THE QUEST FOR IRAN’S DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT.
Testimony for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
One side of the opposition spectrum is represented by the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK) which the U.S. State Department designated a "foreign terrorist organization" in 1997. Still identified as a terrorist organization, the MKO also is known as the National Liberation Army of Iran (the militant wing of the MKO), the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, National Council of Resistance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and Muslim Iranian Student’s Society (a front organization used to garner financial support). The EU designated the MKO’s military wing as a terrorist organization in May 2002.
The MKO was created in the 1960s and its ideology combines Islam and Marxism. It was involved with anti-U.S. terrorism in the 1970s, and it initially supported the 1978-79 revolution. In June 1981, it staged an unsuccessful uprising against the Islamic regime; many members were imprisoned while others fled the country. The MKO transitioned from being a "mass movement" in 1981 to having "all the main attributes of a cult" by mid-1987, Professor Ervand Abrahamian writes in his 1989 book, Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin. The MKO refers to its head, Masud Rajavi, in religious terms, calling him the rahbar (leader) and imam-i hal (present imam).
From its Iraqi exile the MKO attacked the Iranian regime’s leadership: a 1981 bombing killed President Mohammad-Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, in 1992 it attacked 13 Iranian embassies, and it is behind other mortar attacks and assassination attempts in Iran. Former President Saddam Hussein granted the MKO refuge in Iraq, and it helped Saddam Hussein suppress the 1991 uprisings of Shia in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north, so it is not very popular in Iraq. The MKO fought Iranian forces in the Iran-Iraq War, and this has discredited the organization among the Iranian public.
In May 2003, after Operation Iraqi Freedom, the MKO agreed to turn over its weapons to U.S. forces, and over time most of them have been restricted to one location, Camp Ashraf. In July 2004, MKO members in Iraq were granted "protected status" under the Geneva Conventions. The Iranian government has repeatedly offered an amnesty to rank-and-file members if they return to Iran, but the amnesty does not extend to the organization’s leadership. A reluctance to return is understandable: many MKO members who were imprisoned in the early 1980s were tortured into recanting, and for a few months in 1988-1989 thousands of MKO and leftist prisoners were executed. Iranian state media sporadically reports on groups of former MKO members who have returned, but it is not clear how they are treated.
Some U.S. commentators have recommended removing the MKO from the terrorist list and using it as an armed resistance movement against Iran. There also are suggestions that MKO personnel should be cultivated as intelligence assets that might re-energize the reform movement in Iran. It is unlikely that MKO members would be trusted, since some reformists fought MKO personnel in the war, others created the security institutions that hunted them down, and most are part of the current political system. Furthermore, information provided by the MKO, which does not have the same objectives as the U.S., is likely to be self-serving and unreliable. Using MKO personnel as a partisan force is appealing, but association with them will discredit the U.S. in Iranians’ eyes.
In conclusion, there are steps the U.S. can take to hasten Iran’s becoming a democracy. The belief that there is a pre-existing democratic movement or even an effective opposition group, however, is inaccurate. And although most Iranians undoubtedly favor independence and self-determination, assisting individuals rather than organizations without proper planning will be neither efficient nor effective.