Spend enough time kibitzing about international affairs and you are liable to develop an obsession with blunders — how they happen, the costs they incur, and the devilish difficulty of overcoming the big ones. In my case, I have long been intrigued by the three-cornered competition in blundering played out among successive US governments, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the anti-regime Iranian organization known as the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK.
Viewed in this light, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent decision to remove the MEK from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations is interesting. It looks like an attempt to undo the decision of Bill Clinton’s administration to put the MEK on the terrorist list as a conciliatory gesture toward a newly elected “reformist’’ president of Iran, Mohammed Khatami, back in 1997. To be fair to Hillary Clinton, she was also responding to a federal appeals court order and seeking to resolve a looming humanitarian crisis confronting more than 3,000 MEK members trapped in Iraq. Third countries were reluctant to take in the stranded MEK members as long as the group remained on the US terrorist list.
Still, the MEK’s own past actions tied the knot that Hillary untied. The State Department’s delisting announcement noted that although the group had not committed terrorist acts over the past decade, the United States would not forget that six Americans were killed in the name of the MEK in the 1970s, during the revolt against the US-backed Shah.
Massoud Rajavi— the MEK leader who has been in hiding since 2003 — miscalculated in the early days of the revolution when he believed his movement could win an armed struggle against Ayatollah Khomeini’s minions. A pair of MEK bombings in 1981 killed more than 70 officials of the ruling party, including a president, a prime minister, and the top judiciary authority. The regime’s answer was to torture and execute thousands of MEK members. The distillate of that history is best understood as a blood feud. To this day, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has a partly immobilized right arm, the vestige of one of those 1981 bombings.
Last summer, I interviewed the MEK’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, at the group’s compound in the tranquil French town of Auvers-sur-Oise. More telling perhaps than the expected answers Rajavi gave to my questions was the remark an MEK spokesman made to me as we entered the compound. “She lost one sister to the Shah’s regime,’’ he said, “and one sister to the mullahs.’’
Scorn and hatred suffused every mention she made of the theocratic regime in Iran. She attributed nearly all criticisms of the MEK — as a former tool of Saddam Hussein, a partner of Israel in sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program, or a totalitarian cult demanding leader-worship — as calumnies spread by Tehran’s intelligence apparatus. There was no mistaking her passionate intensity when she said, “The regime is based on misogyny; the regime humiliates women.’’ She pledged that after the mullahs’ regime is toppled, the MEK will help establish a polity “based on human values, on equality between men and women.’’
MEK members I talked to at lunch in the group’s canteen spoke with sadness of family members who were tortured and killed by the regime. People caught up in a blood feud are not inclined to dwell on their past errors.
Unaffiliated Iranians and Iran scholars, however, commonly revile the MEK for having killed Iranian conscripts while fighting alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces during the Iran-Iraq war. Many Iraqis cannot forgive the MEK for helping Hussein put down the Kurdish uprising of 1991.
The Iranian regime has, of course, committed its own fatal mistakes. The holding of US hostages in 1979-80, the bellicose rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the lies told about its nuclear program, and the regime’s complicity in Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s massacres of his own people — these blunders are bringing hardship to the Iranian people and may bring an end of days to the regime.
But the mother of all blunders remains the CIA’s collusion with Britain’s MI6 in overthrowing Iran’s elected parliamentary government in 1953 and installing the Shah — so that the corporate predecessor of BP could retrieve ownership of Iran’s nationalized oil reserves. Neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney wanted to harken back to that original sin. But it is sure to haunt Obama’s second term. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’’