Iranian President Hasan Rouhani — who former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman says should be treated as "an international pariah" because his country "has more blood on its hands" than North Korea – has been warmly received by some members of the United Nations this week.
Rouhani's visit to New York follows revelations of the Obama administration's controversial decision to ship $1.7 billion to Iran — an arrangement the administration insists did not amount to paying ransom.
But the cash appeared to secure the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran, while consummating a deal with Iran's mullahs that was intended to limit their nuclear enrichment activities for about a decade.
To one small, beleaguered Iranian resistance group, the payoff to Iran and its diplomatic acceptance at the UN represented yet another setback in a long struggle to get Western powers to recognize the true nature of the regime. Appeasing the theocrats in Tehran, they warn, will only fuel more violence and repression.
That organization, known as the People's Mujahedin of Iran or PMOI, claims 100,000 supporters and adherents worldwide. And in a region where foreign-policy experts decry a void of moderate partners for the West to work with, the PMOI, also known as MEK, stands out as a tolerant group whose views are generally acceptable to the United States and the West.
Beginning in 2001, PMOI was credited with a series of revelations revealing Iran's uranium enrichment activities to international watchdogs. Formerly listed as a terrorist group, it has renounced violence to achieve its ends and surrendered its weapons to U.S. forces in 2003.
Unlike so many entities in the Persian Gulf region, PMOI respects women's rights. In fact its leader and president, Maryam Rajavi, is female.
The PMOI say they aim to bring democracy to their beloved Iran. They also maintain government should be secular rather than religious. The organization also supports a nuclear-free Iran.
The organization has kept a close eye on the West's efforts to rein in the Iranian regime's rogue nuclear program. After all, they have every reason to believe at least some of the billions of dollars that have flowed into Tehran since international sanctions were lifted will be expended to try to annihilate them.
Before Shah Rezi Pahlavi was deposed in February 1979, the PMOI, which denies its members had Marxist or socialist leanings at the time, fought the Shah just as they would later fight the Ayatollahs, and for many of the same reasons: Corrupt cronies, abridged freedoms, and crimes against humanity, they say.
And just as they were persecuted by the Shah, they would later be arrested, tortured, and executed by the religious dictators who replaced him.
In a single year, PMOI leaders say, over 30,000 Iranians were executed in what they contend was an act of genocide by the ruling mullahs in 1988. The killings followed a fatwa against them by Ayatollah Khomeini issued because they refused to support the mullahs in Tehran. That edict has never been rescinded, and Amnesty International has condemned the "staggering execution toll" in Iran.
Anyone doubting the allegations of brutality in Iran should consider the story of Mohammad Shafaei. When he was 7, he watched them haul away his father, a doctor, for the alleged crime of treating a suspected PMOI member who was wounded. His house was also used as a local meeting place in their Isfahan neighborhood.
When his mother arranged a memorial service for a teenager, age 16, who had been shot and killed while delivering a popular PMOI newspapers in the neighborhood, she was arrested as well.
He recalls trying to deliver heart medication to his father after he was imprisoned. The guards confiscated the medicine and refused to let him see his father.
When he looks at a picture of his family now, remembering happier days, only one other family member, his sister, has survived the regime's attacks.
Mohammad was sent to live with an uncle, made his way to Paris, and fulfilled his lifelong dream of coming to the United States to study medicine so he could follow in his father's footsteps.
He studied at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was by all accounts an extraordinary student, receiving straight As. He could go out for a pizza or go shopping like any American student. Once he was granted refugee status, he could have enjoyed life in America indefinitely.
But in 1994, he learned that Iranian operatives had launched deadly attacks against PMOI members in Baghdad. Under the dictatorship of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, the PMOI experienced over 140 attacks by Iranian operatives against PMOI refugees.
The group fought back, both inside and outside of Iran. Combined with its revolutionary activities that contributed to the Shah's overthrow, the State Department in 1997 made the controversial move of listing PMOI as a terrorist organization — although investigators were never able to identify terrorists among the group's members.
Mohammad read the accounts of his countrymen being massacred in Iraq, and their bravery in captivity reminded him of his parents' sacrifice. After an agonizing period of soul searching, Mohammad felt he must leave his easy life as a college student in America, and return to be with the exiled PMOI members in Iraq.
It was the hardest decision of his life, he says.
"I had a prosperous future in front of me without fear and suppression of [the] mullahs," he says. "I had an opportunity to enter top U.S. medical colleges. Many youths might have a dream of being in such a position.
"On the other hand, I could not imagine how my life was going to be if I started struggling with mullahs. I might get arrested like my mom, or get killed like my Dad, or get tortured to death like my older brother."
But how could he enjoy his freedom, knowing that others were living under a constant threat? Shafaei felt a higher calling to take up the cause that his parents had lost their lives for — bringing liberty to his country.
As soon as he walked into Camp Ashraf, he knew he'd made the right decision.
"I could see thousands of people who had the same goals as my family," he recalls. "I felt myself in my family again and did feel to be alone. I had a feeling that I knew them from a long time. I found all people of MEK in camp Ashraf full of love and compassion, distinguished people who were seeking love, freedom, democracy, and peace. My hope was back."
The group renounced the use of violence in 2001. When U.S. troops arrived in Iraq in 2003, PMOI surrendered its weapons in return for the promise U.S. forces would protect them. As an occupying power under the Geneva Convention, the United States had a legal responsibility to protect them as a religious minority.
As U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, however, the PMOI were assured they would be safe under Maliki. But they knew the Maliki government had allied itself closely with the sectarian regime in Iran, which saw PMOI as its greatest enemy.
PMOI leaders begging the Americans not to leave, and warned it would be a disaster. But on Jan. 1, 2009, the United States officially handed over control of the camp to the Iraqi government.
As PMOI leaders had predicted, Iraqi Army units attacked the camp repeatedly in 2009, leaving hundreds wounded and 47 dead. Amnesty International reported a video showing Iraqi military vehicles under Maliki's control running over refugees who were trying to flee.
In 2012, Mohammad Shafaei and the other PMOI refugees were forcibly relocated to Camp Liberty near the Baghdad International Airport. There, they found themselves stuck in a no-man's land, targeted for attacks by enemies in Iraq, but unable to return to Iran for fear of being arrested and executed.
A host of leaving American politicians on both sides of the aisle have taken up their cause, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former CIA director James Woolsey, and former Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, to name a few.
Their efforts, along with growing international pressure, helped persuade then-Secretary Hillary Clinton to lift the terrorist designation, which enables to group to conduct normal operations, including fundraising, in the United States and elsewhere. Conservative politicians now see in PMOI hope for a democratic alternative for Iran, and wonder why the Obama administration hasn't done more to support them.
Watching their sworn enemies, the mullahs in Tehran, receive tens of billions of dollars of economic relief from sanctions following the signing of the nuclear agreement hasn't helped their morale. They believe the money will go to fuel Hezbollah terrorism, and Iranian operations in Syria and Iraq.
The Obama administration, of course, had hoped the nuclear deal would help moderate the Iran regime. Instead, Tehran has renewed its testing of long-range ballistic missiles that could one day carry a nuclear warhead to attack distant lands, perhaps even the United States. In recent weeks, swarms of Iranian gunboats have played a dangerous game of chicken with U.S. Naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.
But despite those setbacks, PMOI leaders remain optimistic that their country will one day be free.
One recent ray of hope for the beleaguered group came in July at a massive gathering of supporters in Paris. Among the speakers was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said the nuclear arms deal gave the mullahs in Tehran "more money for exporting terrorism around the globe."
"With your efforts, however," he said, "and with an opposition movement that has supporters like you, freedom will be revealed. The existence of every single one of you here is a sign of hope and glory towards the redemption of your homeland."
PMOI's leader, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, used the Paris venue to espouse a 10-point plan for Iran's future, replete with democratic principles.
It declares: "The ballot box is the only criterion for legitimacy," and calls for the rule of law, separation of religion and state, and universal suffrage.
Mrs. Rajavi also spoke out against sectarian strife and predicted "the current threat from terrorist groups that have risen from religious powers against democracy and freedom will never bear any fruit."
In September, the group announced that all of its members had been safely relocated out of the refugee camp in Iraq. The largest group of refugees went to Albania, a Muslim-majority, parliamentary Republic whose neighbors include Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro.
PMOI members have been resettled to other European countries as well, where they hope to lead peaceful lives while continuing their steadfast resistance to the Iranian regime.
Shafaei, who lost so many beloved family members to torture and execution, is encouraged that the support of Congress has forced the Obama administration to be more proactive in defending PMOI.
He says this development reflects "the freedom-loving and humane spirit of the American people, and their true historic values."
Asked if he ever regrets leaving a college campus in America to become a refugee living in a foreign country, he responds to the question with one of his own.
"Do you think that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other freedom fighters Americans are proud of ever regretted their struggle for freedom?
He adds: "In the near future, when children of Iran will enjoy their freedom, I and my colleagues in PMOI will be most pleased to be part of bringing freedom to our beloved county, Iran."
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