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Silencing the Moderate Middle

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The recent terrorist attacks in Norway gave the world a glimpse of what happens when violent fanatics take the fore and moderates are sidelined. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the silence of good men is all it takes for evil to triumph. Today, we in the United States face our own Norwegian moment as a massive lobbying campaign is underway to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. How we respond to this test will be a defining moment for American democracy and the rejection of fanaticism in our midst.

To provide a little background, the MEK is an Islamic organization that was put on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) since the establishment of the list in 1997. Born on a profoundly anti-American platform, the MEK has murdered Americans and is considered by Human Rights Watch to be an anti-democratic cult. After joining Saddam in his war against Iran in what Iranians almost universally regard as an act of treason, the group lost virtually all popular support.

Based in France today, the group is well aware of its lack of support among Iranians. Because of its lack of support, the MEK has implemented a policy of putting forth front organizations and individuals who do not openly claim to be part of the organization, but push the group's agenda while simultaneously attacking all other opposition.

The term used in France to describe these "fellow travelers" is compagnon de route. These people in effect share the agenda of the MEK and answer only to the cult's leadership, while freeing themselves of the burden of responding to criticism of the group. In attempting to retain its place in the opposition, the MEK has employed these individuals as attack-dogs to destroy everyone else.

One obvious example is the case of the former Paris perfume merchant convicted of selling stolen perfume. Seyyed Hassan Daioleslam -- who dropped the Seyyed and the Eslam from his name to appeal to the anti-Arab sentiments held by his neoconservative backers -- has spearheaded much of the MEK's attacks in recent years. He denies any ties with the MEK. But former members of the MEK and other former associates of Daioleslam dispute that claim.

One of the leading experts on the organization is a former member of the MEK by the name of Massoud Khodabandeh. Regarding Daioleslam he wrote:

I can say without doubt that Hassan Daioleslam is a member of what I call for accuracy 'the Rajavi cult' [referring to MEK leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi]. In this respect he is obedient to the Rajavi leadership and would not act in a way inconsistent with their requirements and certainly not without their knowledge or consent (if not to say actual order). The term 'membership' describes his relationship to the Rajavis. The MEK, just like Al Qaida, does not have 'membership cards'. But I doubt very much the MEK would deny that he is a member, just as they never have denied that Alireza Jafarzadeh is a member. Daioleslam's writings are on the MEK websites. They do not publish just anyone's writing. Only those obeying organizational constraints.

In a 2007 article by Mohammad Hussein Sobhani, this former high-ranking MEK member says the following:

Hassan Daioleslam, who is also considered as a member of the Mojahedin Khalq Organisation (Rajavi Cult) had been under harsh criticism for a long time by the cult leader Massoud Rajavi because he would not leave the USA and join the cult under the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But now, in the new circumstances in which the remnants of the Rajavi cult after the fall of Saddam Hussein find themselves in western countries, Hassan's social position and his ability to speak English has grabbed the attention of Rajavi. He seems to be next in line to be consumed [for the group's interests].

Mehdi Noorbakhsh, a professor at the Harrisburg University and a long time acquaintance of also Daioleslam, says that Daioleslam:

Was living in Europe for several years until he moved to the United States in Phoenix, Arizona. He was re-bought by MEK one more time and he is now active in selling and defending the positions of this terrorist organization.

The attacks are not just aimed at destroying all other opposition to the Islamic Republic, but crucially to undermine any policy short of violent confrontation with Tehran. Hassan Dai, as he now introduces himself, has hysterically gone after much respected academics like Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. As one of the leading Iran experts in the United States, Takeyh has provided serious and sober analysis of the MEK and its countless violations of human rights. For this he has been viciously attacked and referred to as an "appeaser."

And of course there is the group that has become the primary target of Dai's attacks, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). The motive behind those attacks has been no different.

NIAC in many ways has become the Iranian-American equivalent of J-Street. Both J-Street and NIAC have caused panic among established groups in their respective communities because they give voice to a moderate middle who never felt at home with their community's far-right traditional organizations.

In an email obtained through NIAC's lawsuit against Daioleslam, he writes to neo-conservative operative Kenneth Timmerman that "I strongly believe that Trita Parsi is the weakest part of the Iranian web..." Daioleslam goes on to say that "I believe that destroying him will be the start of attacking the whole web. This is an integral part of any attack on Clinton or Obama." Clearly it is not just the position of the MEK that Daioleslam feels threatened, but more importantly a pro-war policy that would give them the opportunity to replace one dictatorship with another.

Not surprisingly, Daioleslam is in favor of delisting the MEK from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. In another private email that was recently made public as part of the lawsuit against him, Daioleslam states that the MEK should be "included in a general support of Iranian opposition as a whole" and "it has been a great mistake to discard them."

Even lower on the totem pole of smear merchants is an individual named Safar Gerabagi, known to some as "Dr. Arash Irandoost." His organization, the Pro-Democracy Movement of Iran (PDMI) features portraits of brutal dictators prominently on its website, while the irony seems to be lost on him. The so-called "movement" does not appear to have any members other than himself.

Predictably, on the blog of the self-declared "next most outspoken Iranian" the MEK are referred to as Iran's "main opposition." And like Daioleslam, he publicly denies being part of the MEK. When I contacted him to present a list of his group's accomplishments, he repeatedly declined to present even one.

By taking out of context a quote here and there and radically reinterpreting it, Daioleslam and the MEK have been able to convince a tier of the Iranian-American community that speaks little to no English that Ray Takeyh, Vali Nasr, NIAC and others are the representatives of the Islamic Republic in Washington. Of course, being unable to read the original English documents that Daioleslam relies on to make his claims, they have been forced to take at face value his wildly off-the-mark interpretations. These accusations against the MEK's perceived enemies have been thrown around so casually on Persian satellite television that to many they now appear as fact.

The MEK's battle however is a losing one. With a median age of over 60, the MEK is becoming increasingly less effective in the Iranian Diaspora's political arena. Partly due to changing demographics, the new younger opposition has been able to show a boldness and confidence that has been unprecedented in the community. Whereas until recently Iranian-Americans in positions of influence were afraid to be too critical of the MEK, groups like NIAC are today openly taking the fight to them in an environment where ideas are more powerful than brute force.

The challenge for the Iranian-American community is in how it reacts to this new reality. As the community finds its voice and the stance of the traditional establishment comes to reflect an ever decreasing portion of the community, Iranian-Americans sitting on the fence will have to decide whether to maintain the failed status quo, or bravely and openly make the voices of the moderate middle heard.

Ultimately, empowering the MEK and giving more room to extremists would not just be a gift to the Iranian regime, but a lifeline. The Islamic Republic would love nothing more than to crush and destroy the opposition, and the MEK has been tirelessly working to do this to posit itself as the only opposition. It is not true that the enemy of our enemy is always our friend. In this case, there is more than one enemy.

This altered from a previous version.