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Faded hopes for Iranian exiles

Engulfed by various crises, and reeling from a Human Rights Watch report that branded it a serious abuser of human rights, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) still insists on touting itself as a credible alternative to the ruling political system in Iran. Its relentless propaganda notwithstanding, there is now every sign that the MEK will disintegrate some time in the next five years.

For the past two decades the MEK had based its strategy on a carefully constructed three-tier approach encompassing a political coalition (in the form of the National Council of Resistance), a disciplined political organization at the heart of this coalition (ie, the MEK) and an armed force in Iraq (the so-called National Liberation Army). But rather than reflecting actual capabilities, this three-tier strategy was essentially propaganda and designed to consolidate the MEK’s position as the leading enemy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This illusion worked well just as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq. It is for good reason then that MEK observers identified the March 2003 US invasion as the biggest strategic setback in the organization’s 40-year history.

The contention here is straightforward: deprived of its armed wing and its ideological leader, unable to organize effectively in the West due to its terrorist designation and with events in Iran developing on a trajectory that is least favorable to MEK designs (the big turnout in last Friday’s presidential election is one example of this), the MEK is faced with several fundamental crises that it cannot overcome. The only realistic scenario (and indeed solution as far as some of the more progressive forces in the MEK are concerned) is the dissolution of the organization as presently conceived.

The ‘third’ way

Since the ouster of Saddam, the MEK has discovered "peaceful" politics. Previously insistent that the only roadmap to regime change in Iran was through an invasion of the country by its 3,000-strong force based in Camp Ashraf, in Iraq’s Diyala province, the MEK had to revise this overly ambitious strategy after its forces capitulated to the American military and surrendered their arms.

The MEK’s "third" way is refreshingly simple to the point of bewilderment. The only effective way of forcing change in Iran, according to the organization’s spokesmen, is neither through war and an American invasion, nor compromising with the Islamic republic, but in empowering the Iranian opposition (ie, the MEK).

There are several fundamental problems with this reductive argument, not least because an American "war" against Iran is unlikely, and what the MEK terms "compromise" with the ruling regime is mired in ambiguity. Aside from this basic observation, the whole notion that the MEK can affect anything in Iran (let alone overthrow the Islamic republic) is no longer taken seriously by anyone. MEK spokesmen claim that if the organization was removed from US State Department and European Union terrorism lists, it would be in a position to effectively challenge the ruling regime. The problem with this argument is that before 1997 the MEK was not only not on any terrorist lists, but it also enjoyed the whole-hearted support of Saddam and could use Iraqi territory as it wished, and even in those highly favorable circumstances it could not advance its agenda even by a millimeter.

To advance this latest "third" way approach, the MEK has made some minor and cosmetic changes to its organization and tactics. Most importantly, the organization has resorted to establishing pressure groups and consultancies in North America. These organizations are run by veteran MEK members, and their primary function is to establish and manage relations with neo-conservative organizations and interests in the US.

The heads of these effectively fake organizations also contribute opinion pieces to sympathetic US dailies and publications, promoting the "third" way and the so-called Iranian resistance. Arguably the most well-known consultancy is Near East Policy Research Inc, which, according to a website that investigates MEK lobbying in the US [1], was established in May 2003 by Ali Safavi, a well-known and veteran MEK member. Another well-known MEK member, Ali Reza Jaafarzadeh (who was previously the MEK’s official representative in the US) is currently working for the Fox News network as a Middle East analyst.

This latest MEK initiative has all the trappings of the MEK’s previous ambitious and failed programs and is unlikely to amount to anything in the long term. Its biggest success so far has been to mobilize neo-conservative support for the "third" way. At the forefront of this support is the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), an organization made up mostly of retired military officers with impeccable neo-conservative credentials. The IPC published a white paper, outlining US policy options for Iran, in February. Although mostly a clumsy report written by non-experts, this white paper was remarkable for its whole-hearted support of the MEK.

The best way to understand the MEK’s "third" way is to place it in a continuum of failed strategies in the past. The MEK’s "first" way of gaining power in post-revolutionary Iran was to start a serious terrorist campaign in June 1981. The leaders of the organization had grossly overestimated their strength and conversely underestimated the determination of the Islamic republic to put down armed challenges. The result was the complete elimination of the MEK network inside Iran, to the extent that by late 1983 the MEK had no serious presence in the country. The failure of this "first" way led to desperate measures, which culminated in an alliance with Saddam, the invader of Iran.

The MEK’s entry into Iraq led to the creation of a conventional, albeit very small, armed force along the Iran-Iraq border. The "second" way envisioned capturing power through an invasion of Iran backed by Iraqi air cover. This crazy strategy was taken to its mindless extreme in July 1988, when the MEK army launched operation "eternal light" and invaded Iran from the central border regions. Not surprisingly, the small MEK force was destroyed by Iranian forces after the Iraqis backed off from providing prolonged air cover. The MEK admitted losing more than 1,200 fighters in the operation, but the true figure was nearer to 2,000.

The end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 might have heralded the end of the "second" way had it not been for Saddam’s wish to keep the MEK both as a strategic trump card against Iran and an internal security tool within Iraq. This ensured that the strategy of toppling the Islamic republic through an armed invasion was not abandoned, until the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 put an end to the MEK’s tried, tested and failed plans. This paved the way for the concoction of a "third" – and most probably final – MEK strategy of overthrowing the post-revolutionary order in Iran.

An organization in crisis

The MEK knows better than anyone else that the "third" way is a non-starter. Firstly, the organization has no presence inside Iran and little credibility with Iranians outside the country. At best, the organization is simply dismissed as decrepit and irrelevant, while a majority of Iranians regard its members as eccentric traitors who fought alongside their enemies in the Iran-Iraq war. The MEK also knows better than anyone else that it cannot gain recognition from the US government. It is not just because the MEK is the only Iranian organization that has murdered Americans and publicly boasted about it, but also because the US government is well aware of the checkered history, authoritarianism, limitations and hopeless future of this quixotic organization.

The MEK’s "third" way is simply a tactic to buy time and prepare the organization psychologically for the inevitable expulsion of its remaining members from Iraq. In the final scheme of things, the "third" way is designed to prevent the organization from disintegrating, but it is unlikely to work.

Essentially, four factors drive the dynamics of organizational disintegration. First and foremost the loss of its armed wing and the effective end of the "armed struggle" is profoundly unsettling for the MEK. The entire organizational ethos and world view of the MEK revolves around "armed struggle" and the romanticism and cult of martyrdom that surrounds it. All its slogans, insignia, flags and imagery are woven around this theme. Indeed, one of the main reasons that the MEK came into conflict with the Islamic republic was the organization’s insistence that it maintain its own armed militia in the country. Moreover, the whole-hearted and obsessive attachment to political violence was a factor in the US State Department’s decision to add and maintain the MEK on its terrorist list.

Secondly, the disappearance of Massoud Rajavi, the ideological and spiritual leader of the MEK, deprives the organization of effective long-term leadership. Rajavi went into hiding the very day that Saddam abandoned Baghdad to American invaders, and not a word has been heard from him since. Whether or not he physically survives in the decisive months and years ahead is beside the point, for the fact is that he is now politically dead and cannot be revived.

As critics of the organization have been quick to point out, any leader who decides to go into hiding at a time when his organization is experiencing its most stressful period since its inception cannot expect to be rehabilitated. Rajavi has gone into hiding for good reasons, since the disasters that have engulfed the MEK in recent years have largely been a result of his decisions and style of leadership. But Rajavi’s incompetent leadership notwithstanding, his loss is a big blow to the organization. Above all else it completely undermines its elaborate and complex ideology. To put it simply, the MEK believes that it is at the forefront of human evolution, and that its ideological leader, Rajavi, stands at the very peak of historical evolution. The fatal damage that the loss of this so-called ideological leader inflicts on the MEK’s eccentric world view is self-evident.

Thirdly, the MEK cannot resettle effectively in the West. The group’s highly centralized and disciplined organization means that it needs a discrete territorial base from which to operate. The vast Ashraf camp in Iraq’s Diyala province was ideal for the MEK and its loss cannot be over-estimated. Following the downfall of Saddam, the MEK tried to relocate most of its people and resources to its European headquarters in the Parisian suburb of Auvers-Sur-Oise, but these plans were foiled on June 17, 2003, when French counterterrorism agents stormed into the sleepy village and detained more than 165 MEK members, including Maryam Rajavi.

Finally, political developments inside Iran have made it increasingly difficult for even the most hardcore of MEK members to believe that regime change is a realistic scenario. The MEK has consistently misread political developments in Iran for the past quarter century, partly because it has not had a presence inside the country. For instance, Rajavi, the disappeared ideological leader, was for three years telling his organization that the Islamic republic would collapse before the end of Mohammad Khatami’s first term as president in June 2001. This wildly optimistic assessment turned out to be yet another example of wishful thinking on the part of the overly pretentious Rajavi.

This month’s closely contested presidential election and the surprises it has thrown up – Mahmud Ahmadinejad – indicates, first and foremost, that the reformist discourse of making major changes to the country’s political institutions has been eclipsed by more parochial and practical concerns with social justice and the nature and scope of economic development. Therefore, if the reformist program (which is inherently loyal to the Islamic republic and seeks to gradually reform it from within) is increasingly dismissed as irrelevant, groups that advocate the overthrow of the Islamic republic in its entirety are clearly beyond the pale as far as the vast majority of Iranians are concerned.

The factors outlined above encompass core features of the MEK and go to the very heart of this organization as a coherent and viable entity. The fact that all these characteristics have not just been undermined, but simply eliminated from the equation, speaks volumes about the existential crisis that has engulfed the MEK. In fact, there are already signs that the organization’s remarkable discipline is breaking down. Sources inside the British, Dutch and Canadian sections of the MEK speak of a sharp decline in the morale of supporters and a tendency by some peripheral elements in the organization to speak to other Iranian organizations. A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable, since the MEK bans any interaction with members of groups and organizations that are not under its influence.

In the event of disintegration, at least two distinct groups will emerge from the carcass of the MEK. Veteran member Mehdi Abrishamchi (long considered Massoud Rajavi’s right-hand man and the former husband of Maryam Rajavi, who divorced her so Massoud could launch his so-called ideological revolution) will most likely emerge as a leader of a breakaway faction. Abrishamchi will likely attract those MEK elements who want to go back to the roots of their organization, before Massoud Rajavi transformed them into an isolated cult. Veteran member Mohsen Rezai (better known as "Habib") might constitute another pole of leadership. Known as a pragmatist and realist, Rezai could attract the more talented members of the organization, especially those who currently perform political and diplomatic tasks. Maryam Rajavi is unlikely to emerge as a leader of any sorts since she derives all her legitimacy from Massoud. One of the arrangements that followed the MEK’s ideological revolution in 1985 was that Massoud would be the "ideology" while Maryam would perform executive tasks.

The above scenario is clearly speculative, but in all likelihood factions motivated by the aforementioned agendas will emerge from the carcass of the MEK. The point to be made is that the MEK – despite all its faults – has 40 years of history behind it and to expect it to disappear entirely is unrealistic. Although the MEK is the oldest Iranian political group of modern times, the disintegration of the organization in its current form has been long overdue. Various factors have converged to ensure its survival to this point, of which the most important was the patronage of Saddam. And in the final analysis, whatever emerges from the carcass of the MEK, the greatest legacy of its demise will be the final and definitive repudiation of terrorism as a legitimate tool in Iranian politics.

Mahan Abedin    June 29, 2005

"Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own."

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