By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly two dozen former U.S. officials have urged President-elect Donald Trump to enter into discussions with an exiled Iranian opposition group that until 2012 was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
In a letter dated Jan. 9, the former officials call for the U.S. government "to establish a dialogue with Iran's exiled resistance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran."
The NCRI's largest component is the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which was designated as a terrorist group by the State Department from 1997 to 2012. The MEK led a guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran during the 1970s, including attacks on American targets. It has since renounced violence.
When it delisted the MEK, the State Department noted what it called "past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil in 1992."
By itself, dialogue with the MEK would not be a radical departure from current U.S. policy. But any indication that the United States backs the MEK's goal of regime change in Tehran would confirm suspicions among hard-liners in Iran that the United States seeks the Iranian government's overthrow, and increase hostility between Tehran and Washington, Iran analysts said.
Robert Torricelli, a former Democratic New Jersey senator who has served as a lawyer for the MEK and who signed the letter, confirmed its authenticity to Reuters on Monday and that it was sent to Trump. The letter's existence was reported by Fox News on Sunday, and a copy of it was posted online (http://bit.ly/2jREGuS).
Trump transition officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An NCRI spokesman, Ali Safavi, said the group had no "role whatsoever" in the letter, but forwarded a statement from an NCRI official, Soona Samsami, welcoming the letter as an "appropriate and timely initiative."
The MEK's supporters present the group as a viable alternative to Iran's theocracy, though analysts say it is unpopular among Iranians for its past alignment with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and attacks on Iranian soldiers and civilians. Safavi said in an email on Monday that the MEK "never targeted civilians."
The letter claims that designations of the group as a terrorist organization by Western governments were done "at the request of Tehran," and says accusations that the MEK killed Americans in Iran in the 1970s constituted "defamatory allegations from decades past."
It also urged Trump to close "loopholes" in the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and world powers in 2015, and said U.S. policy towards Iran should focus more on the government's violation of human rights.
The MEK has for years cultivated prominent former U.S. officials to advocate on its behalf and help it project an image as an alternative to the Islamic Republic, which it says it wants to replace with a secular democratic republic.
The letter's signatories include Trump supporter and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, former FBI director Louis Freeh, President Barack Obama's former national security adviser James Jones, and Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Both Democratic and Republican former officials have spoken in favor of the MEK, often in paid speeches to the group.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Bill Rigby)