Senators introduce bipartisan resolution in support of dissident Iranian exiles

Continued recognition of Ashraf dissidents vexes Biden State Department

John Bowden
Washington DC
Saturday 23 March 2024 21:32 GMT
UK's largest delivery of aid reaches Gaza

While much attention was focused on the Senate working into the wee hours of the morning to pass a spending bill in a last-minute bid to avert a partial government shutdown on Friday, a group of senators found a little bipartisan comity around rebuking the Iranian government.

A resolution introduced this week by Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, is the latest effort by members of Congress to extend political recognition to members of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK — a group of dissident Iranian refugees living in Europe and primarily centred in Ashraf-3, a political enclave in Albania. The group, led by President-elect Maryam Rajavi, brands itself as a democratic resistance movement against the authoritarian Iranian government. Previously involved in violent resistance against the Iranian regime, it was designated as a terrorist group by the US government until 2012 (a position Iran’s leaders supported).

The MEK, with its political arm the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has pushed Congress for such political recognition for many years. The latter group frequently hosts events and political briefings with members of Congress, and retains a number of allies among hawkish wings of both major parties.

Mr Tillis’s resolution was joined by Democrats including Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey, as well as Sens Chris Coons and Jeanne Shaheen; a number of his fellow Republicans also signed on. It recognises Ms Rajavi and her much-touted “Ten Point Plan for the Future of Iran”, which calls for a “secular” and “non-nuclear” democratic government in the country.

It’s the latest — and most direct, in recent memory — bipartisan show in support for the MEK and NCRI by lawmakers that will once again put them at odds with the views of the State Department, which has an adversarial relationship with the dissidents. Since the MEK’s un-designation as a terrorist group by the US government in 2012, the State Department has steadily maintained that it does not view the MEK and NCRI as “viable opposition" groups in Iran and have questioned their commitment to democratic values.

As a result, the resolution’s call for the US government as a whole to “continue close and regular cooperation with the Government of Albania and the residents of Ashraf-3” may be received with less than enthusiasm by State officials.

The Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC) issued a statement to The Independent on the resolution, calling it a “critical step toward holding the Iranian regime accountable for its terrorism and human rights abuses” and applauded its call for closer ties with Ashraf-3.

While the State Department has never publicly wavered from its political opposition to the MEK and NCRI, the relationship is not that simple. The group’s growing alliances with Republicans and conservative Democrats (with some exceptions, such as Mr Booker) have watered down the perceived seriousness of that viewpoint.

Case in point: The previous secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, remains an active supporter of the NCRI and as recently as earlier this month headlined an event held by the group in Washington. Former Vice President Mike Pence also spoke at a rally held by the dissident groups in Paris last year, as he sought the 2024 Republican nomination.

Under the presidency of Joe Biden, the State Department was for some time reportedly involved in talks concerning the 2015 nuclear deal inked during Mr Biden’s previous time in the White House. But the president indicated in December of 2022 that the agreement was not to be revived, and the subsequent outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has come with renewed tensions between the US and Iran regarding the actions of militant groups supported by the Iranian government throughout the Middle East.

One of those groups, Houthi rebels based in Yemen, has resorted to attacking commercial traffic in the Red Sea as the militants seek to deny ships safe passage to Israel.

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