So for all of you who have spent an extended period of time working in the European Parliament, you cannot have failed to notice members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq or the People’s Mujahiden. They are easy to spot because they are by far the most active Iranian lobby in the Parliament. Or rather, the lobby most active in its opposition to the regime in Tehran. They have strong ties with numerous deputies, and regularly attend and speak at committee meetings. Its members are well-spoken and extremely articulate. However, the question of how and why they have managed to work their way into the corridors of European power remains a mystery to many. Just who are these people?
First of all, the story is long and quite complicated. The organization was the brain child of a group of disgruntled Tehrani students, who during the mid-60s, wanted to end the Shah’s rule, but do so in accordance with Marxist and Islamic principles. They advocated violent protest; something akin to a Persian Baader Meinhof . The name “Mujahedin-e Khalq” means “The People’s Holy Warriors”. In 1971 they tried to target electric power grids in Tehran, but were stopped by the Shah’s forces. However they succeeded in killing a number of civilian contractors and a U.S. Army officer.
Change was coming
The group was one amongst many who had grown tired of the Shah and his western-oriented policies. The Islamic Revolution gave them all a chance to shake things up, and the MeK’s leader Masoud Rajavi, allied himself with Ayatollah Khomeini, thinking that he would have a position in the post-Revolutionary government. This was not to be, and instead, Khomeini prevented him from running for office, and all other political groups–with the exception of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP)–were outlawed.
In 1981, the MeK launched an attack against the headquarters of the IRP, which killed seventy high-ranking officials; making the organization persona non grata in the eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini. Its leadership fled to Paris, where they set up the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Their goal was to bring an end to the Islamic Republic, and they adopted the kind of rhetoric that would appeal to a western audience. They discussed democracy, free speech, women’s rights and the rule of law. Other MeK members settled in Iraq and Kurdistan, and in 1986, Saddam Hussein promised them military support if they were willing to support his campaign against the Iranians. Seven thousand took up the offer, and formed Masoud Rajavi’s National Liberation Army. They provided intelligence, translation services and helped suppress Shia and Kurdish rebels in order to curry favor with the Iraqi leader. Needless to say that the group’s popularity within Iran dwindled.
A political group or a cult?
During the mid-80s, the MeK’s leaders in Paris decided to instigate their own “ideological revolution”, which has characterized the group to this very day. Masoud Rajavi and his wife wanted members to increase their commitment to the cause, since their alliance with Saddam had seen the group’s popularity fall by the wayside. Cultic practices were introduced such as confiscating members’ assets; limiting their exit options and imposing social control. Human Rights Watch reported that the MeK instituted a complicated process to retain members who expressed a desire to leave. They were pressured to change their minds and were subjected to indoctrination. The Rajavis demanded quasi-religious devotion. The MeK’s newspaper Mojahed once declared: ” To understand this great revolution…is to understand and gain a deep insight into the greatness of our new leadership, meaning leadership of Masoud and Maryam. It is to believe in them as well as to show ideological and revolutionary obedience to them [sic]“.
The MeK strongly refutes the charge that they exhibit cult-like behavior and claim such notions are put out by forces loyal to the Islamic Republic.
There is no doubt that the group has mastered the art of effective propaganda. They project an image that is compatible with liberal western values. However they have been accused of using devious recruitment methods by promising Iranian economic migrants employment and asylum assistance. Many recruits brought to Iraq have had their passports confiscated, and more seriously, the group has been linked to money laundering activities.
From the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the MeK were viewed as forming part of Saddam’s own private army. When US troops stumbled upon Camp Ashraf–the MeK’s militia camp located 60 km north of Baghdad– they did not know who they were dealing with. The MeK and US troops agreed to a cease-fire, and the Americans were taken by the friendly and cooperative nature of the camp’s leaders. They were prepared to show leniency in exchange for intelligence sharing and other practical services.
At present, the Iraqi government wants to expel the MeK from the country. However following Iraq’s occupation, the MeK were designated under the fourth Geneva Convention which forbids the forcible transfer of any individual to a country where their life may be in danger. In 2009, the camp fell under the control of the Iraqi government, and the MeK are working hard to avoid forced repatriation.
Back to Europe
Iran’s disastrous presidential elections of July 2009, gave the MeK a unique opportunity to push for greater recognition of their plight and the plight of other opposition movements outside Iran. Their public diplomacy has had an extraordinary effect on European and US policy makers. They are accepted as a legitimate opposition group, without having their credibility questioned. They have barely a handful of supporters in Iran.
They are still deeply attached to Islamic principles and endorse an anachronistic approach to politics that no longer holds sway for most Iranians. The MeK has little understanding of modern Iran.
The leadership has not set foot in Iran for almost thirty years, and yet still feel entitled to speak on behalf of Iranian citizens. Do they really know what the people want? Why so many MEPs, MPs and other policy makers cannot see this as a problem is difficult to understand. It cannot be for a lack of information, because the group has been extensively written about, and many Iranian opposition groups have voiced their concern over the close ties that exist between western governments and the NCRI. For instance, Maryam Rajavi has been welcomed into the European Parliament and is embraced as an open-minded reformer, whose interests are to fight for a free and democratic Iran. But her own background and those of her close associates are highly suspect.
We can only wait and see what happens. Hopefully in the future, politicians will be a little more wise before they decide to embrace individuals who invoke terminology that is seductive to western ears. The MeK has a history which should ring some alarm bells: their former allegiance to Saddam Hussein; their Marxist/Islamist roots and militant training are at odds with the EU’s own principles and more importantly, at odds with legions of educated and secular-oriented Iranians.
MEPs in the European Parliament–and there are quite a few–are fooling themselves if think that by lending their support to the MeK and the NCRI , they will improve their standing amongst members of the Iranian diaspora, who want Europe to toughen its stance against Islamic Republic.
They will be left truly disappointed.