An Iranian exile group is spending millions of dollars in a lobbying effort to be removed from the US’s list of foreign terrorist organisations, recruiting a group of US national security luminaries to be its advocates.

Dozens of former officials across the political spectrum – from conservative John Bolton to liberal Howard Dean – have been paid tens of thousands of dollars to speak at events organised by supporters of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin, in the US, the Financial Times has learnt.

Washington designated the MEK, a Marxist-Islamist group that supported the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, as a terrorist organisation in 1997. But the group says it renounced terrorism in 2001 and has appealed to be taken off the list, which also includes al-Qaeda and Hizbollah. It fell out with Iran’s Islamic government after the 1979 revolution.

The group’s supporters have also hired Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a lobbying firm, to persuade members of Congress to support its cause and has taken out several $100,000-plus newspaper advertisements. The Department of State is due to make a ruling next month.

To help advance its cause, groups linked to the MEK have recruited more than 40 former officials to speak on their behalf. They include Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor; Jim Jones, President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser; Wesley Clark, the retired army general; and Tom Ridge, the first homeland security secretary.

One Iran analyst, Trita Parsi, has dubbed the group “Washington’s favourite terrorists”.

Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic chairman of the House foreign relations committee, and Michael Mukasey, attorney-general in the last Bush administration, both told the FT they were paid for speaking at MEK-linked events.

Mr Bolton, George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN, said he did not see the fact he was being paid “as an issue”, while Mr Dean, the former Democratic national committee chairman, dismissed the question as a “sideshow”.

None would disclose how much they had been paid but Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor, said he received $20,000 for an 11-minute speech. “But even if I was paid $50,000, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t believe in it,” he said.

A former US official said he was offered $30,000 and first class air fares to appear at an MEK-linked event in Europe. Several people familiar with the MEK’s offers described a sliding pay scale of $20,000 to $100,000 per speech, plus travel costs, and that four-speech packages were common. Ahmad Moein, executive director of the Iranian American Community of Northern California, one of the groups behind the lobbying effort, said the figures were “greatly exaggerated”.

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