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The curious case of Iran’s Mujahedin

David Shariatmadari: A group of senior British politicians claims the Iranian Mujahedin are Iran’s best hope of reform. Are they right?

They’ve been described by British politicians as "brave patriots" and "the main democratic Iranian opposition group". Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Christopher Booker said the organisation they set up, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was "real opposition to the dictatorship" and "the best hope of transforming Iran into a secular, democratic, non-terrorist country". On Wednesday, another Telegraph group journalist, Con Couglin, called them "the leading Iranian dissident group". Their devoted fans include Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, Lady Turner of Camden, and Andrew Mackinlay, a member of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

So who are they? And how come you’ve never heard of them?

Well, the People’s Mujahedin, otherwise known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, called monafeqin (hypocrites) by their detractors and either PMOI, MKO or MeK for short, have been around for nearly half a century. Their origins can be traced to the radical politics of the years before 1979, and their early history is one of ideological twists and turns, schisms and betrayals. To cut a very long story short, they lost out to supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini in the early days of the revolution and in response to a bloody crackdown began a paramilitary campaign against the fledgling republic. During the Iran-Iraq war they were given refuge by Saddam Hussein and allowed to mount attacks on Iran from within Iraqi territory, where they still maintain a settlement, now known as Ashraf City. Reports suggest they were involved in the suppression of the Kurdish uprising after the 1991 war. In 2001, they renounced all military activity. Despite this, they were put on the EU’s terror blacklist in 2002, a decision which was reversed in 2008.

Since their exile from Iran, they’ve spent a great deal of time trying to win westerners over to their cause, and the single-mindedness of some of their supporters has proved remarkably effective. The British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, which lobbies on the group’s behalf, counts among its members a surprisingly large number of peers and MPs, many of whom, judging by their parliamentary interventions and speeches, seem to have an understanding of Iran’s history based entirely on the standard PMOI line.

Others have been more difficult to convince. The UK government, for example, which tried hard to prevent their removal from the list of proscribed organisations. In 2005 Human Rights Watch (HRW) produced a report into abuses at Ashraf City (then called "Camp Ashraf"). The PMOI’s supporters in Europe and America were quick to brand HRW’s informants "suspicious individuals". The PMOI denied the claims and the National Council of Resistance of Iran said the "accusations only serve as a license to the mullahs’ regime to continue the execution and suppression of PMOI members and supporters in Iran". Last summer, I interviewed Joe Stork, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa and asked him about the reaction to the report. "The Mujahedin organisation has, it seems to me, done a pretty good job of cultivating fans, in various countries in Europe," he said. "The reaction on the part of those people was quite vociferous. Denouncing the report, attempting to delegitimise it, putting what seemed to me an awful lot of effort and resources into discrediting the report. Unsuccessfully, in my view."

The picture of the PMOI you get if you do a bit of research – talking to disinterested parliamentarians, former members and journalists who’ve investigated them – is of an organisation that relies heavily of the cult of personality, subjects its members to intense psychological pressures, and massively inflates its level of support inside Iran. It was the subject of an investigation by the German government agency charged with monitoring "foreign extremism", has been accused by HRW of perpetrating serious human rights abuses within the last decade and by others of being complicit in Saddam Hussein’s crimes against his own people.

More relevant, perhaps, is the fact that Iranians who live in Iran regard the PMOI as totally marginal to contemporary politics. At best it’s seen an embittered faction whose main constituency is gullible western politicians. At worst, its members are regarded as lunatics who sided with the enemy during a war in which hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians died.

Why is any of this important? Well, the PMOI provides the current Iranian government with an easy scapegoat. The more senior parliamentarians collude with PMOI, put their names to their turgid press releases and organise debates on their behalf, the more the Iranian government’s accusations of can be made to carry water. Tehran claimed this week that PMOI activists, and the group’s London command centre, were behind some of the recent protests.

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