The Israel Project's disingenuous support for Iranian 'terrorist organisation'

The Israel Project's disingenuous support for Iranian 'terrorist organisation'
Comment: The Israel Project seeks to bolster its anti-Iran messaging with the MEK, but is conveniently turning a blind eye to its status as a "terrorist organisation", notes Ali Gharib.
5 min read
21 Mar, 2016
Maryam Rajavi's MEK movement is no peaceful opposition group, says Gharib [Getty]
Some right-wing Israel lobby groups may be forgiven for taking up the cause of the exiled Iranian opposition group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The more ignorant among them might merely see an innocuous group headed by a woman - Maryam Rajavi, who claims to champion a secular, pro-human rights democracy in Iran. 

They may, however, be unaware of Rajavi and the MEK's history: its violence, its cult-like behaviour and its own history of human rights violations. What they do see - however problematic it might be for the rest of us - is a group obsessed with overthrowing its nemesis, the Islamic Republic, a goal which appears to be good enough to match their own purposes.

But The Israel Project (TIP), which featured Maryam Rajavi in an online video earlier this month denouncing the Iranian elections, makes no gains by using the MEK to bludgeon Iran. This is because The Israel Project knows full well the truth behind Rajavi and the MEK.

Consider what TIP head Josh Block had to say about the group in 2011, when he was at the rather inappropriately named Progressive Policy Institute: "The MEK is a terrorist organisation, right? Let's not kid ourselves." He was right, let's not.

And yet the revisionism that would be required to accept the latest TIP video's promotion of Rajavi seems like a huge joke.

It is bad enough that the TV spot seeks to leverage statements by true defenders of Iranian human rights to suit its agenda - torpedoing the nuclear accord with Iran and, one presumes, eventually toppling the regime by whatever means necessary - but then, here comes the MEK.

The video holds up Rajavi as an "exiled leader". Leader of what? The Israel Project doesn't say, and that in itself is deeply problematic. It creates the impression that Rajavi is the head of an opposition movement that extends beyond merely the diehard followers of the MEK.

A history with MEK

This is not the first time a right-of-centre pro-Israel group has sought to bolster its anti-Iran messaging with the MEK. As the MEK lobbied to be removed from the US list of terrorist organisations, it enlisted the help of many pro-Israel figures.

Even The Israel Project, whose head honcho Josh Block considers the MEK a 'terrorist organisation', has been playing this game

Bob Menendez of New Jersey, perhaps the most anti-Iran democratic senator and a perennial favorite of pro-Israel advocates, became the largest recipient of MEK cash - and worked to promote their interests after the group was finally delisted in 2012.

And during the fight over the Iran deal, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) relied on the MEK for television ads put out by its anti-deal spin-off, Citizens for a Nuclear-Free Iran. Another ad by the group featured a military "expert" who just adores the MEK and even praised the group's intelligence-gathering capabilities despite its embarrassinglywell-known shortcomings.

Read more: Obama's on a roll on Iran, and AIPAC's panicking

Even The Israel Project, whose head honcho Josh Block considers the MEK a "terrorist organisation", has been playing this game. Just a few short days after the nuclear deal was struck, the Israel Project's Facebook page linked to an article from a astonishingly right-wing Jewish website, approvingly quoting Rajavi's opposition to the deal.

Here's the point: you really don't need the MEK to tell you the Iranian elections are not, to put it midly, free or fair. So what is the purpose of Rajavi's inclusion here? A two-way utility in which the MEK tells the pro-Israel hawks exactly what they want to hear, and, in return, the groups portray the ex-terrorists as exactly what they are not: a reliable and respectable voice for shaping the future of Iran.

And therein lies an irony. With its assault, earlier in the short video, on the Islamic Republic's byzantine and constrictive electoral regulations - in which an unelected clerical body approves candidates or, more to the point, rejects them - the Israel Project was on the right track.

Unless you are dead-set on total regime change, Iran's embattled reformers hold the key to improving what ails this ancient land. And that's why the Guardian Council locks them out.

Despite this, Iranians have shown an irrepressible desire for reform - even when the capital-R Reformers were locked out. In this election, that meant holding their noses and aligning with figures less favourable to reform, such as those belonging to moderate President Hassan Rouhani's pragmatic, conservative camp and even a few conservatives who were still not reactionary.

In this respect, the bid they took on Iran's reformers was relatively successful at election.

Misreading the Green Movement

But The Israel Project appears unable to get even this right. Just after Rajavi fades off screen in the TIP video, an image of a bloody protester appears.

"When Iran faced true moderates in 2009," blare the block letters in the screen's lower third, referring to the Iranian Green Opposition movement, "they slaughtered 36 people in the street."

Josh Block might be happy to seize the Green Movement's mantle, but only now that it is soaked in blood spilled by the regime. It is a grotesque display. Before the 2009 election, Block was saying the same things about the Reformists who were to lead the Green Movement as he is saying today about the Rouhani-style moderates, with whom the Reformists have formed a tactical alliance.

In June 2009, when he was the spokesman for AIPAC, Block told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: "All the candidates are selected and approved by the Mullah-run Guardian Council, which approves a few and spikes hundreds, so it's more like an 'election' in the old USSR than anything else."

Perhaps a few years down the line, Block will be singing Rouhani's praises, claiming his mantle as well.

This much is certain: as long as Block and his Israel Project are willing to use their leverage to boost Maryam Rajavi and the Mojahedin-e Khalq - a group that, again, Block describes as a "terrorist organisation" - they ought not to be taken very seriously on either Iranian politics or American Iran policy.

A version of this article was originally published on the Lobelog on March 18 2016.

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Gharib

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.