Wednesday’s scheduled congressional hearing on “ISIS: Defining the Enemy” is rapidly shrinking in size. Two key witnesses are refusing to attend due to the invitation to testify that Ted Poe (R-TX), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, extended to Maryam Rajavi, leader of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and former State Department counterterrorism director Daniel Benjamin have both said that they won’t appear for the hearing after learning that Rajavi would also be a witness on the same panel. She is scheduled to participate via videoconference from Paris, the headquarters the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a MEK front.
MEK, which the State Department removed from terrorism list in 2012 following a lengthy and expensive lobbying campaign, is believed to have been responsible for the killing of six Americans in Iran between 1973 and 1976.
The group, which went into exile after losing a violent power struggle in the early years of the Islamic Republic, aligned itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and, despite claims to being Iran’s viable democratic government in exile, is widely believed to have little or no grassroots support in Iran. The group has long faced criticism from Iran specialists and rights groups such as Human Rights Watch that it has devolved into a cult based on devotion to Maryam and her long-missing husband, Massoud Rajavi. According to numerous accounts, the group exerts a high degree of control over its followers, going so far as to mandate divorces and celibacy for their soldiers.
But, as Ali Gharib and I documented in February, MEK’s influence in Washington, particularly with Iran hawks, has coincided with a flow of money from the group to American politicians, in particular, to embattled Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) who is currently under indictment on unrelated federal corruption charges.
So why did Poe and the Republican majority on the terrorism subcommittee decide to invite Rajavi (a copy of whose testimony was obtained by Ali who previewed it Tuesday on The Nation’s website) Campaign finances may offer at least part of the answer.
Poe received $17,900 in campaign contributions from supporters of the MEK between 2009 and 2014, according to an analysis I conducted of campaign finance data. Surprisingly, nearly half—or $8,600—of the total flowed into his campaign while the group was still on the State Department’s terrorism list between 2009 and its delisting in 2012.
In contrast, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), returned a $2,600 campaign contribution from a MEK supporter in Virginia in 2013. “During routine due diligence by campaign staff, it was discovered that a few donors had associations the campaign was uncomfortable with,” a spokesman for Graham’s campaign told Politico. “In an abundance of caution, the contributions were refunded.”
Poe seems less concerned about the association. His insistence on inviting Rajavi adds to the irony of his chairmanship of the terrorism subcommittee (shades of Sen. James Inhofe’s chairmanship of the Senate Environment Committee).
With Ford and Benjamin out, Rajavi will be joined on Wednesday by only one other witness: Walid Phares, a pro-Israel Lebanese-American Maronite Christian with a long association with hard-line neo-conservatives and a terrorism “expert” for Fox News. During Lebanon’s civil war that raged from 1975 through the 1980’s, Phares served as an ideologue for the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella group of various Christian militias. Some of these militias carried out the Sabra and Shatila massacres in September, 1982, in which at many as 3,000 Palestinians—mostly women, children and the elderly—were killed following Israel’s conquest of Beirut. Among other positions, he served as co-chairman of the Middle East working group of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisory team.