U.S. to remove Iranian group Mujahedin Khalq from terrorist list

Khalq camp
WASHINGTON -- The small but influential Iranian exile group Mujahedin Khalq will be removed from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, a U.S. official said Friday, following a high-priced lobbying campaign claiming the controversial group had renounced violence.

The group’s advocates on Capitol Hill welcomed the State Department decision, which was conveyed to Congress in a classified letter. But outside experts warned that legitimizing an organization that carried out deadly attacks in Iran years ago could give Tehran a propaganda boost as Washington and its allies try to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Members of the group, known as the MEK, portray themselves as Iran’s main political opposition, but they have little apparent support in Iran. The MEK has been based in Iraq since the early 1980s, when it sided with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in an  eight-year war that killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians. It has since drawn scrutiny for its cult-like practices, including mandatory celibacy, forced labor and restrictions on leaving the group.

The U.S. government added the MEK to its terrorist organization list in 1997, but members were disarmed by U.S. forces after the 2003 Iraq invasion of Iraq.

The MEK filed a lawsuit challenging the terrorist designation, and a federal court ruled that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton must decide by Oct. 1 whether to remove the group from the list. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland declined to discuss the decision.  

“We anticipate being able to make a public announcement about it sometime before Oct. 1,” Nuland said.

The apparent resolution comes six days after the MEK abandoned a former military base in eastern Iraq to avert a showdown with Iraqi authorities, who view the group as a dangerous nuisance.

In recent years, it has enlisted Washington luminaries in both parties to speak on its behalf or appear at rallies. Among them are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Democratic Party leader Howard Dean, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, former FBI Director Louis Freeh and President Obama’s  former national security advisor, James L. Jones.

Some of the officials reportedly were paid tens of thousands of dollars in fees. The group also spent considerable sums on full-page newspaper advertisements and other media.

Critics of the MEK faulted the Obama administration for bowing to the lobbying effort, warning that the appearance of U.S. support for a group that many Iranians view as traitorous could weaken Iran’s pro-democracy movement. Some current and former U.S. officials have called for arming the MEK to conduct attacks against Iran, which experts say could tip the United States and Iran closer to war.

“It’s a gift to [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei,” Iran’s supreme leader, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group that opposes the government in Tehran.

“At a moment when the United States is trying to put pressure on the Iranian regime through sanctions, and have that economic hardship for the people translate into them putting pressure on their own government, that policy is undermined if the balance of public anger is directed to the U.S. rather than the regime itself,” Parsi said.

According to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity before the formal announcement, Clinton approved the delisting after the last MEK members vacated Camp Ashraf, their longtime encampment in eastern Iraq, on Sept. 16. Iraq’s government had vowed to close Ashraf, but MEK members repeatedly stalled, prompting fear of bloodshed if Iraqi soldiers tried to close the camp by force.

The group is at a temporary camp near the Baghdad airport awaiting resettlement abroad.


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 --Shashank Bengali

Photo: Members of the Mujahedin Khalq hold banners during a tour by foreign diplomats in Iraq on  Sept. 11, 2012.  Credit: Hadi Mizban / Associated Press 


Iranian official suggests 'saboteurs' in U.N. nuclear agency

AbbasiTEHRAN -- The Iranian nuclear agency chief said explosive blasts cut off power to an underground nuclear facility in August, publicly making suggestions of sabotage before the country headed into a meeting with world powers over its disputed nuclear program.

Fereydoon Abbasi told a meeting of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency Monday in Vienna that power lines from the city of Qom to the Fordow nuclear complex had been cut using explosives on Aug. 17. The same happened to its Natanz facility, the official said without giving the date.

The Iranian nuclear chief went on to say that “terrorists and saboteurs” may have infiltrated the U.N. agency to make decisions covertly. Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)  had asked to visit the facility a day after the explosions, he said.

"Doesn't this inspection have any connection to the detonation?" Abbasi was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students News Agency, implying that inspectors were seeking to assess the resulting damage after the attack.

Though Abbasi did not accuse anyone in particular, Iran has blamed Israel and the United States for the assassinations of its nuclear scientists and computer viruses targeting its atomic facilities in the past.

When asked by reporters in Vienna to elaborate on the alleged explosions targeting Fordow, the Iranian nuclear agency chief said the attempted act of sabotage was stopped "using backup batteries and diesel generators," preventing disruption of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, the Associated Press reported.

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World powers to meet with Iran on gridlocked nuclear talks


The six world powers that have been trying to come to an agreement with Iran over its disputed nuclear program are having a face-to-face meeting Tuesday with Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator -- but not because there’s been any progress toward a deal.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief and the point person for the six powers group, will meet Tuesday in Istanbul, Turkey, with Iran's Saeed Jalili to discuss the status of their gridlocked talks, diplomats said.

More specifically, Ashton will ask Jalili whether Iran is ready to replace its earlier proposal -- termed a “nonstarter” by the United States -- with an offer that might finally get talks moving.

“This is a chance for Lady Ashton … to see what the Iranians are thinking,” Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. “We’re going the extra mile to offer them a face-to-face meeting to see what’s up.”

In discussions last spring, Iran said it would agree to halt production of its medium-enriched uranium if the six countries would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium to a low level, and would grant the Islamic Republic relief from sanctions. But the offer fell far short of the demands of the six countries -- Britain, France, Germany, United States, Russia and China.

The group’s political directors made no progress with Iran at their last meeting, held in Moscow in June. Since then, the two sides have held lower-level technical meetings. But diplomats said the lower-level meetings haven’t brought the two sides closer together.

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Reward for killing Salman Rushdie upped by Iranian foundation


TEHRAN -- The reward for killing Salman Rushdie has been upped to $3.3 million by a semi-official Iranian religious foundation, Iranian media reported over the weekend. The increased bounty appeared to be linked to the infuriated protests coursing through the Muslim world over a film mocking the prophet Muhammad, allegedly created by a Cerritos man now in hiding.

The protests, which have stretched from Indonesia to Nigeria and more than a dozen other countries, had already drawn parallels to the furor over the British novelist decades earlier as he releases a new memoir about living his life under threat.

Rushdie was the subject of a 1989 religious edict issued by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, calling for the novelist to be killed after the publication of his book “The Satanic Verses.” The novel was deemed blasphemous by fundamentalist censors.

The fatwa sent Rushdie into hiding. Several of those who had published or translated the novel into other languages were attacked; its Japanese translator was murdered. An Iranian foreign minister said nine years later that the country would not enforce the fatwa, but threats have persisted as hardliners insist that the order could not be revoked by others after Khomeini's death.

The 15 Khordad Foundation, a semi-official religious foundation with strong financial backing, warned that unless Rushdie was put to death, insults against Islam would continue, according to a statement run in Iranian media. Its leader Sheik Hasan Sanei declared the group was therefore hiking its reward $500,000 from $2.8 million.

Rushdie has already been in the media spotlight as his new book gains publicity. His memoir “Joseph Anton” is named for his pseudonym while in hiding after the fatwa, when he feared for his life.

Its release this week has spurred talk about how the outrage over his novel compares to the protests raging over “Innocence of Muslims,” an amateurish film that paints Muhammad as a bloodthirsty sexual deviant. In an interview with Indian television station NDTV, Rushdie called the film “stupid” and “a very highly manipulative incident.” But he concluded that as disgusting as the video was, “it’s more disgusting to attack and murder people who have nothing to do with it.”


Pakistani protests against anti-Islamic film leave at least 1 dead

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-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles.

Photo: British author Salman Rushdie poses for photographers outside London's High Court on Aug. 26, 2008. Credit: Shaun Curry / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

Iranians protest film mocking Muhammad; no violence reported

Iranians protest film mocking Muhammad

TEHRAN -- Expressing anger at the film mocking Muhammad that has triggered protests across the Middle East, roughly 400 young men and women gathered Thursday near the Swiss embassy in Tehran, chanting, “Death to the United States and death to Israel and death to England!”

The protests had been called to take place at the Swiss embassy because it represents American diplomatic interests in Iran. Riot police and ordinary officers cordoned off the area north and south of the embassy, clogging city streets. Behind the security cordon, protesters equipped with a van and loudspeakers denounce the film. Women in long black chadors wore yellow headbands emblazoned with Shiite religious slogans.

“We university students believe Zionism is behind all these insults!” one protest leader in a brown shirt shouted from the back of the van.

PHOTOS: Protesters attack U.S. embassies, consulate

Another bearded student read out a declaration stating, “We students believe Israel is a menace to world peace, therefore we call for wiping Israel from the face of the world map. All U.S. embassies in Muslim countries should be suspended.”

The killing of four Americans in Libya after militants attacked and burned the consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday has raised fears about bloodshed elsewhere as protests spread, but there was no violence in Tehran despite the fiery rhetoric. Nobody tried to storm the embassy, protected by a heavy contingent of Iranian police and high walls armed with sharp points.

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Calls to protest movie mocking Muhammad spread to Algeria, Iran


The day after outraged Egyptians scaled the walls of the American Embassy in Cairo and Libyan militants attacked and burned the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, protests and denunciations against an amateur movie mocking the Islamic prophet spread across the region, spurring warnings for Americans abroad.

Dozens of people turned out to protest in Gaza, chanting anti-American slogans and calling for the death of the  filmmaker behind it. In Tunisia, scores of protesters reportedly burned American flags outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunis; Reuters reported that police scattered the protesters using tear gas and firing rubber bullets into the air.

In Algeria, the U.S. Embassy cautioned Americans to avoid its building and other official government buildings Wednesday afternoon, sending an emergency message to U.S. citizens after calls for protests went out on social media.

Iranians angered by the film planned to protest Thursday in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. diplomatic interests in the country. As calls to protest went out Wednesday, an Iranian official faulted the U.S. for not stopping insults to Islam.

“The U.S. government’s systematic and continued silence on such repulsive acts is the fundamental reason that they keep happening,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by state media. Mehmanparast made no mention of the attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in his remarks.

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Iranians fret and lawmakers demand answers as rial plunges


TEHRAN -- Homayoun Hashemi had imagined visiting his daughter, off studying in the United States. But as the value of the Iranian rial plunges, that trip is steadily slipping out of his reach.

“Now my wife and I are almost forbidden to go visit our daughter,” the 60-year-old engineer lamented. “The trip is not affordable.”

As Iran is pressed by Western sanctions over its disputed nuclear program, the beleaguered economy is putting added pressure on ordinary Iranians through inflation and triggering pleas for the Iranian central bank to step in.

Iranian media reported Tuesday that the economic minister was summoned to a closed session of parliament to explain why the currency had dropped so dramatically, plunging in value compared with the U.S. dollar by roughly half in a year. One lawmaker accused the central bank of cutting off the flow of dollars to Iranian traders in recent weeks, making "the biggest mistake in history," Reuters reported.

Outside of government halls, the tumbling rial has Iranians changing their plans. For Nima, a 25-year-old with a British engineering degree, it means downgrading her dreams of seeking another degree abroad in management, perhaps in Canada or the United States, to daydreams.

The price would be “neck breaking,” she complained. “All my educational ambitions vanished in thin air thanks to the local currency depreciation.”

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Canada breaks relations with Iran over Syria, support for terror

The Canadian government announced that it has closed its embassy in Tehran and ordered Iranian diplomats to leave Canada
The Canadian government announced Friday that it has closed its embassy in Tehran and ordered Iranian diplomats to leave Canada, formally severing diplomatic ties and accusing the Islamic Republic of sponsoring terrorism.

"Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in a statement posted on the ministry's website.

Iranian diplomats in Canada were declared personae non gratae and given five days to leave the country, Baird said.

The decision to sever relations was based on a multitude of concerns, including Iran's support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is engaged in a bloody crackdown on opponents, Baird noted. His statement was issued in Ottawa after he announced the diplomatic action while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok, Russia.

"The Iranian regime is providing increasing military assistance to the Assad regime; it refuses to comply with U.N. resolutions pertaining to its nuclear program; it routinely threatens the existence of Israel and engages in racist anti-Semitic rhetoric and incitement to genocide; it is among the world's worst violators of human rights; and it shelters and materially supports terrorist groups," the statement said.

Ottawa's relations with Iran had been strained throughout the three decades since the Islamic Revolution. Canada's then-ambassador to Tehran, Ken Taylor, helped rescue six Americans during the hostage crisis in 1980. Canada recalled its ambassador from Tehran nine years ago after a Canadian-Iranian photographer died in custody after being arrested for taking pictures outside a prison.

U.S. affairs with Iran have been handled through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran since relations were severed by Washington in 1980. Britain pulled the last of its diplomats out of Iran in November after an attack on its embassy.


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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird speaks during an Aug. 11 visit to a refugee camp for displaced Syrians in Mafraq, Jordan. Credit: Jamal Nasrallah / EPA


Egypt president to Syria's Assad: Step down before it's too late


CAIRO -- In his first speech to the League of Arab Nations, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday told Syrian leader Bashar Assad to learn from recent history and step down immediately "before it’s too late."

Addressing Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, the Islamist president urged them to make Syria their first priority.

The address was Morsi's first key foreign policy speech since he was elected two months ago following the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak last year. In the Middle East, his comments were perceived as a tenacious effort to assert the country’s influence in the region. 

“Our Syrian brethren are dear to us all and Syria is in our hearts. I repeat what I said in Mecca and Tehran: The blood of the Syrian people is on all of our necks,” he told 21 members of the Arab League, excluding Syria, whose membership was suspended in November.

Morsi said Egypt would support the Syrian people’s struggle for freedom without interfering in the country's internal affairs. 

He also said that foreign intervention in Syria would not be welcomed. The comment was seen as directed at Iran, whose leaders have previously expressed support for the Syrian regime. The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for four decades, are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite Muslim faith that predominates in Iran.

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Gambia, Iraq executions buck worldwide abolitionist trend

Protesters in Senegal denouncing Gambian executions
Human rights advocates the world over have been shocked and outraged by Gambia's first executions in 27 years and an escalation in hangings in Iraq that has already sent 91 to their deaths this year.

GlobalFocusThe rash of executions in the two countries -- nine in Gambia last week and 21 in Iraq on Monday alone -- are particularly disturbing for the targeting of prisoners convicted on what appear to be politically instigated charges in secretive and unfair trials, international law experts said.

Yet as lamentable as the recent death row purges may be to those who monitor and censure human rights abuses, they are in stark contrast to a global trend toward abolition of the death penalty and de facto moratoriums on executions in an ever-larger number of countries.

About two-thirds of the 196 countries tracked by Amnesty International  have renounced the death penalty in law or in practice, the London-based rights champions calculate. That has grown from only 16 countries that had outlawed executions before Amnesty launched its global campaign to eradicate the death penalty in 1977.

"Even in countries like China, while we don’t know how many they have executed, we do know that they have reduced the number of crimes that can be punished by death and they have reduced the number of people executed in recent years dramatically," Christof Heyns, assigned by the United Nations to monitor extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a telephone interview from his home in Pretoria, South Africa.

On behalf of the world body's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Heyns delivered a message to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh this week to "strongly condemn" the autocrat's proclaimed intent to execute all 48 death row inmates in the tiny West African country by mid-September. Nine were executed last week, Jammeh's government confirmed Monday, and the remaining 39 condemned prisoners have been moved from their cells to the execution site.

Heyns' letter demanded that Gambia refrain from any further executions, calling last week's deaths "a major step backwards for the country, and for the protection of the right to life in the world as a whole.” The U.N. agency rebuke joined others from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, European nations and an expression of "great concern" from the United States, which itself ranks high on annual rights agencies' lists of countries with the most executions.

Gambia had last executed a prisoner in 1985, and had adhered to the practice increasingly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa of reducing the list of crimes for which the death penalty can be applied as well as the number of capital sentences, noted Sandra L. Babcock, a law professor at Northwestern University and founder of its Center for International Human Rights.

Babcock attributes the Gambia executions to "the whim of an unpredictable and, by all accounts, unbalanced dictator," and she sees little threat of Jammeh's crackdown inspiring emulation.

"It's an exception to the general rule that once a nation heads down that path of refusing to carry out executions, that it leads to abolition as a matter of law over time," said Babcock, whose center maintains a database on the Death Penalty Worldwide.

Iraq's mounting zeal for executions is the more disturbing, Babcock said, as many of the 1,000-plus condemned Iraqis were convicted of treason or terrorism, often "thinly disguised justification for prosecuting political opponents."

Iraq has long featured in the dubious ranks of the Top Five countries carrying out the most executions each year. In 2011, China led Amnesty's list with executions estimated at more than 1,000, but it also eliminated the death penalty for 13 crimes that previously could draw the ultimate punishment. Iran acknowledged executing at least 360 people, followed by Saudi Arabia with 82 reported executions, Iraq with 68 and the United States 43.

Despite the rise in executions in some of the most active "retentionist" nations, as the rights groups refer to those that haven't signed on to the international covenant that defines the death penalty as a human rights violation, there are positive trends even in areas where the death penalty long enjoyed broad public support, the law experts said.

The Philippines abolished capital punishment six years ago, and all republics of the former Soviet Union except Belarus have renounced the death penalty or ceased carrying it out. Malaysia and Singapore are reconsidering whether all drug-trafficking crimes should be death-penalty eligible, and China is conducting a review of all death sentences, Babcock said. All of Europe is abolitionist, and most of Latin America -- with the glaring exception of the Caribbean states -- have ceased executions.

The only two highly developed democracies that continue to execute are the United States and Japan, the rights groups note. And abolitionists are regaining traction in Japan that was lost 17 years ago when the Aum Shinrikyo cult attacked Tokyo subway riders with sarin gas, killing 13 and poisoning 6,000.

Moving the United States into the execution-free category is going to take time because of the 50 separate state penal codes and popular support for the death penalty in some regions, Babcock said.

But she pointed out that the rising cost of keeping the death penalty on the books in states like California, with 729 on death row, is beginning to make inroads with death penalty supporters who have been unmoved by the moral arguments against the state taking lives.


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--Follow Carol J. Williams on twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

 Photo: Protesters gathered outside the Gambian Embassy in Senegal on Thursday to demand President Yahya Jammeh halt the mass execution of prisoners. Two of those executed by Gambia last week were Senegalese, including a woman. The banner reads "Gambia. Stop the reign of fear." Credit: Seyllou / AFP/Getty Images


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