The MEK And 1979 Comparisons

09.26.12 12:00 PM ET

The Republican ticket has taken to comparing the current crisis—or series of mini-crises, really—to the Iran's Islamic Revolution. "I mean, turn on the TV and it reminds me of 1979 in Tehran," Paul Ryan said recently on the stump. "They’re burning our flags in capitals all around the world. They’re storming our embassies." While comparisons are obvious, Ryan's use of the discomfiting capital-T "they" got me thinking: who exactly were "they"? In just one of the subtle differences, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran had the very direct and immediate endorsement of the party rising to power: Ayatollah Khomeini. But other players were involved, too, and one of them just popped into the headlines again recently.

The Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the exile opposition group that just came off the official U.S. terrorist list, fought—with guns and bombs—at the vanguard of the revolution against the Shah. That included involvement in taking American hostages. In it's report on foreign terror organizations, the State Department alleges that the MEK "supported the takeover in 1979 of the US Embassy in Tehran." As with just about any criticism, historical or not, the MEK denies having anything to do with the takeover (the group broke with the clerics atop the Islamic Revolution soon thereafter). But attacking embassies was kind of the MEK's thing: they launched coordinated attacks against Islamic Republic embassies in 13 countries in 1992.

That's not, however, where this particular 1979 comparison ends. For that we need to examine the roots of the embassy takeover and what drove the MEK (which held Marxist-inspired anti-imperial views), students and clerics leading the revolt to take the U.S. embassy in the first place. The spark was U.S. acceptance of the then-recently-deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi onto American soil. The revolutionaries, in their somewhat paranoid Iranian way, thought the U.S. was on the verge of using the embassy as a staging ground to launch another counter-coup to re-instate the Shah (not unjustified: it happened in 1953). It never occurred to Jimmy Carter, who was only letting the Shah in for medical care, just how badly the Iranians would react. Sound familiar?

By taking the MEK off the list, the U.S. opened the door to overt MEK activities in the U.S. That certainly means (even more) robust interactions with Congress and, I think, probably funding or some other deeper ties. While the Iranians, obviously, aren't about to seize the U.S. embassy in Tehran (since there isn't one), just how this plays out Iran might yet surprise—and dissapoint. We can already expect the regime to use alleged or real MEK-U.S. ties to justify their crackdown on opposition, rights and democracy activists.

"The White House believes this is just another twist of the noose on the sanctions/diplomatic track, a way to get the MEK out of Iraq and settled and off our hands... and all-in-all a nice tidy decision," Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.) a longtime aide to General and later Secretary of State Colin Powell, said in an e-mail. He recalled David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger's push to convince Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carter that allowing the Shah in was harmless, and compared that to the MEK decision. 'We thought the same way with the Shah's admission; only the Iranians felt very, very differently about it. More sadly, today the situation we are exacerbating with our dull stupidity, is far more serious."

What's more serious than a year-plus long hostage crisis, and more than three decades of a cold war against the Islamic Republic of Iran with its requisite flare-ups? Well: open war against Iran and the regional conflagration that could follow.