Its annual conferences have attracted the who’s-who of right-wing and hawkish, conservative politicians from the West, including former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former United States National Security Adviser John Bolton and ex-Vice President Mike Pence.
But recent setbacks for the most powerful Iranian opposition group have some observers wondering whether its glory days are numbered.
A shadowy dissident group in exile, the Mujahadin-e Khalq (MeK) was once a US-designated terrorist group but today counts prominent anti-Iran Western politicians as key allies. Iran accuses it of terrorism, saying it carried out a series of attacks in the 1980s. The MeK denies those charges.
It is one of the best-organized opposition groups confronting the Islamic Republic, but it has little support among Iranians, largely due to its violent past and for having supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during his almost decade-long war with Iran.
However, analysts say that recent diplomatic activity between Iran and its foes however may not bode well for the group.
In the span of one week, the MeK last month witnessed a rare raid on its sprawling base in Albania, where it is headquartered, as well as a brief ban on a planned annual rally in France, where it has held such events for several years.
The MeK believes these actions were part of a “policy of appeasement” of the regime in Tehran, a top representative from the group told CNN in an email interview.
“It became clear that the security concerns were simply a pretext to placate the clerical regime,” Shahin Gobadi, a Paris-based member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the MeK, told CNN, referring to the French ban.
Albanian police said the June raid on the MeK’s Ashraf 3 camp near the capital Tirana was due to suspicions that the group was involved in political activity, according to local media. Political activity is banned under the agreement that allows them to stay in Albania. One person was killed in the raid, and police denied they were responsible for the death.
Iran welcomed the raid, and last week an Iranian official said that some of the seized hard drives arrived in his country, and that Iranian experts were working on data recovery to identify the group’s agents and sabotage cells, according to Iranian state media.
The MeK called on Albania to clarify whether any of the hard drives were indeed sent to Iran.
Gobadi told CNN the raid “was carried out at the behest or under pressure” from Iran.
‘Illegal and subversive activity’
An Albanian foreign ministry coordinator told CNN by email that the country has not provided any seized material to Iran. All the equipment seized is with the authorities and will be used for investigations, the coordinator said.
In the same week, French authorities banned a planned MeK rally in Paris citing “attack threats.” The ban was later reversed by a judicial order, and the rally took place on Saturday coinciding with an annual MeK meeting on the outskirts of Paris that hosted some of the most prominent right-wing figures.
A French diplomatic source told CNN that Paris police had ordered a ban on the demonstration “due to risks of public order disturbances.”
“This decision was quashed by the administrative courts, a decision which it is not for the government to comment on,” the source told CNN in an email, adding that “we have no relations with this organization (MeK), which we cannot endorse.”
Gobadi said the MEK’s activities in Albania and elsewhere have “aligned with the laws of their host countries.”
The Albanian foreign ministry coordinator told CNN that the MeK had broken an agreement not to engage in “illegal and subversive activity,” adding that Albania has paid a high price for hosting it, the worst of which was the July 2022 cyberattack on the country that it blamed on Iran. That attack, the coordinator said, “had dramatic consequences for Albania and its citizens, because 95% of public services in Albania are offered online.”
Albania severed diplomatic ties with Iran as a result, but Tehran denied involvement.
The coordinator said it was “deeply insulting” to be accused of appeasement given that Albania “welcomed and provided humanitarian protection to the MeK, when no other country in the world would accept them.”
The setbacks for the MeK also follow a landmark deal between Iran and Saud Arabia in March, which saw diplomatic ties re-instated after almost eight years of tensions.
Iran has for years accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the MeK. Speculation about the kingdom’s alleged support for the group was further fueled by the appearance of Prince Turki al-Faisal, a prominent Saudi royal and former ambassador to the US and the UK, at an MeK summit in Paris. In his speech in 2016, al-Faisal declared: “I, too, want the downfall of the regime.”
But in a sign of changing winds, Al Faisal in March told the France24 news channel that he wasn’t aware of an imminent normalization pact between Tehran and Riyadh and that he was surprised by it.
The prince has insisted that he plays no official government role, but his public endorsement of the MeK has enraged Iran, which called the group the Saudis’ “adopted children.”
The MeK denies receiving any funds from Saudi Arabia or any government, and insists that it “is an independent movement, standing on its own feet both politically and financially,” Gobadi told CNN.
CNN has reached out to the Saudi foreign ministry for comment.
The brief French ban on the MeK rally also came just days after a 90-minute phone call between French President Emanuel Macron and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on June 10.
It is unclear whether the recent diplomatic activity between Iran and its foes is directly responsible for the developments in France or Albania, but analysts say they’re unlikely to be coincidental, especially as Western states hope to restart nuclear talks with Iran.
The MeK’s support overwhelmingly comes from the countries that have tensions with Iran, said Trita Parsi, vice-president of the Quincy Institute in Washington, DC.
“As a result, as those tensions with Iran go up or down, it directly affects the fate of the MeK,” he told CNN, adding that since Riyadh and Tehran have patched up, the MeK is “a lesser utility to Saudi Arabia.”
Politicians who have attended its conferences also include former Donald Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and former British Prime Minister Liz Truss.
At least one speaker at the event reportedly received tens of thousands of dollars from the dissident group.
Iran’s Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi marries Egyptian Princess Fawzia, March 30, 1939. L-R: Queen Farida and King Farouk of Egypt, Princess Fawzia and Crown Prince Mohammed Reza, and Queen Mother Nazli.
After Saudi Arabia, Iran may be patching up with its oldest Arab foe
Ali Ahmadi, an executive fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, says those who go to support the MeK are “usually a lot of hardened neo-cons” as well as “retired politicians who are happy to take a really big cheque.”
“A lot of right wingers have this kind of infatuation with small right-wing groups that they dream of someday being able to put in charge of a country like Iran,” Ahmadi told CNN.
Gobadi told CNN that speakers or attendees have never received payments from the MeK.
As the US and EU attempt to reach new agreements with Iran, they may be “throwing in the future of the MeK in the mix” to see if a broader comprise can be found, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC., adding that removing the group from the picture could be a Western concession to Iran.
Analysts say however that the MeK is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, having survived over the past six decades despite shifting geopolitics.
“They are gradually becoming weaker I think,” Vatanka said. While the Saudi-Iran rapprochement will weaken them further, it will not spell their demise, he said.