On May 21, 1975, Col. Paul Shaffer, a military attaché to the US mission in Iran, kissed his wife and two children goodbye, and entered a waiting car with his colleague, Lt. Col. Jack Turner, whose wife was getting their three children ready for school. It was the last time the families of these two US servicemen would see them alive.

As the Iranian driver pulled into a side street to avoid traffic a car blocked their passage and another car rammed them from behind. Three gunmen appeared and fired at the two Americans pointblank, killing them instantly: the three escaped in a third car, leaving a leaflet on the blood-drenched seat. The leaflet denounced "US imperialism" and bore the imprint of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), or "People's Crusaders," a Marxist-Islamist group led by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.

All in all, the MEK killed 6 Americans in Iran: Lt. Col. Louis Lee Hawkins, an Army comptroller, cut down by gunman in front of his Tehran home, and William Cottrell, Donald Smith, and Robert Krongard, all employees of Rockwell International. They wounded Air Force Gen. Harold L. Price, and tried and failed to kidnap the US ambassador, Douglas MacArthur II. After the Iranian Revolution, the MEK supported the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, opposed the release of the diplomats - calling a mass demonstration in protest - and demanded their execution.

Today, the MEK is campaigning to be taken off the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations - and they're on the brink of success. According to the Wall Street Journal:
"Senior U.S. officials said on Monday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has yet to make any final decision on the MeK's status. But they said the State Department was looking favorably at delisting MeK if it continued cooperating by vacating a former paramilitary base inside Iraq, called Camp Ashraf, which the group had used to stage cross-border strikes into Iran."
What the article fails to mention is that those "cross border strikes into Iran" took place during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when the MEK enjoyed the patronage of Saddam Hussein: MEK cadre fought on the Iraqi side during that conflict. They also were useful to Saddam in repressing internal enemies of the regime: after the 1991 Gulf war, MEK fighters were used by Saddam to crush uprisings in the south and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Maryam Rajavi told her followers: "Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards."

MEK has been described as a cult, most notably in a scary report by Human Rights Watch, a fascinating Al Jazeera video report, and in a remarkable piece by Elizabeth Rubin in the New York Times. Rubin relates the testimony of Salahaddin Mukhtadi, an Iranian historian living in exile, who says dissident MEK members "are locked up if they disagree with anything. And sometimes killed." In the MEK cult, having particular friendships is strictly forbidden: sitting and talking together is considered a crime, especially when the subject is one's past life before joining the cult. Wives are ordered to divorce their husbands, celibacy is mandatory, and families are broken up: nothing must come between the members and their devotion to the cause. Forced confessions and "criticism sessions" occur on a daily basis, in which participants are subjected to group abuse called "ideological cleansings."

After the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, Massoud Rajavi ordered his followers to greet the Americans as liberators - and promptly went into hiding. He has not been seen since, but is said to retain his control over the cult, using his wife, Maryam - who has been proclaimed the self-styled "President" of Iran by the group - as a front. The US government took charge of the MEK facility, known as Camp Ashraf, and, although the Bush administration continued to characterize the group as a terrorist organization, President Bush cited Massoud's cult as the source of "intelligence" on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Prominent neoconservatives began agitating for utilizing the MEK the way the Bush administration had used Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, but efforts to openly put them on the CIA payroll stalled, along with the administration's war plans. Somebody in the Bush administration must have figured out that funding and supporting a terrorist group that had killed Americans would not sit well while we were conducting an international "war on terrorism."

However, it turns out the Bush administration secretly brought MEK cadre to the US for military training, including communications intercepts and other clandestine cloak-and-dagger stuff: the program supposedly ended just before the Obama administration took office. Apparently the MEK were turned over to the Mossad, who utilized them to carry out the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists in Iran.

The MEK's campaign to get their terrorist group legitimized has been characterized by large cash payments to prominent politicians and public figures in both parties: the list of MEK endorsers reads like a political Who's Who of Washington bigwigs. The payments are ostensibly for speaking engagements at MEK rallies, but the size of these disbursements - ranging upward from $50,000 - indicates some good old-fashioned bribery.

There is an awful lot of MEK cash sloshing around the halls of Congress, and the cultists haven't been shy about handing it out. Whether the Clinton Foundation or some Clinton-affiliated "charity" has partaken of the MEK's largesse is presently unknown, but, as they say at the National Enquirer, "inquiring minds want to know."

It's fair to ask: where is all this unaccounted for cash coming from? While the Rajavi-ites use the familiar methods employed by cults to strip their members of all their assets - see the Al Jazeera video for a heart-rending account of how a major MEK spokesman ripped off his own elderly parents - it seems likely that, during their sojourn as Saddam Hussein's favorite assassins, the MEK received compensation from the Iraqi dictator for slaughtering the Kurds and other regime opponents so efficiently and ruthlessly. Which means people like former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who has shilled for the MEK, and former Democratic party chairman Howard Dean, are recipients of Saddam's gold.

Like so much of US foreign policy, the idea that the US would legitimize a crazed cult like the MEK sounds like the plot of a bad thriller. Yet it's all about the timing: as the US-Iran nuclear talks loom, the prospect of our State Department in effect legalizing the MEK and its activities in the US is an open provocation that could possibly shut down the sensitive negotiations - and pave the way for war with Iran. No doubt hardliners within the Obama administration are using the MEK issue as a backdoor way to torpedo the Baghdad talks: whether they will succeed remains to be seen. As one State Department official told the Wall Street Journal: "To make that assertion on your own that the MeK will be removed is a realistic one. But in policy making you never know for sure what will happen."

I have to add that the MEK, while claiming to have "renounced" terrorism, exists in an atmosphere seething with violence, and my own experience with them has borne this out. Whenever I have written about them I have invariably received emails from MEK supporters laden with explicit threats of violence. This is to be expected from members of a psycho cult, but in the case of the MEK it's not like they've never killed any Americans before. Just ask the families of Paul Shaffer, Jack Turner, Louis Lee Hawkins, William Cottrell, Donald Smith, and Robert Krongard.