Sometime after January 9th of this year, just prior to his inauguration, then incoming President Donald Trump received a 17 page letter from a who’s who of the United State’s bipartisan foreign policy establishment. Undersigned were such luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Patrick Kennedy, John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, who put their signatures beside those of many other esteemed members of the Washington elite, arguing against the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), otherwise know as the Iran nuclear deal, and in favor of supporting the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in its mission to overthrow that country’s government.
The letter, especially the appendixes that make up the majority of it, is filled with what one might charitably call ‘spin’ but in certain places it’s nothing more than a clumsy rewriting of history. This is especially true in regards to the driving force behind the NCRI, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an organization that was listed as a terrorist group in the United States from 1997 to 2012, at which point it was taken off the list by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The widely circulated document begins from the kind of absurd premise familiar to those who follow the verbal contortions of American foreign policy ‘experts’, stating, “By now it is clear that neither Iran nor its Syrian or Russian allies are committed to defeating ISIS. Although ISIS is Sunni, its rise was abetted by Assad, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards led by its elite Qods force, and Iraq’s then Prime Minister Maliki to divert international focus from achieving a negotiated transition of power in Damascus which could have ended the civil war and the exodus of refugees from neighboring states, Europe and North America.”
While there is a grain of truth in this, especially as regards Maliki (once a close ally), one can’t help but notice that no blame for the rise of ISIS and the large number of foreign fighters who flocked to its so-called caliphate is apportioned to the United States, other NATO countries or the absolutist Gulf monarchies who supported it with vast amounts of money and arms in the early days of the Syrian conflict that is really more of a proxy than a civil war. As is usual in terms of the Middle East, we are told that one evil country stands at the center of everything that has gone wrong, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Cult or movement?
A group that constantly sheds its ideological skin in response to evolving circumstances, the only thing that has remained consistent about the MEK over at least 50 years is the cult of personality at its center that points to the Stalinist roots it now denies.
The MEK’s official leaders are Rajavi Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, although the former hasn’t been seen in public for years and is presumed dead. Their smiling faces could be seen everywhere at a July 1st rally in Paris that organizers claimed brought out 100,000 people, including the former head of U.S. Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, Canada’s former Foreign Minister John Baird, the former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al-Saud and Maryam Rajavi herself. Massoud and Rajavi were prominently featured on the yellow t-shirts of 100s of their identically dressed followers.
While the ‘dear leaders’ claim that they are feminists dedicated to the rights of women in Iran, reports from their previous headquarters, Camp Ashraf in Iraq, claim that the sexes were segregated by painted lines and were forbidden normal, consensual sexual contact, all that is, except for Massoud and Rajavi. Members of the group were made to publicly divulge their sexual fantasies and receive condemnation from their fellows, who would spit on them after hearing their confessions.
The group has a long history and was actually on the side of the fundamentalists who now run Iran during the 1970s in the fight against the American-backed Shah, at which time they took responsibility for bombing a variety of American interests in the country, “including the U.S. information office, Pepsi Cola, PanAm and General Motors.”
The MEK has also been accused of killing at least 6 U.S. citizens in the 1970s and was a prominent supporter of the taking of hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in the wake of the revolution. The current leadership in Tehran lost the MEK’s support after the group failed to win a single seat in the 1980 legislative election, a thorough rejection of the group’s absurd blending of fundamentalist Islam and Stalinism. Rejected by the Iranian people, they turned back to terrorism a year later and began attacks against the country’s then fledgling government, eventually coming into an alliance of convenience with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Like any good cult, the MEK also takes a dim view of those who try to leave.
Testimony provided by defectors from the group that form part of unclassified document from 2010 when the United States was trying to move the MEK from a training facility at Camp Ahsraf north of Bagdad to an abandoned U.S. military facility closer to the capital, show a darker side to the group than supporters like former Vermont Governor and Presidential candidate Howard Dean are willing to admit in their public praise of the group, “Many revealed psychological and physical harm experienced at the hand of the MEK and reaffirmed existing perceptions of the MEK as a cult-like organization that thrives on maintaining control of its members and those lured to Ashraf under false pretenses.”
Following the money
Although there are those in Washington, DC’s think tanks and even in Congress who are willing to ignore the group’s history due to the fact that it’s opposed to Iran’s current leadership, the sheer number of lawmakers, pundits and prominent intellectuals who are willing to grant the MEK legitimacy makes one wonder why so many respected figures would be willing put their reputations at risk.
A report on the group’s lobbying in the lead up to their 2012 removal from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations shows that many former and even serving public officials continue to have a cynical incentive in this regard, as an unnamed former State Department Official told the the Christian Science Monitor at the time, “Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,,000 to speak for 20 minutes, They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say.”
This model of engagement (that one imagines would be called corruption if it was occurring in a less ‘developed’ country) will be familiar to those who have studied the lobbying efforts of Israel, a country the MEK were once virulently opposed to. Israel’s ability to influence the conversation in Washington is admired throughout the region and has influenced the lobbying efforts of despotic regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, who have stepped up their efforts in this regard in recent years with some success.
The MEK also seems to have learned from this diplomatic acumen, as well as the temporary success enjoyed by the Iraqi National Congress, who helped prod the United States to a disastrous war in that country in 2003.
While there are no publicly available statistics to show what level of support the MEK actually has within the Islamic Republic of Iran, the experience with the Iraqi National Congress should give policymakers some pause, as that group wove tales of support within Iraq that turned out to be completely false. As explained by the New York Times in its obituary for Ahmad Chalabi, the group’s disgraced founder in 2015, “…he never developed a strong political base. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, the first under the country’s new constitution, his Iraqi National Congress received just 30,000 of 12 million ballots.”
Older Iranians will certainly be aware of the MEK’s terrorist past and are unlikely to support a group that has killed thousands of their countrymen and sided with the hated Saddam Hussein against their country in the Iran-Iraq War.
Regardless, the MEK’s long running lobbying efforts and PR campaigns have borne fruit in the mainstream media in the west, a July 1st news article on Yahoo’s British news site referred to Maryam Rajavi as a human rights activist in its a title, a designation that would likely come as a surprise to the group’s many victims, including the Iraqi Kurds brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein with the group’s help at the end of the fist Gulf War.
In her speech at the Paris rally, Rajavi put forward the idea that “the international community must recognize the NCRI as the sole legitimate voice representing Iranian people.” A statement of such thinly veiled authoritarianism that it would be laughed at in any other context but was enthusiastically endorsed by the former and serving U.S. officials in attendance that day, many of whom likely had their expenses paid by the MEK’s deep pocketed supporters.
As is often the case when writing about Iran, there will be those who see criticism of the NCRI and the MEK as an endorsement of the Iranian leadership, which it is not. Those on the left who are opposed to imperialism in all its forms understand that the Iranian Revolution was ultimately a struggle for self determination supported by a variety of groups in the country but in the end won by religious fundamentalists who have been an obstacle to the country’s progress on many fronts ever since.
Isolation, rather than weakening these reactionary forces, has only empowered the worst among them and hampered the efforts of reform minded politicians in the country like the current President, Hassan Rouhani, who already have a difficult time navigating the country’s fraught semi-democratic system.
Speaking in another context, Ben Norton of FAIR recently made an instructive comparison between the Islamic Republic and the West’s chief ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, “Iran is a theocracy with autocratic elements, by no means a progressive model that leftists would want to emulate. But in contrast to Saudi Arabia, Iran is a republic that just held a presidential election with an impressive 73 percent voter turnout, in which a popular reformist politician, Hassan Rouhani, was re-elected in a landslide. Women and religious and ethnic minorities in Iran do indeed face various forms of structural oppression, but the government is also consistently reforming, and Rouhani has pledged to continue moving forward.”
There’s also the question of what the ‘regime change’ in Iran the NCRI is calling for would actually mean. In the case of Iraq and Libya it meant overthrowing a secular government and in both cases tribal identity came into play in unexpected ways. In Iran, it means not only overthrowing a government but also the religious authorities of Twelver Shiism. and it’s safe to say that no one knows what exactly this would mean for the country and its people.
In terms of the NCRI and the MEK, one would hope that those opposed to Iran’s government would at least be wise enough to have learned from experience that, contrary to the cliche, the enemy of your enemy isn’t necessarily your friend and, at least in this case, these friends of convenience may actually be worse than those being opposed.