Former Gov. Howard Dean is under increasing scrutiny for lobbying the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to de-list the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) as a terrorist group.
Howard Dean — a human rights activist? I wonder how Vermont's native people feel about Dean's new focus on human rights, after he and Attorney General Bill Sorrell led the opposition of federal recognition for some of Vermont's Abenaki in the 1990s.
That was then, this is now.
Dean is one of a host of top-tier politicos who have been paid tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to make a case for MEK to the public. The MEK has shelled out millions of dollars to indirectly lobby the Obama administration in an attempt to be taken off the United States' official list of terrorist organizations. The group has already been de-listed by Britain and France.
Yesterday, the U.S. State Department issued its updated terrorist list and the MEK remains on it. However, Secretary of State Clinton is still reviewing the MEK's request to be de-listed and will issue a separate ruling in the coming weeks.
In March, Dean joined a group of politicians, former military leaders and international experts urging the Obama Administration to support the MEK and boost protection of Camp Ashraf, Iraq, home to the 3400 members (including 1000 women) of MEK.
In addition to Dean, Gen. James Jones, former national security advisor to Pres. Obama; Michael Mukasey, former U.S. attorney general; Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman, joint chiefs of staff; Gov. Tom Ridge, former secretary of homeland security; and, Louis Freeh, former director, federal bureau of investigation were among the speakers.
Dean’s championing of the MEK has drawn some fairly severe criticism from folks who believe the group should remain listed as a terrorist organization, and who call it a “cult” that has Marxist beliefs and mistreats women.
New York Times magazine-contributor Elizabeth Rubin recently criticized Dean and a host of other big-name MEK supporters in a Sunday op-ed: "An Iranian Cult and Its American Friends." Rubin argues that the U.S. risks damaging its reputation by backing the MEK because of its cult-like behavior and mistreatment of members at Camp Ashraf.
"American officials who support the group like to quote the saying, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,'" Rubin wrote. "By this logic, the group’s opposition to the Tehran theocracy justifies American backing. But there is another saying to consider: 'The means are the ends.' By using the Mujahedeen Khalq to provoke Tehran, we will end up damaging our integrity and reputation, and weaken the legitimate democracy movement within Iran."
Rubin argues de-listing the MEK would give the group the ability to directly lobby the U.S. government about Iran, a setup that's eerily similar to the way the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 allowed dissidents such as Ahmad Chalabi to lobby the U.S. government and plant the seed to invade Iraq in 2003.
"Mrs. Clinton should ignore their P.R. campaign," Rubin concluded. "Mujahedeen Khalq is not only irrelevant to the cause of Iran’s democratic activists, but a totalitarian cult that will come back to haunt us."
Rubin and Dean recently debated the topic on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation."
Dean refutes Rubin's claims that the MEK is a cult or violent in any way. "The issue shouldn't be about whether I get paid to make a speech or if this group is a cult. This is a human rights issue — period,” Dean told Seven Days earlier this week. He declined to say how much he has been paid by the MEK. Though he has made paid speeches, he said he has also undertaken unpaid work on the group's behalf because he believes strongly in their cause. “They are not terrorists and several European countries have removed them from terrorist lists and we should, too. They no longer qualify to be on the list."
U.S. troops have scrutinized the MEK living at Camp Ashraf and found them to be unarmed. In addition, he said the group is facing increasing hostilities from the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In April, more than 30 people were killed during clashes at Camp Ashraf. The United Nations ordered an investigation into the event.
"Maliki has proven that he can't be trusted and the MEK — which is an opposition group to the regime in Iran — needs our protection," Dean said.
Dean said the April killings at Camp Ashraf by U.S.-trained Iraqi troops demonstrate why the U.S. needs to step up its support for the MEK and make good on its promise to protect these unarmed dissidents
"Each one of the people at that camp received a paper from the United States that we would protect them, and I don't think we're doing a very good job of it," Dean told Seven Days. "We risk seeing what happened Srebrenica, when troops were pulled back and thousands of Bosnian Muslims were murdered in cold blood. I don't want to see that happen again."