Rights and Democracy: The enemy of my enemy is a listed terrorist organization

The group is urging the government to consider the MEK as a potential replacement government for Iran

This one starts slow and will take you through some unfamiliar territory, but I think it’s the most intriguing foreign-policy story I’ve seen this week. Near the end, it features murdered nuclear scientists. Bear with me.

Today we’re going to give Aurel Braun the benefit of the doubt. Longtime Inkless readers (Hi, Mr. Braun!) will know this takes an effort of will.

Braun, as you know, is the chairman of the board of Rights and Democracy, who spent 2009 and 2010 very nearly running that organization into tatters; click on the “Rights and Democracy” tag at the bottom of this post if you’re free to spend the rest of the day catching up. (Here’s one small part of that copious file.)

But now, here’s the indefatigable Graeme Hamilton at the National Post noting that Braun, along with his fellow R&D board member David Matas, has been in Ottawa urging the government — which is, inexplicably, chock full of big big Aurel Braun fans — to consider the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) as a potential replacement government for Iran.

This is interesting because Canada, like the United States, has long included MEK on its list of banned terrorist organizations for “assassinations, armed attacks, hostage-taking, mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids.” The Harper government reviewed and maintained that listing less than a year and a half ago.

Braun’s entire vendetta against the now-deceased former president of Rights and Democracy, Rémy Beauregard, began when Beauregard gave small grants to an organization run by a guy who may once have belonged to another listed terrorist organization. Braun’s behaviour on that file bespeaks limited faith in the possibility of redemption. But here he is arguing that MEK has cleaned up its act so well it should become the West’s spare tire for use whenever Iran’s current murderous regime collapses.

All that’s missing from Graeme’s excellent story, which was news to me when I saw it last night, is that Braun and Matas are not at all alone in this notion. Most MEK (or PMOI, for People’s Mujahedin of Iran; same thing) members now live in a camp in Iraq, where they face difficult conditions. Here’s Irwin Cotler, former Liberal justice minister, pleading for international attention for their plight, on a website devoted to lobbying for MEK to be removed from terror lists. This story lists Cotler with Alan Dershowitz and Elie Wiesel among MEK’s supporters.

On the immediate question of Camp Ashraf’s safety, every political party in Parliament supports MEK; on the broader and thornier question of its fitness to play a role in Iran’s future, the speaker list is different but impressive: Former US attorney general Michael Mukasey, George W. Bush’s White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge, and 2004 Democratic primary-season screamer Howard Dean have all advocated for MEK.

Could a group with a documented history of lethal violence that sure looks like a charismatic family kill cult actually turn over a new leaf? The European Union thinks so; in 2009 the EU removed MEK from its own terror watch list. But, as several of these linked stories have already shown, MEK’s clout, connections, its considerable financial resources and its ability to persuade people to look past its lurid early history are highly unusual.

Along comes NBC with what could be the missing piece of the puzzle. Three weeks ago NBC News reported:

Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News, confirming charges leveled by Iran’s leaders.

The group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, has long been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, accused of killing American servicemen and contractors in the 1970s and supporting the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran before breaking with the Iranian mullahs in 1980.

The attacks, which have killed five Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007 and may have destroyed a missile research and development site, have been carried out in dramatic fashion, with motorcycle-borne assailants often attaching small magnetic bombs to the exterior of the victims’ cars.

Oh-ho. So the sudden spike in mortality rates among commuting Iranian nuclear scientists could be attributable to an expat Iranian dissident group trained and supplied by Mossad? NBC’s story contains off-the-record confirmation from Obama administration officials, a No Comment from Israel, and a noticeably focussed denial from MEK, which is adamant that none of its members were trained “on Israeli soil.”

I have no idea what moral score to assign to the various players in this drama that John Le Carré would have rejected as too incredible. Many will say that if MEK is picking off Iran’s nuclear expertise, one soft target at a time, then its members are heroes and its continued presence on Canada’s terror list is an abomination. I suspect covert assassination may actually be preferable to the real-world alternative, an Israeli air raid against Iranian nuclear facilities. But it’s also easy and etymologically correct to argue, as some already have, that anyone using lethal violence to advance political goals is practicing terrorism. Even enthusiastic supporters of the notion of using an Iranian proxy group to pick off Iran’s nuclear experts acknowledge the rather dense moral and legal thickets surrounding it all.

So. Braun and Matas did not invent this idea that MEK deserves a second look. A lot of people have argued the same, and now it seems that MEK may be playing a crucial role in the most important covert conflict in the world right now. Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu will visit Ottawa on Friday. Maybe one of us should ask him whether MEK should be a listed terrorist organization in Canada.