“We need to stand up to the mullahs. These are not people we ought to be negotiating with.”
That's what former Democratic Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean said during a speaking engagement in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, just one day after the State of the Union in which President Obama championed ongoing diplomatic efforts between the U.S. and Iran.
The policy briefing at which Dean made the comments was hosted by the Iranian-American Community of Arkansas, a member of the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, an MEK advocacy group. The MEK, which stands for Mujahideen-e Khalq, is a well known Iranian dissident group that until 2012 was listed on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Its removal from that list followed an extensive and high-priced lobbying campaign which sponsored numerous former high-level U.S. officials from both major parties, including Dean.
Opposition to Dean's position was reflected by many on Twitter, including this personal message from Nassim Kadoo who works as a campaigner on Iran issues for Amnesty International:
— Nassim (@NassimKadoo) January 30, 2014
Asked by a journalist if he received payment for his remarks on Wednesday, Dean dodged the question:
Howard Dean rebuffs me when i ask if he's still being paid by MEK. "I don't answer questions like that." http://t.co/kolKfdAHD3
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) January 29, 2014
Whereas many Democrats have backed away from a bill moving through Congress that threatens to sabotage the fragile talks between Iran and P5+1 nations, Dean—who has indicated (through actions if not words) a possible presidential run in 2016—said the diplomatic deal should not be completed without strict protections for 3,000 MEK members still living in exile in neighboring Iraq.
According to Gray's reporting at Buzzfeed:
Dean said that no agreement should be signed until the administration agrees to take in 3,000 MEK refugees from Camp Ashraf, where they had been living in exile and have been attacked by the Iraqi government. MEK’s U.S. supporters have accused the U.S. government of forcing the dissidents forced out of Camp Ashraf to live in inhumane conditions in Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base.
“We ought to sign no agreement until those 3000 people are safe,” Dean said.
Asked after his speech whether he was still being paid by the MEK, as he has acknowledged in the past, Dean said “I don’t answer questions like that. I’m interested in human rights, reporters are always interested in that. I don’t play the game, sorry.”
“I said I was for it, but as a condition of signing the nuclear agreement, we ought to make sure these 3,000 people are safe and they ought to be out of Iraq,” Dean said of his stance on negotiating with Iran.
“That’s your story, my story is what’s going on in here,” Dean said when pressed on the question of compensation.
Though regarded broadly as "liberal" by many, Dean's position on Iran betrayed his progressive credentials as conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin was among the few applauding his stance against diplomacy. Interpreting Dean's anti-diplomacy position as a stand for Israeli interests, Rubin called the episode "a pleasant throwback to an earlier era in which Democratic support for the Jewish state was a given."