of view they were terrorists. ...
We need to look closely at why terrorism spread, first in the Middle East and then to Western countries, including the United States. At the beginning of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, terrorist groups in Iran were very active. Unfortunately, Western countries didn't condemn them. Terrorists, just 200 meters from where we are sitting here, assassinated the president and prime minister at the same time.
France officially recognized the leaders of this terrorist Mujahideen-e Khalq group. It was members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq who first strapped themselves with explosives and blew themselves up among civilians, killed people and our officials. The West sat back quietly. So their behavior became an example for other terrorists. In the recent history of the region, Iran was the first country to fall victim to terrorism.
After Sept. 11, the Iranian government immediately expressed its sympathy to the American people. The president at the time sent a message expressing our condolences. We are against every kind of terrorism. From our perspective, there is no difference between "a good terrorist" and "a bad terrorist." A terrorist is a terrorist. You can't deal with one set of terrorists and not the others.
What do you think of America's relationship with the [MEK] and its Camp Ashraf in Iraq? Are they being sincere? Should they be disbanded?
The American government has also announced that this group is a terrorist group, and it was our expectation that they would be dealt with like any other terrorist group. But unfortunately, over the past four years the United States has put them under its protection in Iraq and has used them to spy on the Islamic Republic. ...
In the recent negotiations that the Iranian delegation had in Baghdad with the American delegation in the presence of Iraqi officials, the Iranian delegation presented evidence that was provided by this group to U.S. officials in Iraq, and that U.S. officials relied upon against Iran.
What was the reply? What did the Americans say?
They couldn't deny it because it was heavily documented. ...
Are you asking them to disband the [MEK]?
We are asking what Iraqi officials are asking, something that can be found in the Iraqi Constitution, and that is that no terrorist group should exist in Iraq. ...
... When I interviewed Mohammed Jafari in Tehran he said that during those recent talks [in Baghdad] the Iranian delegation brought up the continuing presence of the MEK inside Iraq ... and said further, that the U.S. is actually working with the MEK to gain intelligence on Iran.
I think it's a well-known and well-practiced Iranian concern. We happen to disagree with them, and we've made that clear. ...
We're not going to do Iran's business in Iraq. We're going to protect American interests and Iraqi interests in Iraq. It's the Iranian government that has not done what it should and could have to make sure that its borders are not being used by people who smuggle arms into Iraq from Iran.
And the Iranian government has not shut down its military support of the Shi'a militants, and that's been a real problem for American troops. So we are pressing a number of concerns ... and we hope to see more progress than we've had so far.
Is the U.S. using the MEK for any intelligence gathering or any other purpose?
I would not comment in any way, shape or form on that question except to say that our policy towards the MEK of many years has not changed. ...
... Some folks will say the State Department wanted to dismantle them, and the reason it didn't happen and they're still there is because there was a decision made somewhere in Washington to keep them as a possible asset [at Camp Ashraf near Baghdad] to work with them against Iran. Did that happen?
The reason that Camp Ashraf stands today is not because somebody made a decision here or there in this capital or that capital. Camp Ashraf stands today because the people in Camp Ashraf were determined to stand firm against the Iranian regime and continue to be committed in their struggle for the freedom of Iran. ...
... The Iranians officials told us that in the meetings in Baghdad they laid out what they said was evidence that the MEK was providing intelligence to the U.S. military. Are they?
The Mujahideen-e Khalq have been providing information about the Iranian regime's operations both in terms of their terrorist operation and their nuclear weapons program in open, public press conferences to the whole world. ...
... What I'm asking is more specific. Are they, to your knowledge, having discussions about intelligence of what Iran is doing inside Iraq?
I think the Mujahideen-e Khalq in Camp Ashraf, to the best of my knowledge, are having discussions about the security of Iraq which directly affects their own situation, their own security in Ashraf, as well as the security of Iraqis, as well as the security of the Americans who are present there. ...
... I'm talking about knowledge of what Iran is doing inside Iraq. Are they discussing that directly with U.S. officials?
I'm not aware of all the details of their discussions. But I know in general the Mujahideen-e Khalq in Camp Ashraf have been meeting with the U.S. military officials, the United States officials in that country dealing with the situation of their own security and dealing with the issue of their own protected rights. ...
... [How do you respond to the allegations that the MEK is a terrorist organization and that it killed American citizens in the 1970s?]
This is absolutely false. Not only the Mujahideen have denied this, they have been very up front saying that those six American servicemen who were killed at the time of the shah some 30 years ago were killed in the hands of some elements who had infiltrated and staged a coup d'etat within the organization at the time that the organization was under tremendous pressure by the shah. And those individuals also killed the Mujahideen-e Khalq members as well as those Americans. So this organization is not responsible for the acts of people who went their own way and killed the members of this organization, and they also condemned it at that time. ...
[Why do you think, then, that the MEK is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizaions?]
... The terrorist designation of the Mujahideen-e Khalq back in 1997, only weeks after [former President Mohammad] Khatami took office as the new moderate president of the Iranian regime, was a clear political move on the part of the State Department, as a goodwill gesture to Tehran. In fact, the Clinton administration officials are on the record ... that the designation was meant to open up relations between the United States and the Khatami government at that time. And there was no justification whatsoever for that designation.
Plus the fact that all the members of the military structure of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, which the [U.S.] Army had in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, were subjected to 16 months of detailed investigation, and not even one single person could be charged with terrorism. So the question is, where are the terrorists? And what is this terrorism charge?
And how in the world is it that this organization that has provided the most valuable information to the whole world about the nuclear weapons program of the Iran regime, about the terror network of the ayatollahs, is getting on the terrorist list? Yet the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, which is the backbone of the terror machine of Tehran, they're not even on that terrorist list? ... That's an irony.
Update, Oct. 25, 2007: On Oct. 25, 2007, the Bush administration announced new unilateral sanctions against Iran. Most notably, the administration named Iran's Revolutionary Guard and its Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics "entitites of proliferation concern" regarding weapons of mass destruction. It also targeted the Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force for "providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations." Washington Post writer and longtime Iran observer Robin Wright called the sanctions "the broadest set of punitive measures imposed on Tehran since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy" and "the first time the United States has tried to isolate or punish another country's military."