Friday, June 29, 2018

Giuliani, Gingrich to address Iranian terrorist group

The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, formerly considered a terrorist group, has several friends close to Trump and is seeing some of its longtime goals advanced.
Two close confidants of President Donald Trump are scheduled to speak Saturday before a controversial Iranian opposition group previously designated as a terrorist outfit, raising fresh questions about the group’s Washington influence as Trump pursues a pressure campaign against Tehran.
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and informal adviser Newt Gingrich are listed as headliners for Saturday’s “Free Iran” conference in Paris, organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq and its affiliates. For 15 years, the U.S. designated the MEK a terrorist group, while analysts describe it as a cult – both allegations the group rejects.
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The MEK holds frequent conferences, but this weekend’s gathering comes at a heady moment for the group. Several of the politicians it has cultivated in recent years, with the help of handsome speaking fees, are now key figures in Trump’s orbit — including not only Giuliani and Gingrich but National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Trump has also taken several steps in line with the group’s desire to oust Iran’s Islamist rulers. They include Trump’s exit from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the MEK repeatedly criticized, and increased sanctions and other pressure that some Trump aides hope will weaken the regime in Tehran.
On Tuesday, a State Department official announced that other nations, including China and India, must stop purchasing Iranian oil by Nov. 4 or face U.S. sanctions. Iran is already experiencing significant economic pain, sparking a series of recent protests that have rekindled hopes in Washington for a popular revolution that would install a more moderate government.
State Department and White House officials declined to speak on the record or on background when asked whether the Trump administration has had any contact with the MEK or its affiliates, and it’s not clear whether Gingrich, Giuliani or Bolton have discussed the group with Trump.
Giuliani did not respond to requests for comment, but the former New York City mayor has spoken at MEK events in the past, leading chants in recent months of “regime change” and openly talking about the possibility of MEK rule in Iran. Gingrich, another long-time MEK backer, confirmed that he will attend the Paris event.
In emails, Gingrich declined to discuss his conversations with Trump, but he argued that the MEK has been unfairly “maligned.” “In meetings I have been in they draw very large, enthusiastic crowds and have sustained a spirit of opposition,” Gingrich wrote. “Their sources inside Iran including reporting on recent mass demonstrations indicate a level of support greater than any other group I have seen.”
The appearance of Giuliani and Gingrich at the conference “underscores once more how some of Trump’s top surrogates are advocates of regime change in Iran,” said Dartmouth University’s Daniel Benjamin, a former Obama administration counterterrorism official with expertise on the MEK.
The MEK, which reportedly pays its speakers tens of thousands of dollars, has enlisted allies from across the U.S. political spectrum. Other scheduled speakers listed by the group for Saturday include former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, and Fran Townsend, who served as homeland security adviser in the Republican presidential administration of George W. Bush.
Officials involved with the MEK and its more polished affiliate, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, did not answer multiple requests for comment.
The Clinton administration designated the MEK a terrorist group in 1997 due to its decades-long armed campaign against Iran’s current theocratic regime and its predecessor, the U.S.-backed monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The MEK is alleged to have carried out a string of bombings in the 1970s that killed several Americans then in Iran, including military personnel. The MEK, which was founded by a group of leftists and has some Marxist ideological roots, also earned the enmity of many Iranians because of its support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

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