NEAL CONAN, host: A little-known Iranian opposition group has received support from several prominent Americans in a campaign to get its name removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist groups. The Mujahedeen el-Khalq established a base in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and has been blamed for bombings and assassinations inside Iran and for attacks on Kurdish rebels inside Iraq at the end of the first Gulf War.
In an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, Elizabeth Rubin wondered why a group she calls a cult has so many well-placed American friends. And Elizabeth Rubin joins us now from her home in Brooklyn. Nice to have you with us today.
ELIZABETH RUBIN: Thank you. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And this is a bipartisan group of politicians and former military leaders: Howard Dean, Rudolph Giuliani, Bill Richardson, Wes Clark, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former CIA director Michael Hayden. That's a pretty solid group of supporters.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RUBIN: It certainly is. It's very shocking. I had the chance to call and speak to former national security advisor James Jones and General Wesley Clark and former representative Lee Hamilton of the Hamilton-Baker report. And I asked them all the same question, which was, do you know that you're supporting a - what's considered a totalitarian cult? And do you know how they treat their members? And, you know, I don't know if this is just a standard politician line or if it's true, but they all said, no, they didn't know.
And there has been plenty of reports, you know, both by our government and by the FBI about these people. So it's a pretty shocking list of supporters. They're getting very large speaker's fees for these - to speak out on behalf of this group that is trying to lobby the U.S. to get itself off the terrorist list.
CONAN: We'll be speaking with Governor Dean in a few minutes and hear how he responds to that question. But in any case, tell us a little bit about the Mujahedeen el-Khalq.
RUBIN: OK. They were - you know, they were a group of intellectuals, sort of Marxist Shia intellectuals around the same time as Khomeini and all the other groups that were rising up against the shah. They had a falling out with Khomeini and went to war with the Iranian regime after '79. They were part of the group that kidnapped and held hostage the Americans. They killed seven Americans. When they went into exile in France, they were kicked out by the French in '86 and set up shop in Iraq and sided with Saddam against their own people.
Now it became, at that point, a bit of a cult of personality, of Maryam and Massoud; they were married. They forced everyone to divorce. You can't have friendships. You can't be married. You can't have sexual relations with anybody in the group. All of your love and energy must be channeled to Maryam and Massoud with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the Iranian regime.
Many people that I spoke to who escaped from this group describe just horrendous conditions, and many of them have to go through deprogramming and are quite traumatized by the time they escape.
CONAN: How do you know this other than speaking with defectors?
RUBIN: I visited the camp in 2003 in Iraq, shortly after Saddam fell. They were in a strange situation because, you know, they still had their tanks and they still had their weapons. But they were negotiating with the U.S., because they had sided with Saddam during the war, about what was going to happen to them. They were ultimately disarmed and given U.S. protection until the Iraqis took over. And now the Iraqis want them off their land.
CONAN: Yet it's been quite some time since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and Iraq has been under the control either of U.S. troops or an Iraqi government said to be strongly influenced by its - some Iranians. How has this group survived in Iraq?
RUBIN: It's a great question. You know, they have outside funding. They grow their own food. It's a very - it's a contained little place. It's like 14 square miles. There's about 3,400 members now. The RAND Corporation did a study; they estimate that up to 70 percent are being held there most likely against their will. And when there have been some incursions by the Iraqis, people have escaped. But they survive on funding, you know? And the big question for a lot of people is where - because now there's a huge push, a lobbying effort. And hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars are being spent. And many suspect they are getting funding from the Saudis and the Emirates, you know, as a kind of provocation against Iran.
CONAN: Yet, a Shiite group, an unlikely recipient of Saudi largesse?
RUBIN: Well, yes, but there has been always that, you know, the enemy of my enemy - I'll, you know, support them if they're going to attack the Iranians. But it should be understood that in Iran, people who hate the Iranian regime, people who've been fighting the Iranian regime, gone to jail, the MEK, if they remember them, they are despised. They're considered to be people, who, had they taken over, it would have been like the Khmer Rouge ruling Iran. This is not a legitimate or well-respected group for anyone except for its, you know, few thousand supporters.
CONAN: Enemy of my enemy - you said in your op-ed in The New York Times that, apparently, that might be part of the motivation of those who are Americans who are supporting this group to get off the terrorist list.
RUBIN: Then why are they receiving speaker's fees, you know? I mean, yes, I suspect so. I think there's also a lot of money passing hands. I do think there are people who have supported them for ideological reasons for quite sometime. When I went to visit in 2003, I got access to them through Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen in Florida. She's been a big backer of them for years. They purport a sort of human rights platform, equality for women. They have a lot of women commanders and women who knew how to operate tanks. But these women are like robots.
CONAN: Like robots - describe what you saw inside the camp when you visited.
RUBIN: Well, I had very young women come up to me and explain to me in sort of the same - many of them used the exact same words, that they were miserable in Iran, considering suicide. They found Maryam Rajavi on the Internet. She told them they would be capable. They learned that they, too, could be capable and become confident. Now, they knew how to drive a tank and they felt confident, and it was all because of Maryam Rajavi. And it was this kind of thing - everything was about Maryam Rajavi. Her posters were blanketed all over the place. One woman had just lost two legs in the American bombing. She was radiant. She had done it for Maryam. Everything was about Maryam Rajavi. It was like being with the Jones, the Jones cult.
CONAN: And have you - was Maryam Rajavi there? Have you met her?
RUBIN: No. She lives in France. I did not meet her. I was in Iraq at the time. She and Massoud, her husband, disappeared right after Saddam fell. He was seen with Saddam and had been given - giving him his support. And he has not been heard of, at least on the outside since. I've heard that he's appeared in videos to his supporters, but nobody seems to know where he is.
CONAN: And 3,400 members, how big a place is this?
RUBIN: It's about 14 square miles. You know, the Iraqis have an arrest warrant out for many of the leaders because they participated in the killing of Kurds during the 1991 - the atrocities against the Kurds that Saddam's people committed. The Mujahedeen Khalq were part of that force. Maryam is very famous for saying take the Kurds under your tanks and save your bullets for the Shia, you know, for the Iranians, sorry, Iranian Revolutionary Guard. So there's a lot of contempt for them in Iraq, a lot of hatred. They also participated in putting down the Shia uprising in the south.
CONAN: Elizabeth Rubin, thanks very much for your time.
RUBIN: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: Elizabeth Rubin wrote the op-ed: "An Iranian Cult and its American Friends" that appeared in Sunday's New York Times Week in Review. Joining us now from Burlington, Vermont, is the former governor of New - of Vermont, excuse me, Howard Dean, who we've been talking about, one of the people who've been described as supporters of the Mujahedeen-el-Khalq. And Governor Dean, nice to have you back on the program.
HOWARD DEAN: Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: And is it accurate to say you're a supporter of the Mujahedeen?
DEAN: No. What's accurate is to say that I don't believe innocent people who we promised, the United States government has promised protection should be murdered in cold blood, which they were by the Maliki administration in April of this year, when he sent American-trained troops with American weapons in to shoot in cold blood unarmed civilians who we promised in writing to protect.
That is what happened. This is not an issue of whether these people are a cult or any of this other stuff. This is an issue about whether America is going to keep its word and whether we value human rights. We risk being like the Dutch at Srebrenica, when they pulled their troops back and allowed 8,000 Bosnian Muslims to be murdered in cold blood, unarmed. And we're - I don't want to do that again.
CONAN: So when did the United States offer this protection in writing?
DEAN: 2006, three years after Ms. Rubin said that she was in Ashraf. We - our troops, went into Ashraf, which, as you know, is in Iraq and disarmed peacefully these 3,400 Iranians who are living in exile in Iraq. In return, we gave them a piece of paper signed by the commander of the American troops, which promised to protect them. The secretary of defense said that they were protected persons under the Geneva Act.
And we brought, the American government brought some of the counterterrorism specialists and the FBI in who interviewed every single one of those 3,400 disarmed people and found that not one of them had ties to terrorism or to terrorists. So they are unarmed. They are not terrorists. Furthermore, this has been litigated in European and American courts. And the MEK has prevailed in every single judicial enterprise.
They're off the terrorist list by court order in Britain, in France, in the European Union. And the court, the district court in, excuse me, the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., has said they did not have due process in 1997 when they were put on the terrorist list. So, you know, you can say whatever you want about these people being in a cult or any of that kind of stuff, or my getting paid as a speaker or whatever you want. That has nothing to do with the issue. The issue is does the United States stand by and allow 3,400 unarmed people, who we disarmed in good faith, to be massacred by the Maliki regime. And 34 of those - 35 of those people have already been killed in cold blood.
CONAN: And is it accurate to say, as Ms. Rubin said in her piece, that speakers receive speaker's fees?
DEAN: Sure. I'm sure we do. So what? Tom Paine got paid for his newspapers. I don't think that Mike Mukasey, Louis Freeh, Tom Ridge, the former secretary of homeland security, a whole bunch of generals who commanded the - who were the senior commanders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and commanders on the ground in Ashraf are doing this for the money.
CONAN: We're talking with the former governor of Vermont, Howard Dean. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. The problem then becomes what to do with these people. The Iranian government - the Iraqi government clearly doesn't want them. And clearly, they would be at huge risk if going back - if forced to go back to Iran.
DEAN: They would be at huge risk if they stay in Iraq. We've already seen that Maliki - that his word is no good. Frankly, the American government's word is not been as good as it should have been. As I said, they got - they killed about nine of them in 2009 in cold blood. We have video of sniper attacks on these people. The snipers just going into - the Iraqi snipers with our weapons, going into these camps and just shooting these people like it was for sport - women, eight women, then they cut off medical care and two or three more people died who were injured. This is not something the American government ought to put up with.
CONAN: Yet, there are at least allegations against this group, for example, that they ran Kurds under the treads of their tanks...
DEAN: That, you know, I don't - that's the one thing where - Mrs. Rubin said a lot of things. That, I don't believe. Because Massoud Barzani has said that's not true.
CONAN: Massoud Barzani, one of the leaders of the two main Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.
DEAN: Right. He said that wasn't true. Look, this is a very complicated part of the world, and who knows who is completely at truth. I don't dispute, except for that, what all of the things that Mrs. Rubin said. I don't know. But I do know this, there have been two commanders of the American forces who were in Ashraf when we controlled all of Iraq who are supporting the position that they ought to be taken off the terrorist list. One of them testified under oath before Dana Rohrabacher's committee, which had a hearing on July 7th, that he saw no evidence of this whatsoever.
Another one who is not taking speaker's fees, and certainly isn't wealthy on his colonel's pension, is also testifying and making speeches on their behalf. These people were on the ground after Mrs. Rubin was in Ashraf, and they saw no evidence of all this cult business and all that kind of stuff either. Now, I don't know what went on there. I haven't been acquainted with all the dealings of the MEK over the history. And I suspect strongly that they were an intellectual Marxist-whatever group 30 years ago. But the fact of the matter is they did - they've renounced violence in 2001. They have a set of democratic principles, which they may or may not abide for - abide to.
I have actually had dinner with Mrs. Rajavi on numerous occasions. I do not find her very terrorist-like. She is an observant Muslim woman who's very well-educated, as most of these people are, who speak many foreign languages because most of them have lived in Europe or the United States, including at least one who worked for the Defense Department for 20 years. This is not a scary group of people. And in the past, who knows what they did. But the fact of the matter is they're not a terrorist group. That's been ascertained by the FBI. We disarmed them. We promised to defend them. They are unarmed. And 47 of them over a two-year period were mowed down by Maliki's people. And I don't think the United States should be permitting those kinds of human rights abuses.
CONAN: And what should be done with them?
DEAN: What should be done and what they have agreed to is that they need to go to European countries in small groups. Some of them already have. We have two who are Australian citizens who left earlier in the weekend. There have been other European countries who've agreed to take some of the wounded. The United Nations needs to declare these people refugees because that's what they are. They're essentially stateless people. And they're educated people who can contribute to their societies. There's many, many thousands of them that live all over Europe and in the United States. And 3,400 more people who are well educated could contribute a great deal to our societies, and we should take them in as refugees.
CONAN: Governor Dean, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
DEAN: Thank you. My pleasure.
CONAN: Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, joined us by phone from his office in Burlington, Vermont. And earlier, we spoke with Elizabeth Rubin, a contributor to The New York Times magazine. Her op-ed: "An Iranian Cult and Its American Friends" ran in the New York Times on Sunday. I misspoke earlier. It's now the Sunday Review, no longer the Week in Review, and I apologize for that. She joined us by phone from her home in Brooklyn.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we'll be talking about the strained euro and what it's doing as it threatens to swamp the debt, threatens to swamp the economies of Italy and Spain, and the controversy strains the political infrastructure of Europe. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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