As conflict in the Middle East rages on, this week’s Economist called for the West to stop the rise of Iranian power in the wake of Hassan Rouhani’s election as president and worried that “the balance of power between Iran and the rest of the world has been shifting in Iran’s favour.” Another voice has long been calling for the West — the United States, in particular — to counter the Iranian government. The most visible Iranian exile group in Washington, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, was taken off the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012 after a robust lobbying campaign and they’ve kept lobbying since shedding the label.
Members of the MEK call for regime change in Iran as “the only option” and see their leader, Maryam Rajavi, as the legitimate successor to the seat of power. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, have been especially receptive to these claims, and not without some convincing: the MEK has invested heavily in getting members of Congress to see things its way.
This should sound familiar. Ahmed Chalabi was the head of the Iraqi National Congress when he pushed for the U.S. government to depose Saddam Hussein in 2003. His group’s coordinated calls for regime change led to a fruitless pursuit for weapons of mass destruction and large-scale distraction from the concurrent war in Afghanistan. So when an Iranian opposition group purports to be the preeminent resistance-in-exile, worthy of the spoils in the scenario of the Iranian government’s downfall, regarding the group’s ambitions with suspicion is only prudent.
Especially when nobody knows where the MEK gets its money.
The MEK is the main branch of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which was founded in 1981 in Tehran, according to the NCRI’s website. Penetrating their records has proven difficult. A 14-page Christian Science Monitor report from 2011 provides the most detail about who pays for MEK’s events and campaigns, but even that reporting only shows that the funding comes from various shell organizations around the country. That hardly answers the question.
According to a form submitted in compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act in May, the NCRI is registered as a foreign principal under Rosemont Associates, LLC. That company is owned by Robert G. Torricelli, a former Democratic U.S. senator from New Jersey. A man who picked up the company phone on Thursday morning wasn’t keen on chatting, and a receptionist who answered another call later that afternoon said Torricelli wasn’t in.
According to his company’s FARA filing, the NCRI pays Torricelli $420,000 per year for his services, which include lobbying executive and legislative branch officials. They also gave him $34,975 in March for speeches he gave in Europe.
Torricelli’s not the only former U.S. official to receive huge sums in exchange for lobbying and speeches on MEK’s behalf. Indeed, lavish compensation was the backbone of MEK’s effort to get off the State Department’s terrorist watch list, according to the Monitor report.
So where does the group get all this money? On another FARA form, this one submitted in April, the NCRI says it is not financed or subsidized by a foreign government, foreign political party, or other foreign principal. And since the U.S. has certainly never engaged in, or heard of, providing covert funding to militant opposition groups abroad, it’s safe to take these documents at face value. (Not.)
Wherever the funding and organizing comes from, MEK advocates are making good use of it. Groups of lobbyists who hail from the MEK-affiliate groups roam the halls in groups and eat in the Rayburn cafeteria every day. A Democratic staffer whose office is in Rayburn said, “They are here constantly. I probably see them every day.”
In March, MEK advocates appeared at a photo exhibit in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill for women and girls in Afghanistan. They invited me to attend their then-upcoming Persian New Year celebration, which was set to take place in the same building a few days later. I didn’t go — but if I had, I’m sure the hors d’oeuvres would have been top-notch.
Julie Ershadi is a writer based on Washington, D.C. Capitol image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.