Hundreds rallied near the White House in 2011 for the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, known as M.E.K. Photo Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press
By: Yuri Neves, Columnist
The People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, also known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) is a controversial Iranian opposition group with a disturbing past. In the past, the group was labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and European nations but now styles itself as a legitimate political organization fighting for democratization in Iran. This stance endears them to many in Washington, including senior members of the Trump administration. However, the group’s past use of violence, cultish practices and lack of support within Iran make it more of a liability to the U.S. than an asset. It is a strategic blunder to support such an organization and could harm U.S. interests both now and in the future.
History of the Group
The MEK was formed in 1965 by a group of university students who opposed the Western- backed monarchy. They followed an ideology that was a mixture of Islamism and Marxism and sought to overthrow the shah. During the 1970s the group carried out a series of attacks within Iran. It killed three U.S. colonels, three American contractors, attacked facilities belonging to U.S. companies, and attempted to kidnap the U.S. ambassador to Iran.[i] The group participated in the 1979 Islamic revolution and supported the takeover of the U.S. embassy. It allied with Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution but soon the relationship turned sour. Uncomfortable with the group’s Marxist ideology and seen as a threat to his own power turned against the group in 1981. The Iranian state subsequently repressed the group and the MEK responded with dozens of bombings and assassinations, including one attack that led to the death of the president and prime minister of Iran in 1981.[ii] The group was exiled first to Paris and then Iraq. While in Iraq, the group cooperated with Saddam Hussein in brutally suppressing Shia and Kurd uprisings and fought in the Iran-Iraq war against Iran. With financing from Saddam Hussein, the group also continued to plan and carry out attacks against Iranian officials. The group remained in Iraq after the fall of Saddam until the rise of Nouri-al-Maliki. In 2009, Shia militias and the Iraqi army began attacking MEK camps in Iraq. The U.S. stepped in and facilitated the group’s transfer to Albania in 2012.[iii]
U.S. Support For the Group
The group’s opposition to the regime in Tehran garners it many supporters in the United States. MEK’s supporters include a former attorney general, former national security advisor, former FBI directors, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a former Homeland Security secretary, governors, a former chair of the democratic national convention, ambassadors and a multitude of others. Within President Trump’s administration, the group’s two most vocal supporters are national security advisor John Bolton, and the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Both men gave speeches at an MEK conference in Paris this past June urging regime change in Iran and positing the group as viable alternative to the ayatollahs.[iv] Given the groups past, its current practice and its lack of support within Iran this support is harmful to U.S. interests.
How support for the MEK undermines U.S. interests
The groups past use of terrorism, killing of Americans and acts of human rights abuse committed during Saddam’s Iraq, should give any U.S. official pause. Furthermore, the group is widely seen as a cult.[v][vi][vii] The group indoctrinates followers into showing complete obedience to the group’s leaders, Maryam Rajavi and her husband Massoud Rajavi.[viii] As evidence of the measures taken to compel group members’ total submission to its leadership, MEK defectors have reported that the group forces even young children to stand in front a poster of the Rajavis every morning and shout their praises. Children are also separated from their families and forbidden to communicate with the opposite sex. Young women must remain celibate and married women have been forcibly divorced. All relationships within the group are subsidiary to loyalty to the leaders and members are even prohibited from discussing their past lives or maintaining relationships outside the group. Failure to abide by these and other rules is punished with imprisonment, violence and even death.[ix] Human rights organizations have extensively catalogued the litany of abuses carried out by the group against its own members.[x] The secrecy, authoritarian tendencies and repression of contrasting viewpoints by the group throws into doubt the notion that the MEK would create a free and democratic society if they were to gain power in Iran.
That the MEK could fulfill it US supporters’ hopes of spearheading credible democratic reform in Iran also seems unlikely considering the group has little to no support in Iran.[xi] The groups’ involvement with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and its killing of Iranian military conscripts during the war make the group extremely hated within Iran.[xii] Even among those who oppose the ayatollahs currently in power, little support exists for a group viewed as a traitorous, cult-like, and criminal.[xiii] U.S. support of such a group undermines the emergence of a genuine popularly supported opposition group. If such a group does appear, it may oppose the U.S. due to its support of the MEK.
Also, by supporting a group that is extremely hated by regular Iranians, the U.S. plays into the ayatollahs’ hands, who will likely wiled U.S. support of the MEK to undercut any calls for reform. The ayatollahs may instill fear into the populace that if they are overthrown, the widely hated MEK will gain power. The leaders of Iran can also use U.S. backing of the group to drum up anti-American attitudes. The MEK’s calls for an overthrow of the regime can also give credence to the claim that the U.S. is continuing to meddle in Iran’s affairs and seeking to stage a coup within the country.
Affiliation with the group also undermines the U.S.’s stated foreign policy objectives of advocating for democracy and protecting human rights. By backing an organization with so many questionable tactics and history, the U.S. is harming its reputation as a proponent of freedom, liberty and human rights. Support of a group which is both illiberal and inherently undemocratic alienates regular Iranians, makes cooperation with Iran more difficult and undermines the U.S.’s international reputation.
[i] Daniel Benjamin, Michael Hirsh, SUSAN B. GLASSER, Aaron David Miller, Jack Shafer, Ruairi Arrieta-Kenna, Rob Hoffman, Don Alexander Hawkins, and Maggie Severns, “Giuliani Took Money From a Group That Killed Americans. Does Trump Care?” POLITICO, November 23, 2016, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/11/giuliani-mek-terrorist-group-money-bolton-iran-214479.
[ii] Jonathan Masters, “Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK),” Council on Foreign Relations, July 28, 2014, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/mujahadeen-e-khalq-mek.
[iii] Benjamin et all., “Giuliani Took Money From a Group That Killed Americans.”
[v] Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Who Is the Iranian Group Targeted by Bombers and Beloved of Trump Allies?” The Guardian, July 02, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/02/iran-mek-cult-terrorist-trump-allies-john-bolton-rudy-giuliani.
[vi] Ted Regencia, “MEK’s Violent past Looms over US Lobby for Regime Change in Iran,” GCC News | Al Jazeera, March 29, 2018 https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/01/mek-violent-looms-lobby-regime-change-iran-180114115328625.html.
[vii] Ariane Tabatabai, “Beware of the MEK,” The National Interest, August 21, 2014, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/beware-the-mek-11118.
[viii] Massoud Rajavi has not been seen since the early stages of the Iraq War. It is unknown whether he is still alive or not.
[ix] Elizabeth Rubin, “The Cult of Rajavi,” The New York Times, July 13, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/13/magazine/the-cult-of-rajavi.html.
[xi] Arron Merat, “Terrorists, Cultists – or Champions of Iranian Democracy? The Wild Wild Story of the MEK,” The Guardian, November 09, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/nov/09/mek-iran-revolution-regime-trump-rajavi.
[xii] Julian Borger, and Arron Merat, “Rudy Giuliani Calls for Iran Regime Change at Rally Linked to Extreme Group,” The Guardian, June 30, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/30/rudy-giuliani-mek-iran-paris-rally.