An Obama-era Pentagon official who was at one point under consideration to be President Joe Biden’s secretary of defense called for “internal regime change” in Iran at an event held by a shadowy group designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government until 2012. But she claims she didn’t know anything about the group’s notorious past when she agreed to appear.
Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, who heads up a consulting firm upon which the Biden administration has drawn heavily to fill top White House positions, appeared virtually on Sunday at the “Free Iran World Summit 2021.” The confab was put on by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the diplomatic wing of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran, or Mojahedin-e Khalq. Known commonly by its Farsi acronym, MEK, the dissident group was put on the U.S. terror list in 1997—only to be removed from the list 15 years later with support from disgraced former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“When she agreed to the engagement, Ms. Flournoy was unaware of the affiliation,” a Flournoy spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “She would not have participated had she known of it, and she refused payment for the engagement once she learned of it. She has no affiliation with the MEK and will never appear at their conference again.”
Flournoy is the rare Democratic A-lister who’s publicly linked themselves to the MEK, which has historically enjoyed support from right-wing neoconservative allies such as Giuliani, former Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton, former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, retired Gen. Jack Keane, who is a regular on Fox News, and others. On the other side of the aisle, former Vermont governor, Democratic National Committee chairman, and also-ran presidential candidate Howard Dean has made paid and unpaid speeches for the MEK.
“[W]hen there is an internal regime change, and a government comes to power that renounces its revolutionary aims and terrorism, the United States will be the first in line to engage it,” Flournoy told the summit audience. “In the meantime, we must continue to applaud and support the important work of diaspora groups like yours that keep alive the vision of a secular, free, and democratic Iran.”
Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), tweeted, “I’m tempted to say that this is horrible staff work from Flournoy’s team in letting her do this, these invitations can often be deceptive, but at this point no former nat sec official really has any excuse for not knowing what the MEK is.”
“Social media has been abuzz with words of condemnation from journalists and other users who said it was both ‘shocking’ and ‘embarrassing’ for Michele Flournoy, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, to address the annual summit of the notorious anti-Iran [MEK] terrorist group,” Iranian state media crowed.
The speaker’s list at this year’s summit included a mixed bag of names, from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).
While the MEK began in 1963 as a revolutionary movement agitating for human rights and democracy in Iran, it has more recently been described as “a secretive, cult-like group that resembles a militant, Islamist version of the Church of Scientology.”
In the 1970s, the MEK “staged terrorist attacks inside Iran and killed several U.S. military personnel and civilians working on defense projects in Tehran,” according to the State Department, and supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in the capital city. In the early 1990s, State says the MEK “conducted attacks on Iranian embassies in 13 different countries, demonstrating the group's ability to mount large-scale operations overseas.” In June 1998, MEK planted bombs in Tehran that killed three people.
The group also fought against the U.S. in the early stages of the Iraq War. According to the U.S. Army’s official history of the conflict, “by 2003 the MEK has become an elite element in the Iraqi Army and had fought against Coalition forces in March and April of that year.” MEK forces later surrendered to American special operations forces and the U.S.-led coalition provided security for the group members detained in Camp Ashraf facing attacks by Iranian-backed militias. MEK members were subsequently evacuated from Iraq to Albania.
Interviews with MEK dissidents conducted by Human Rights Watch in 2005 included testimony from ex-members about “abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.” A 2009 study by the RAND Corporation alleged that MEK displayed various “cult characteristics,” such as “intense ideological exploitation and isolation,” “sexual control,” “emotional isolation,” and other such tactics.
In April, Facebook exposed a troll farm run by the MEK. However, the illicit initiative “achieved little to no audience visibility,” largely failing to gain significant numbers of new followers, according to Facebook.