Charity Begins at Home

  • Share
  • Read Later
It’s not every day that a group with close ties to Saddam Hussein and its very own place on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations promotes a charity event in the heart of Washington. But on January 24 a banned Iranian terrorist group called the MEK, or People’s Mujaheddin, will make its presence felt at a fundraiser for victims of Iran’s devastating December 26 earthquake.

A one-time MEK militant helping to orchestrate the fundraiser emphasizes that its sponsors are a variety of Iranian-American organizations. He told TIME they have hired out a 5,000 seat ballroom in the Washington Convention Center, and hope to attract members of Congress and even big name U.S. entertainers. But the event also appears designed to promote the MEK: a photograph of a top MEK official appears on advertising for the Washington gala, and a message from that official is to be read at the event.

This, sources tell TIME, has upset senior Iranian officials who regard the fundraiser as a sign of Washington’s hypocrisy and refusal to honor its promises to crack down on the MEK, which is dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's theocratic government. Not only does the MEK appear on an official U.S. list of terrorist organizations, but federal law enforcement officials last year raided and closed its offices in Washington and Los Angeles.

Sources say Tehran is also worried about the role of the Red Cross, which has been designated to receive money from the fundraiser. The problem: publicity for the event, posted on the MEK's website along with a symbol of the Red Cross, calls for "regime change" in Iran. A spokesperson for the American Red Cross told TIME that it remains apolitical and has no role in the event, but does expect to handle some of the money it raises. Earlier this month, Tehran rejected a Bush administration offer to send a high-level delegation to Iran led by former Red Cross head Elizabeth Dole.

Controversy over the MEK lies at the nexus of a continuing deadlock in U.S.- Iranian relations. Saddam made military bases in Iraq available to the MEK in exchange for their help in brutally suppressing dissent among Iraqi Kurds and Shiites. With Saddam overthrown, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) recently demanded the group's expulsion, which the U.S. has said it will not oppose.

That has not happened so far, but U.S. troops have surrounded a big MEK military base in Iraq — camp Ashraf — which holds some 3,800 militants who have been partly disarmed. But the guerrilla group has reportedly continued propaganda broadcasts into Iran, and remained politically active in Iraq.

The State Department, which has come under pressure from Iran as well as European allies to further limit the MEK, has designated the group a "foreign terrorist organization" since 1999 based on its targeting of American citizens in the 1970's, and numerous lethal attacks inside Iran over the last 20 years. But some conservatives have argued that the MEK could be useful to the U.S. in pressuring or overthrowing Iran, one of Bush’s "axis of evil" countries. In fact, the MEK is believed to have provided the U.S. with significant leads about Iran's secret nuclear program. In a series of high-level talks last year, Iran repeatedly demanded that the U.S. crack down on the MEK, something the U.S. has said it would do.

Another bone of contention in those talks, which were broken off in May, was whether the U.S. would turn over MEK guerrillas and leaders to Iran in an exchange for the al-Qaeda terrorists Tehran is holding. King Abdullah of Jordan has tried to broker such a deal and, on January 1, 2004, President Bush publicly demanded that Tehran repatriate the al-Qaeda terrorists in its custody, a group thought to include Saif- al-Adel, the organization's third highest ranking member. Iran has said it might comply, but only after America fulfills its pledge to curtail all MEK activity.

And that, of course, might mean no more Washington fundraisers.