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.
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