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Formerly Banned Iranian Group Opens Office Near White House

By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL

WASHINGTON -- Until not long ago the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) was on the list of the U.S. State Department's terrorist organizations. On April 11, that seemed like a distant memory as the group celebrated the opening of its Washington office just a block away from the White House, with tea and Iranian snacks.

The U.S. representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Soona Samsami, says that the U.S. policy of engagement with Tehran has failed and it's time to direct all efforts toward democratic change in Iran.

The opening of the office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella group dominated by the MKO (aka the People's Mujahedin of Iran), was attended by several former U.S. officials, NCRI members, and their legal team, who described it as a "great day" for the Iranian people, for democracy in Iran, and for the values the United States cherishes.

The group's U.S. representative, Soona Samsami, a petite woman wearing a blue head scarf and a blue suit, referred to the NCRI as "Iran's main opposition movement" and said that the opening of the office came at a crucial moment in Iran's history.

Samsami added that now that the State Department has delisted the group -- which it branded a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 and banned from operating in the United States in 2003 -- the principle obstacle to change in the Islamic republic had been removed. She said that the U.S. policy of engagement with Tehran had failed and it's time to direct all efforts toward democratic change in Iran.

Without offering specifics, she said the NCRI was determined "to maximize" its efforts toward that objective.

Speaking To Iranians?

The opening of a Washington office is likely to upset Iranian officials, who blasted the delisting of the MKO, which they consider a terrorist organization.

Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, says the opening of the NCRI office will certainly not improve U.S.-Iran ties. But its effect should not be exaggerated. "The [government of the] Islamic republic, like many Iranians, may have distaste for the MKO, but it also realizes that the group's capabilities are limited," he says.

U.S. officials have said that they don't consider the MKO a viable Iranian opposition group or believe it can promote democratic values in Iran.

The group, which many Iranians dislike because it sided with Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, is widely seen in the country as a cult with reportedly rigid rules for its members.

Yet at the April 11 reception, speakers were full of praise, describing the MKO as an organization that reflects the views of the Iranian people and is capable of bringing democratic change to the country.

Among those speaking was President Barack Obama's former national security adviser, U.S. General James Jones. He said the opening of the office was an "important moment" and "a step in the right direction."

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, and the former deputy director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, John Sano, were also in attendance.

In the past, former U.S. officials have reportedly been paid large sums of money to speak at the MKO's public events and lobby the State Department on its behalf.

Crowley told RFE/RL he hadn't been paid to attend the event and make brief remarks. "I support the cause of democratic change in Iran," he said.

He also said Washington would do well to listen to the MKO. "The NCRI has demonstrated itself over a number of years to be an organized outside opposition, interested in a different kind of Iran. They are one voice. I think the United States would be well to listen to that voice and see how it influences U.S. thinking and U.S. policy," he said.

"One day we're going to celebrate the opening of the same office in Tehran."

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, says the opening of the D.C. office is a victory for the MKO that will allow the group to expand its lobbying efforts. "Given the importance of Washington, D.C., the MKO will be able to do more lobbying and work with neocons to push more sanctions on Iran," Boroujerdi says.

But he says the efforts are unlikely to change U.S. policies toward Iran, because the Obama administration has "made it clear that they're not like-minded with the MKO."

On this occasion, however, supporters had nothing but high hopes. As one told RFE/RL, "One day we're going to celebrate the opening of the same office in Tehran."

Copyright (c) 2013 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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