Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday accused US President Donald Trump of making threats that were cheered on by “Saddam’s terrorists”.
The chief Iranian diplomat was referring to the formerly US-designated terrorist group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that was allied with the late Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein.
It all started on Wednesday, when Trump said in a tweet that he ordered the US Navy to “shoot down and destroy” any Iranian gunboats that harass American ships.
The US president’s post was celebrated by an MEK-linked account. Trump retweeted that response, taking a dig at the presumptive Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden.
“The mullahs’ regime ruling Iran harasses UN [sic] Navy ships for propaganda purposes,” Heshmat Alavi, a popular MEK-linked Twitter account, responded to Trump’s post.
“Thank you, President Trump, for reminding this regime that the Obama years are gone.”
In turn, Trump shared Alavi’s post commenting: “Sleepy Joe thought this was OK. Not me!”
The case of Heshmat Alavi
Alavi, who has penned opinion pieces in several major international publications, has been the subject of an ongoing controversy since the Intercept published a story last year alleging that he is not a real person, but a “propaganda operation” run by the MEK.
The report cited former members of the Iranian opposition group as saying that a group of MEK members in Albania manage Alavi’s persona.
Twitter briefly suspended the account after the publication of the Intercept story. Alavi had pushed back against the story, saying that it was a “highly biased article full of lies”.
He did acknowledge that he supports the MEK and does not write under his real name.
“No, I will never reveal my real identity or photograph. Not as long as the mullahs’ regime is in power,” Alavi wrote in a blogpost in June 2019.
“No activist in his/her right mind would do so. That would place all of my family, friends and myself, both inside & outside of Iran, in complete danger.”
Fake or not, Alavi’s voice was amplified by the president of the United States on Wednesday, who shared the controversial account’s content with his more than 78 million followers.
Critics were quick to call out Trump for promoting the MEK-affiliated account.
“Behold Donald Trump’s open coordination with an Iranian terrorist organization. The person he retweets does not exist, the account is run by six people in the MEK’s terrorist base in Albania,” tweeted Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-war think-tank in Washington.
“Yes, the president of the United state [sic] is retweeting a terrorist account.”
The MEK has a long history of violent attacks in Iran, and until 2012 it was considered a terrorist organisation by the United States.
‘More of a cult’
Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based group that opposes war with Iran, said the US administration’s ties to the MEK were “deeply concerning”.
“This is still a group that’s more of a cult than an advocacy organisation or a legitimate organisation… To think this is an organisation that is influencing the president and the administration should be cause for concern,” Costello told Middle East Eye.
The group has managed to garner strong relations with key members of both major parties in Congress. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his former security adviser John Bolton are also ardent supporters and have spoken at the group’s events for hefty fees.
The White House did not return MEE’s request for comment.
Detractors also accuse the group of being a “totalitarian cult” centred around its leader, Maryam Rajavi. Moreover, the MEK is tainted by its past ties to Iraq’s Hussein, who is loathed as a brutal figure in both Iran and the United States.
‘To think this is an organisation that is influencing the president and the administration should be cause for concern’
– Ryan Costello, NIAC
But MEK supporters dismiss such accusations, insisting that it is the most organised opposition group calling for a democracy in Iran.
The MEK supporters are no fans of NIAC. They often falsely accuse the organisation of being a lobby for the Iranian government in Washington. On Wednesday, Alavi called out Parsi, who is the co-founder and former president of NIAC, for his past association with the group.
“He constantly parrots Zarif’s talking points,” Alavi said of Parsi.
To prove that point, Alavi shared a video showing Parsi mirroring Zarif’s criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by bringing up the Qatar blockade, kidnapping of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the war in Yemen.
Such talking points against bin Salman’s policies have not been uniquely denounced by Zarif. Many of the kingdom’s critics, including members of the US Congress, have cited them in the past.
The Iranian opposition group enjoys close ties with Saudi Arabia. Saudi commentators and officials have praised the group and spoken at its events in the past.
The MEK and a US advocacy group aligned with it did not return MEE’s request for comment.
Costello said the MEK’s animosity with NIAC goes to the fact that the Iranian-American organisation opposed removing the group from the US terror list.
Tensions in the Gulf
Trump’s threat to shoot Iranian boats on Wednesday renewed fears of a military confrontation between the US and Iran at a time when both countries are combatting the spread of the coronavirus.
In 2018, the US administration nixed the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, which saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.
Over the past two years, Washington has been piling up sanctions against various Iranian individuals and industries as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign.
The two countries came to the verge of war earlier this year when a US drone strike killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Last June, Trump ordered, then cancelled, military strikes against Iran after Islamic Republic downed a US drone over the Gulf, claiming that it violated Iranian territorial waters.
NIAC’s Costello said in the past the US Navy has done an “exemplary job” of de-escalating tensions with IRGC boats that try to make life difficult for American ships in the Gulf.
He added that Trump’s threat risks inviting the hardliners in Iran to continue to “test the resolve” of the US, endangering everyone involved.
“I’m very concerned that what Trump has done here increases the risks that there’s another movement toward war or some sort of incident that results in ships being sunk in the Persian Gulf,” Costello said.
By Ali Harb – Middle East Eye