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US senators from both parties lambast Iran at MEK-linked event

Amid Biden administration efforts to revive nuclear deal, Republican and Democratic lawmakers express hawkish views against Tehran
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi speaks at conference in the Albanian town of Manza, 13 July 2019 (AFP)
By Ali Harb in Washington

US senators, including several Democrats, rebuked the Iranian government at a virtual event hosted by an advocacy group linked to Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition body previously designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington.

Speaking at a celebration of the upcoming Persian new year Nowruz and organised by the MEK-aligned Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC), senior US lawmakers called for continued sanctions and pressure against Tehran.

The event on Wednesday, which comes at a time when the Biden administration is trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal, highlights the hostility towards Tehran from both major parties.

"I am working with the Biden-Harris administration and my colleagues in the Senate to continue to hold Iran accountable," said Senator Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat. 

"While there may be some differing views on tactics, we all agree that Iran must never possess a nuclear weapon, and Iranian support for human rights violations and terrorism must end."

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Cardin vowed to create "concrete consequences" for human rights abuses by the Iranian government.

"We need to use all the tools at our disposal, including targeted sanctions, for the most egregious human rights violations," he said.

'We remain united'

Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lauded the OIAC's "dedicated advocacy" and rebuked the Iranian government over rights abuses and what he called "support for terrorism".

"While in Congress we may have different approaches about the best way to address the threat from Iran, rest assured that we remain united against the regime's fundamental abuses against its citizens," he said.

Menendez, a hawkish Democrat, opposed the 2015 nuclear agreement and has been pressing the administration of President Joe Biden to expand the accord to address Iran's nuclear missile programme and regional activities before reviving it.

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The multilateral agreement saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.

Former President Donald Trump nixed the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018 and started piling sanctions on the Iranian economy as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

In response to the US withdrawal, Tehran has been loosening its commitments to the JCPOA and enriching uranium beyond the limits set by agreement - shrinking the time it needs to amass enough nuclear material to build an atomic weapon. 

The Biden administration says it seeks to reimplement the agreement and make it "longer and stronger", then use it as a platform to tackle other issues.

But so far, Tehran and Washington have been at an impasse, with each side arguing that the other should honour the deal first. The US administration has expressed readiness to engage in direct talks with Iran, but Tehran has not responded to a European invitation for negotiations.

Cruz slams Iran deal

At the OIAC event on Wednesday, Republican Senator Ted Cruz slammed the JCPOA, describing it as "disastrous" and criticised Biden's approach to Iran, saying that Washington should "work to collapse the Iranian regime".

"This administration has shown every sign that it intends to and that it will embrace and appease the Iranian regime," Cruz said. 

'The regime ruling Iran has lost legitimacy'

- Gary Peters, Democratic senator

"We are already seeing the sorry fruits of that appeasement in the form of constant attacks by Iran and its terror armies on American forces and our allies across the Middle East."

For his part, Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Tehran must give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes if it wants to re-engage with the world. 

"The regime ruling Iran has lost legitimacy through its failure to abide by basic international obligations to respect human rights and civil liberties," Peters said.

Iranian officials have ruled out negotiating over Tehran's regional policies or conventional weapons, blaming Washington for militarising the region with weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

MEK leader Maryam Rajavi delivered the opening remarks at the virtual event on Wednesday, calling on western governments to support Iranians in "bringing down the regime".

"Any concessions to this regime or silence towards its crimes will only embolden it to increase its threats more than ever before," Rajavi said. "The only option is for the international community to show maximum resolve against this regime." 

A bloody past

The MEK is now based in Albania after leaving its base outside Baghdad in 2009 amid growing Iranian influence in Iraq. The US revoked its terrorist designation of the group in 2012.

Critics accuse the MEK of being a "totalitarian cult" that has abused its own members and employed terrorism in its struggle against the Iranian government.

The opposition group sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

A 2005 State Department report says the MEK ideology "mixes Marxism, feminism, nationalism and Islam".

"The group’s worldwide campaign against the Iranian government stresses propaganda and occasionally uses terrorism," the report says. 

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"During the 1970s, the MEK killed US military personnel and US civilians working on defense projects in Tehran and supported the takeover in 1979 of the US Embassy in Tehran."

The MEK conducted a bombing campaign inside Iran after falling out with the post-revolution government. In 1981, the group targeted the head office of the Islamic Republic Party in Tehran, killing 70 high ranking officials.

The State Department report also accuses the organisation of aiding Iraq's Hussein in suppressing Shia and Kurdish uprisings. The Iranian opposition body had called for resisting the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and American forces bombed the group's bases in the country.

Far from that bloody past, the MEK now enjoys support in the halls of Congress and hosts senior, current and former US government officials at its events.

On Wednesday, former Democratic senator and vice-presidential candidate Joe Leiberman heaped praise on the MEK and Rajavi for pursuing what he called the "noble cause of ending the regime in Tehran".

Leiberman urged the Biden administration to consult with US lawmakers, Israel and Arab allies on Iran. He warned that any new policy not enacted by Congress could be undone by a future president from a different party.

"The Biden administration, its eyes are open. It wants to progress, but it will not genuflect to this irresponsible and threatening regime in Tehran," he said.

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