An official in US President Donald Trump’s Cabinet and at least one of his advisers gave paid speeches for an Iranian exile group that killed Americans before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ran donation scams and saw its members set themselves on fire over the arrest of their leader.
Elaine Chao, confirmed this week as Trump’s transportation secretary, received USD 50,000 in 2015 for a five-minute speech to the political wing of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, previously called a “cult-like” terrorist group by the State Department. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also was paid an unknown sum to talk to the group, known as the MEK.
More than two dozen former US officials, both Republican and Democratic, have spoken before the MEK, including former House Speaker and Trump adviser Newt Gingrich. Some have publicly acknowledged being paid, but others have not. While nothing would have prohibited the paid speeches, they raise questions about what influence the exiles may have in the new administration.
Already, a group of former US officials, including Giuliani, wrote a letter to Trump last month encouraging him to “establish a dialogue” with the MEK’s political arm. With Trump’s ban on Iranians entering the US, his administration’s call this week to put Iran “on notice” and the imposition of new sanctions on Friday, the exile group may find his administration more welcoming than any before.
A potential alliance with the MEK would link the US to a group with a controversial history that has gone against American interests in the past by supporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the US Embassy takeover in Tehran. After fleeing Iran, the MEK joined forces with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It later exposed details of the clandestine nuclear programme run by Iran, which views the MEK as its sworn enemy.
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The MEK long has cultivated a roster of former US and European officials to attend its events opposing Iran’s clerically run government. It pays for the appearance of many. Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, spoke before an MEK conference in 2015 in Paris. She also had a seat next to Maryam Rajavi, the “president-elect” of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the MEK.
Chao received a USD 50,000 honorarium from the MEK-associated Alliance for Public Awareness, according to a report she filed with the US Office of Government Ethics. Chao received another USD 17,500 honorarium for the March 2016 speech she gave to the Iranian-American Cultural Association of Missouri, which MEK opponents also link to the exile group.