One of the many hard questions about the war in Iraq is what the United States will do about something called the National Liberation Army. The NLA is a well-trained brigade of perhaps 15,000 men outfitted with heavy artillery, rockets, and tanks. Its troops are headquartered less than 30 miles west of Baghdad, though some recent news accounts say they have moved toward Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. Although the NLA soldiers are Iranians, they are avowed opponents of Iran's clerical rulers and have made common cause with Saddam Hussein. Indeed the NLA has served as part of Saddam's internal security operation and even helped him put down Kurdish and Shiite rebels.
They are also purportedly enemies of the United States. The State Department considers the NLA part of an international Iranian terrorist group that has killed Americans and thousands of civilians. That means fund raising for the NLA in the United States is just as likely to land you in prison as fund raising for, say, al-Qaida. Some press accounts say the NLA has recently helped Saddam hide weapons of mass destruction and may be ready to fight for him in the coming days. In short, these guys seem like prime candidates for a good carpet-bombing.
But wait, hold the MOABs! The NLA's parent organization—called the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK)—or "People's Holy Warriors"—is also a leading Iranian political opposition group, which has done the Bush administration some big favors lately. The pro-democracy MEK has undermined the rule of Iran's anti-American mullahs, and during the past few months has dished precious new details about Iran's alarmingly advanced nuclear weapons program. The group also has many defenders in Congress and even its own lobbying office in downtown Washington. In fact, on any given day it's often not clear whether the MEK are America's friends, its terrorist enemies—or both. The war with Iraq may finally force the Bush administration to decide.
Like many "revolutionary" groups, the MEK has a strange and convoluted history. Originally founded in the 1960s by a group of educated Iranian leftists opposed to the Shah's Western ties, the group was motivated by a strange ideological blend of Marxism and Islamism. In the '70s, the MEK carried out several attacks on Westerners, including the assassinations of three U.S. military officers and three more American civilians. It supported the 1979 Islamic Revolution that installed the Ayatollah Khomeini and participated in the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran.
Unfortunately for the MEK, the Ayatollah never cared much for its Marxism. He executed thousands of MEK members and drove its leader from the country in 1981. After a few years in Paris, the group allied with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and moved its headquarters to Baghdad, from where it could easily harass Tehran. Hence the NLA brigade in Iraq today.
During the '90s, the MEK carried out hundreds of attacks, almost all of them aimed at Iranian government buildings and officials within Iran. In 1999, for instance, the MEK assassinated a top Iranian military leader. The next year, it fired mortars at the Iranian presidential palace, killing a civilian print-shop worker. The State Department says that MEK hit-and-run raids against Iranian government buildings along the Iran-Iraq border have become "commonplace" and that the group's attacks in Tehran "constitute the biggest security threat" to the regime. The State Department also says the MEK's soldiers helped Saddam suppress Kurdish and Shiite rebellions in 1991 and 1996.
MEK's internal structure remains murky. A 1994 Wall Street Journal article described it as an "authoritarian personality cult" whose military leader, Massoud Rajavi, brutalizes dissidents and insists his fighters divorce their wives so they can love only him. MEK leaders insist they're not terrorists, don't target civilians, and seek nothing less than a "pluralistic, democratic, multiparty, and secular system in Iran." Hoping to destigmatize itself in the West, the group constantly emphasizes its support for human rights. And it has apparently been some time since the MEK did any harm to non-Iranians. For that reason, the MEK has made plenty of friends in American politics, especially among Washington hard-liners opposed to the Iranian regime. Being a terrorist group doesn't mean you can't operate in the United States—you just can't raise money. And so the MEK, under the rubric of the National Council of Resistance, opened an office at the National Press Club in Washington and set about urging Congress to rescind its terrorist designation.
Over the past few years it has made good progress. In 2000, 225 House members signed a letter encouraging a U.S. "dialogue" with the group. A year later, 30 senators expressed "support for the democratic goals" of the MEK. (Attorney General John Ashcroft was a passionate supporter of the group when he was in the Senate.) In January, the NCR proudly touted its congressional support in a full-page New York Times advertisement. The MEK's congressional supporters argue that the group represents the best challenge to Iran's dictatorial mullahs. "When you're trying to get rid of a terrorist regime, you use who you can," New York Democratic Rep. Gary Ackerman told National Review last year.
But nothing has done more for the group's reputation than its disclosures about Iran's secret weapons programs. Virtually every recent story about the Iranian nuclear program now credits this "opposition group" with tipping off the world to a hidden uranium-enrichment plant in northern Iran. Even the White House has publicly congratulated the group. "Iran admitted the existence of these facilities only after it had no choice, only because they had been made public by an Iranian opposition group," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "Iran was far, far ahead of where they were believed to be in the development of this. And if it had not been for the Iranian opposition group, this too may have gone unnoticed."
Does that mean the MEK/NCR/NLA are our friends, and that we won't fight its troops in Iraq? Not necessarily. Last month Reuters quoted an unnamed U.S. official saying that the NLA brigade in Iraq is "an element that would have to be removed" during an invasion. And when State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was asked about a possible fight with the MEK just a few weeks ago, he didn't dismiss the idea, pointing out that it is a "terrorist group" that has murdered Americans and that it's allied with Saddam, before warning that it could "face the consequences" unless it changes its ways.
What "face the consequences" means in practice isn't clear. When retired Gen. Anthony Zinni testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, he warned the MEK could be a major headache for American troops: "There's a major Iranian opposition group in here, the MEK. What do you want me to do with that if I'm the commander in chief? Do I lock them up? Do I send them back across the border to be slaughtered? Exactly what happens to them?"
Whatever happens when American troops encounter NLA—either outside Baghdad or in northern Iraq—may offer a hint about Bush administration policy toward Iran (the third stop on the Axis of Evil Tour). If we leave the NLA brigade alone, it may signal that U.S. relations with Iran are likely to turn icy.
After the Sept. 11 attacks George W. Bush vowed that the war against terrorism "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." At a press conference last month the Iranian foreign minister mocked this claim, saying Bush's implicit tolerance for the MEK suggests he believes there is both "good and bad terrorism." Unfortunately, the man has a point.