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The Independent Institute
Commentary

US Terror Lists Should Be Downsized


The Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post have exposed lobbying efforts by the Marxist-Islamist group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to hire for big bucks former high U.S. government officials to give speeches to, either explicitly or implicitly, endorse their efforts to get taken off the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Yet U.S. intelligence casts doubts about the group’s abandonment of violence. Although the group has a record of killing a few Americans during the 1970s and has subsequently used violent tactics against Iranian targets, many neoconservatives—and other prominent Americans, it seems—would like to rehabilitate the image of the group and use the MEK as a lever against the odious autocratic regime in Tehran. Despite this questionable purpose, the group should be taken off the U.S. terrorism list.

The list of American luminaries doing a paid dance with the MEK is long and contains former top officials of both parties. For example, on the Democratic side of the aisle, former presidential candidate and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and former Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana have given short and highly compensated speeches before the group. On the Republican side, former Homeland Security chief and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former presidential candidate and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Bush chief of staff Andrew Card, and anti-Iranian hardliner former Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton have done the same. And let’s not forget the bevy of former U.S. national security officials who have least implicitly endorsed the “terrorist” organization’s goals: former directors of the CIA Porter Goss and James Woolsey and four-star generals James Jones (also a former national security adviser), Wesley Clark, Anthony Zinni, Hugh Shelton, and James T. Conway.

So should we take this violent, cult-like group off the U.S. terrorism list because all these Washington celebrities seem to be at least tacitly advocating such a move? No, the group, no matter how bad, should be taken off the U.S. terrorism list because it no longer attacks U.S. targets. The government VIPs either just can’t resist the easy money the MEK throws around for “rubber chicken” speeches or expediently want to use the rehabilitated group to poke the reviled, despotic Iranian regime.

The former is just good old fashioned capitalism, but the latter is unwise and unnecessary. When we try to isolate and corner the thuggish Iranian mullahs by levying economic sanctions and sponsoring opposition groups like the MEK, they just work harder at getting a nuclear weapon. Even in the worst case—if Iran were to get a few such weapons and missiles with a long enough range to deliver the warheads to the United States—the United States could easily deter Iran from any such attack with its massive nuclear arsenal. Furthermore, despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the Iranian regime has always been pragmatic in action, especially when its survival is at stake.

More generally, however, most groups on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, including the MEK, have either never attacked or no longer attack U.S. targets. So why are they on the list? Because the U.S. doesn’t like their politics or supports the governments that they oppose—for example, al-Shabab in Somalia, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Even groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Tehrik-e Taliban of Pakistan didn’t attack U.S. targets until the U.S. government started or joined conflicts in their countries. As for state sponsors of terrorism listed by the State Department, a similar bias holds: those governments either never sponsored or no longer sponsor groups that attack U.S. targets, but the U.S. still doesn’t like their governments. Iran, Sudan, and Cuba are examples of the latter; Syria is an example of the former. A while back, North Korea was removed from the list, not because it had stopped sponsoring terrorism long before, but to give it an incentive to negotiate away its nuclear weapons program.

So both terrorism lists are currently political and should be stripped down to only the groups that attack U.S. targets and the nations that sponsor them (the latter would be down to zero countries). That doesn’t mean that the United States would endorse the nasty regimes expunged from the list or the violent actions of the groups removed, such as the MEK—it just means that America should focus its efforts on countering only the enemies that are attacking us, instead of making more of them. The United States simply can no longer afford to take on all evil in the world.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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