The Intercept published a news article recently about the cult-like Iranian militant group the Mojahedin-e Khalq. The article is based on interviews with high-ranking defectors.
The following is an excerpt of the article:
On a blisteringly hot summer afternoon in 2006, Reza Sadeghi ran into an old friend at the Iraqi headquarters of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, an exiled Iranian militant group better known as the MEK. The two men had not seen each other in over a decade. Sadeghi guided his friend, who had just arrived from Canada, on a stroll through the desert compound known as Camp Ashraf. He was glad to catch up with an old comrade. But he also had a burning question.
Sadeghi had effectively given his life to the MEK, which means “People’s Mujahideen of Iran.” A 26-year veteran of the group, he had not left Camp Ashraf for over a decade. During that time, he’d had no contact with his family or news of them. The MEK leadership had forced him and most of the other cadres living at Camp Ashraf to abandon even their closest relationships. Most painful for Sadeghi were thoughts of his son, Paul, his only child, now 16 years old. Sadeghi hadn’t seen or spoken to Paul since he’d arrived in Iraq.
As Sadeghi and his old friend strolled through the compound, two MEK minders followed at a distance. Sadeghi walked a bit faster, signaling to his friend that he needed to talk out of earshot of their escorts. Turning a corner between buildings, he whispered: “How is Paul?”
In 1996, Sadeghi traveled to Camp Ashraf, the group’s sprawling compound in northeast Iraq, for a mandatory six-month military training. While the MEK did propaganda and intelligence work, the group’s core skills were military. Membership required extensive training, including everything from weapons skills and bomb-making to operating a T-55 tank.
While he was in Iraq, Sadeghi decided to leave Paul, who was then almost 5 years old and had been born in Canada, with Sadeghi’s parents in Iran. At the time, Paul had never met his grandparents or been to Iran. Sadeghi planned to train for six months, retrieve Paul, and return to the U.S., where he’d spent several years raising money for the MEK’s leadership, which is based in Europe.
But when his training was over, the group asked Sadeghi to stay for another six months. He had been selected to train for assassination missions inside Iran and would fine-tune the fighting and sabotage skills that his commanders told him would soon help liberate his country. His MEK commander told Sadeghi that Paul would be sent back to Toronto to live with his mother, a Canadian woman whom Sadeghi had divorced not long after their son was born. Sadeghi agreed to stay.
Sadeghi got only rare updates about Paul during the 10 years he spent in Ashraf. Members were forbidden from discussing family or friends who were not MEK members. When he did ask about his son, they always told him that the boy was well, living in Toronto with Sadeghi’s ex-wife and receiving hundreds of dollars in support every month from the group.
Now, his old friend from Toronto told Sadeghi something that seemed impossible. His son, the friend said, was not in Canada at all. He had never left Iran and was being raised by Sadeghi’s parents there. Sadeghi’s Canadian ex-wife had filed a report with Canadian authorities, believing that Sadeghi had kidnapped the boy. Paul was declared a missing child by the Royal Mounted Canadian Police.
His picture had even been printed on milk cartons in Canada in the hope that someone might find him and return him to his mother.
“No, he’s in Canada,” Sadeghi declared in disbelief. The friend insisted that wasn’t true. Canadian authorities had even interviewed him about Sadeghi and his son, the man said.
Sadeghi abruptly left his friend and marched to his commander’s office. He told her that he was leaving the organization to retrieve his son. He planned to join the U.S. soldiers at the spartan desert encampment they’d built to house those who managed to escape, Sadeghi said.
His commander called a group of other MEK members to detain him. Suddenly, about a dozen of Sadeghi’s comrades were grabbing him, trying to push and lift him into the back seat of a nearby Toyota pickup. As he resisted, he felt one of his fingers snap.
The MEK members shoved him into the back of the truck, pinning him to the floor with their bodies. The truck started driving. “You’re dead,” one of Sadeghi’s captors told him. “We are going to put you in the ground, and no one will ever know what happened to you.” Forced disappearances and solitary confinement were not uncommon at Camp Ashraf, and Sadeghi was sure he would be executed.
His only chance, he thought, was to try to kick out the window of the truck hoping the commotion would attract attention. He slammed his foot against the glass as the others fought to restrain him. The windows didn’t break, but as the truck slowed to turn onto the camp’s main road, it approached two American soldiers patrolling the road in a Humvee.
The soldiers stopped the truck and ordered everyone out. The men in the back got off Sadeghi and he raised himself up. “I want to leave the MEK,” he told the Americans in English. “I need your help.” The Americans took Sadeghi past the razor wire and armed Humvees and into their own makeshift military compound next door.
“He (Reza Sadeghi) had been selected to train for assassination missions inside Iran and would fine-tune the fighting and sabotage skills that his commanders told him would soon help liberate his country.”
Once inside, Sadeghi asked to make a phone call. He still had the phone number of his brother who lived in Canada. He called him and asked for their parents’ number in Iran. After so much time without a word, they didn’t even know whether Sadeghi was alive or dead.
“When my mother picked up the phone, all I could say was hello. I didn’t know what else to say to her.” he recalled recently. “She recognized my voice and just started crying.”
Issa Azadeh, a senior operative who left the group in 2014 after 34 years, told The Intercept about his experience inside the MEK.
“I couldn’t feel whether I was alive or dead,” said Azadeh. “I was thinking, ‘Did I make a mistake?’ But the first time when I got into the internet, I saw the truth. I searched about cults. I realized we were robots.”
“I loved the MEK very much. I saw all my dreams in this organization, everything,” Azadeh said when we met in Cologne, Germany, last fall. “But when I got involved in detail with things that no one else knew, I realized that there was no difference between [Joseph] Stalin and Massoud Rajavi.”
For MEK members, he said, “Rajavi was right after God. This is something that they put in our minds. Over the years, minute by minute, month by month, year by year, they put that in our minds. If you doubt Rajavi, it means that you doubt God.”
“Rajavi told us that you have to divorce your family completely,” Azadeh said. The leader told his acolytes that “family are the main poison for you guys” and counseled them that if their siblings or other relatives showed up at Camp Ashraf, the MEK members would be required to kill them. Azadeh was shocked. “At one time, family for MEK was honor,” he said. “Then Rajavi announced that family is poison or shame.”
“[Rajavi] said: ‘Don’t think about women. That’s not your life,’” Azadeh recalled. “You have only one aim and one target: to obey everything I say and to overthrow the Iranian government.”
Batool Sultani was also an MEK commander and a member of the High Council. Soft-spoken with brown hair and glasses, Sultani easily blended into the crowd when we met in Cologne. The High Council governed the conduct of everyone living at Camp Ashraf. They could order the isolation, ostracization, and imprisonment of members who ran afoul of Rajavi. But when it came to major decisions, the council had “no real power,” Sultani said. “It was just for show and a means of using the women to keep control over the men who might become Massoud Rajavi’s rivals in the Mojahedin.”
“Maryam Rajavi came to us as female members of the group many times and asked us why we haven’t demanded to see our leader in his bedroom,”
Sultani said. “There was a strong pressure” on MEK women to initiate sexual relationships with Rajavi, she said, “to show your commitment to the leader and the group.”
Another female member of the High Council at Camp Ashraf, whom The Intercept agreed to identify only as Sima, said she joined the MEK in the 1980s and left it in 2014. Unlike other former members, Sima asked that her real name not be used because she feared retaliation from current MEK members.
She now lives in hiding in a European country and agreed to meet privately in a place where other local supporters of the group were unlikely to see her.
“You must know the organization and the psychological warfare that they start against you,” she told us in an effort to explain her fear.
“They assassinate your personality and you will lose your closest friends; even your family wouldn’t trust you. This is the reason that these people are scared.”
As the years dragged on, she began to clash with other members. In response, they placed her under surveillance and forced her to engage in grueling self-criticism sessions that she described as psychologically tortuous. Around 2000, Sima was nearing a breaking point. She made a plan with another woman to escape from Camp Ashraf. They plotted their exit in meticulous detail, but the other woman turned her in to MEK leaders. As punishment, Sima was subjected to even more intense ostracization and psychological torture.
For most of the next 14 years, Sima was confined to one section of Camp Ashraf, unable to move freely on her own. Like Batool Sultani, Sima described an intense form of psychosexual manipulation by Rajavi that she said became an integral tool for controlling female cadres. Years earlier, in 1995, “Rajavi gave every single woman in the organization a pendant and told us that we are all connected to him and to no other man,” Sima said. She was forced to divorce her husband and, like Sultani, eventually became sexually involved with Rajavi.
Around 1998, an even more chilling directive came down from Rajavi to the female members of the organization. “I see some obstacles which have prevented us from reaching our goals and achieving victory,” Rajavi told members of the group, Sultani recalled.
“That obstacle is hope for the future. We want to eliminate any kind of hope for the future from your mind. You are either with us or not!”
Sterilization would be a means of focusing the women’s minds. “They said that this organ of the body, the womb, has made women want to be mothers someday and return to domestic life,” Sultani said. “And so, visits with women began, to get them to go in groups of 20 or 30 to have a hysterectomy.”
Women were scheduled for appointments at an MEK hospital in Camp Ashraf. The procedures would be carried out by a female MEK member who had been trained as a doctor, assisted by a local Iraqi physician. At first, Sultani resisted. But finally “the pressure was so great that it broke my resistance, and I agreed that I, too, should make an appointment,” she said. “In other words, they gave so many and varied arguments for me to go to the hospital that I had no choice.”
Sultani said she finally defected from the MEK in 2006, after she was scheduled for the surgery but before it could be carried out.
“How many women have reached the castle?” Rajavi later asked in a meeting Sultani attended, referring to what she called the “women who had abandoned the last vestiges of their sexual world and were operated on.” The doctor answered that there had been 50 so far.
After much urging from MEK leaders, Sima said she finally agreed to have her ovaries surgically removed in 2011. “When you are under brainwashing, you would do anything and everything,” she told The Intercept. “You would do any military operation, you would go and have sexual relations with your leader, you would sell information and intelligence. We were under constant control by the leader.”
When Sima finally left the group, she said, “I was like a lost person.” The United Nations set up a meeting between her and her brother, whom she hadn’t seen for 30 years. At first, she was reluctant to hug or kiss him, so deeply alienated had she become from her closest kin. He showed her how to shop and use money. “We’ve never seen anything like this for about 30 years,” Sima said. “I completely forgot about real life outside MEK.”
When she first spoke out against the group, current members requested a meeting. They offered her several thousand euros not to criticize the group, which Sima says she declined. “I told them, ‘You cannot return what I lost, my family, my husband. You cannot return that.’”
“We joined the MEK for freedom and democracy and independence,” Sadeghi said. “But if we knew that Masoud Rajavi was spying on the Iranian government during the [Iran-Iraq] war, I would never accept that. If I knew that [we received] money from Saddam Hussein to give information, I would never accept that.”
“I remember we were attending a rally at Camp Ashraf where everyone from the movement was supposed to be gathered together,” he said. “They had told us that we had hundreds of thousands of members and maybe millions more supporters in Iran. At the rally, there were only a few thousand people at most. I remember at the time a few of us were wondering. If this is really a movement like Rajavi says it is, where is everyone?”
His reunion with Paul was bittersweet. “My son was supposed to be away from me for six months. It was 10 years,” he said. “The first question was, ‘Dad, where were you? I cannot believe that in the 20th century, you were in some place that you couldn’t be able to send me a postcard or call me for my birthday.’”
Sadeghi had no answer. He was ashamed. He could not articulate how being a member of the MEK had made him feel bereft of individual agency.
In the meantime, Sadeghi, like the other defectors, has many regrets and struggles in his new life. What’s left of his family is scattered between Iran and the West.
“I would never [again] leave Iran, because all these years I left my family and my parents died,” he said. “I miss them very much.”
Every night, he dreams some version of the nightmare he’s lived. “Either I am in prison [in Iran], or I am in Camp Ashraf trying to escape. When I wake up, I’m sweating.”