WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For decades, an Iranian dissident group has seemed to be on the wrong side of history. Suppressed by both the Shah of Iran and then the ayatollahs who deposed him in 1979, its supporters have faced prison, death and exile, and were shunned in the United States as members of a cult-like terrorist organization.
The Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK) former guerrilla movement began to shake off its painful past last year when the State Department took it off the official U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The European Union made a similar decision in 2009 after a prolonged court battle.
But as Iran elects a new president on Friday, the MEK has no discernible role in politics at home, where it is mistrusted - even by government critics - for having been allied with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
Yet Iran’s clerical rulers remain obsessed with a perceived threat from the group, frequently warning Western governments against any giving the MEK shelter or support, diplomats say.
Unable to operate openly in Iran, the MEK is instead waging some of its battles in Washington. It opened an attractive new office in April just a five-minute walk from the White House.
Long active as an advocacy group in the United States and Europe, the MEK is now formalizing its campaign to pressure the Obama administration to maintain a hard line - including in multilateral nuclear talks - with the Islamic Republic, which it hopes will one day crumble.
Now that it is no longer on the U.S. blacklist, the MEK can hire registered lobbyists and raise funds on its own, rather than rely on wealthy Iranian-American sympathizers.
Democratic former Senator Robert Torricelli signed up as a lobbyist earlier this year for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the Paris-based political arm of the MEK.
“They (the MEK) deserve to have a voice in Washington, to be heard, and to (show) what the Iranian people are actually looking for in the future of Iran: a non-nuclear Iran, a government that is based on democratic values,” said Soona Samsami, the U.S. representative of the NCRI.
Once one of Capitol Hill’s biggest fund raisers, Torricelli pulled out of the race for a second Senate term in 2002 amid an ethics scandal.
His lobby registration form says he will be “meeting with U.S. government and congressional officials, and advising on general strategy.”
Other notable backers of the MEK include former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and ex-CIA director James Woolsey.
Even though it has renounced violence, the MEK is a tough sell in the United States, which for many years has blamed it for the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s.
A 2009 study by the RAND Corporation think tank depicted the MEK as a cult-like movement run with military-style discipline, gender separation and “near-religious devotion” to its Paris-based leaders - a description the MEK denies.
“I can’t believe the U.S. government is going to be particularly excited about working with them ... because in the U.S. government, I would hope there would be people who would understand that this is not where the political future of Iran lies,” said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Some U.S. policymakers are mistrustful of Middle East exile groups following Washington’s reliance on Iraqi expatriates who pushed America toward war in Iraq in 2003.
Calls from MEK representatives for “regime change” in Iran remind some of Ahmad Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, which helped convince the administration of former President George W. Bush that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
“They’ll deny it, but I think it’s pretty simple: their goal is to keep pushing the politics in America to lead to an invasion, some kind of major unsettlement of Iran, that they can sweep into as a new government,” said Jeremiah Goulka, author of the RAND study.
Some in the U.S. government also share that suspicion - but the MEK resents comparisons to Iraqi exiles of 10 years ago.
“We’ve never been in favor of a war. We’ve never tried to push things towards that direction,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, the deputy U.S. representative of the NCRI. The MEK is “not the U.S. creature that Chalabi was,” he said.
Attempts to make over the MEK’s image have been boosted by a report from a former senior State Department official who questions whether the group really committed the killings of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s that are often blamed on it.
The killings, during a guerrilla campaign against the U.S.-backed Shah, were actually the work of a faction that later broke away from MEK, said Lincoln Bloomfield, whose report has just been published as a book by the University of Baltimore.
“Not a single person you could name in the MEK had any knowledge of it or had anything to do with it,” he said.
The study grew out of a 2011 memo Bloomfield wrote as a consultant for a law firm that lobbied to remove MEK from the terrorism list on behalf of the Iranian-American Community of Northern California. The author said he had no financial interest in the book, and proceeds are going to the university.
The MEK still has some 3,000 members in Iraq, many of whom were invited by Saddam in the 1980s. The group fell out of favor after his 2003 downfall and current Iraqi officials have applied pressure for them to leave.
After clashes with Iraqi security forces in 2011 in which 34 people were killed, the residents were moved last year as part of a plan in which the United Nations intends to process them for refugee status in other countries.
But progress has been slow, and their temporary home at a former U.S. military compound in Baghdad known as Camp Liberty came under fire in February when eight people were killed in a rocket attack by unknown assailants.
U.S. officials have tentatively identified a handful of Camp Liberty residents who may be allowed to move to the United States. But they would be expected to renounce their membership in MEK, the officials told Reuters.
Forty-four residents of the camp have left over the last month for Albania, which has offered to take up to 210 of them.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Jackie Frank