In August I was one among several people who wrote about a well-funded lobbying campaign by the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to get delisted from the US’s foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) list. The MEK is an exiled Iranian group that has killed US and Iranian citizens. It’s also described as a “cult” that has committed human rights abuses against its own members as documented by the Rand Corporation and Human Rights Watch.
Armed and supported by Saddam Hussein, the MEK helped him repress Iraqi Shias and Kurds and fought against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Many analysts including neoconservative Michael Rubin have urged against delisting, noting potential blowback and acknowledging that the group would not be able to implement regime change in Iran due to its unpopularity with most Iranians.
President Obama was put in a tough spot by the MEK’s lobbying blitz not only because of the political heavyweights that expressed differing degrees of endorsement after thousands were paid to them in “speaking fees“, but also because of the MEK’s dishonest merging of the humanitarian concerns at their Camp Ashraf base with their FTO listing. Many expected that the Obama administration would announce a decision in September after dragging its feet for over a year following a 2010 Court of Appeals rare order that the designation be reevaluated, but no final announcement has been made and to date the MEK remains FTO-listed.
Under increasing Iraqi pressure to relocate and from human rights organizations urging leader Maryam Rajavi to allow independent access to over 3,000 Iranians at the camp, many feared a humanitarian tragedy such as mass suicide. But progress has been made after the UN convinced Iraq to sign a memorandum of understanding to temporarily resettle the residents to a former US military base north of Baghdad. The Head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq Martin Kobler said relocation was voluntary.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday that the temporary solution had the U.S’s “full support” and that the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) would be conducting refugee status determinations for the members “toward resettlement to third countries.”
She also stressed that for the initiative to be “successful”, the camp’s residents would have to give their “full support” and urged them to “work with the UN”–an indication that resistance is expected from the MEK’s avid supporters (many are believed to be held against their will).
While the majority of MEK members have never left the camp, Rajavi has been living in Paris where she has successfully lobbied the group off the UK and EU FTO lists. The whereabouts of her husband Masoud are unknown, but some suspect he’s inside the camp. It will be interesting to see whether any new information about him is disclosed and if Maryam Rajavi will ultimately relinquish her hold on the group’s members.
So far there have been no independent confirmations of a MEK claim that Iranian rockets struck their camp on Sunday. We’ll also have to wait and see whether the residents allow themselves to be relocated out of Iraq. The only thing that’s certain is that these people–especially those who have been lured and born into Camp Ashraf–deserve a better life.
The following is an excerpt from the RAND report (pg. 38-9) for those who want to understand the MEK better.
The MeK as a Cult
From its earliest days, the MeK had had tight social bonds, but these began to be transformed into something more sinister during the mid- 1980s after the group’s leaders and many of its members had relocated to Paris. There, Masoud Rajavi began to undertake what he called an “ideological revolution,” requiring a new regimen of activities—at first demanding increased study and devotion to the cause but soon expanding into near-religious devotion to the Rajavis (Masoud and his wife, Maryam), public self-deprecation sessions, mandatory divorce, celibacy,enforced separation from family and friends, and gender segregation.
Prior to establishing an alliance with Saddam, the MeK had been a popular organization. However, once it settled in Iraq and fought against Iranian forces in alliance with Saddam, the group incurred the ire of the Iranian people and, as a result, faced a shortfall in volunteers. Thus began a campaign of disingenuous recruiting. The MeK naturally sought out Iranian dissidents, but it also approached Iranian economic migrants in such countries as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates with false promises of employment, land, aid in applying for asylum in Western countries, and even marriage, to attract them to Iraq. Relatives of members were given free trips to visit the MeK’s camps. Most of these “recruits” were brought into Iraq illegally and then required to hand over their identity documents for “safekeeping.” Thus, they were effectively trapped.
Another recruiting tactic was arranged with the assistance of Saddam’s government. Iranian prisoners from the Iran-Iraq War were offered the choice of going to MeK camps and being repatriated or remaining in Iraqi prison camps. Hundreds of prisoners went to MeK camps, where they languished. No repatriation efforts were made.
For coalition forces, the MeK’s cult behavior and questionable recruiting practices are significant insofar as they affect both the daily operations at the camp and the strategic disposition options available to the group. The leadership is unlikely to cooperate with policies that would undermine its ability to exert direct control over its members. Indeed, Human Rights Watch reports that the MeK long ago instituted a complicated process to retain members who expressed a desire to leave, which included a “trial,” forced confessions of disloyalty, and even torture. Although this process has been modified since the group was consolidated at Camp Ashraf, would-be walkaways are still “debriefed” for days or even weeks while held in some form of solitary confinement, during which they are encouraged to change their minds.
Conversely, the long-term indoctrination and isolation experienced by MeK members are likely to have instilled an exaggerated sense of loyalty, causing them to reject offers to separate themselves from their leaders. This would apply in particular to repatriation to Iran, where the expectation of persecution has been dramatically instilled in their minds.