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Controversial west advocacy for Camp Ashraf

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Peoples Mujahedin of Iran (MEK)

IPS Right Web

The People’s Muhajedin of Iran (Mojahedin-e Khalq-e Iran, or MEK) is an Islamic and Marxist-inspired militant organization that advocates the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The group was founded in 1963 as an armed guerrilla group after the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi violently suppressed opposition to his regime. Although as of early 2012 it remained on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, its delisting is the focus of an aggressive and well-funded lobbying campaign supported by a host of high-profile former public officials from across the U.S. political spectrum, including a crop of prominent neoconservatives.

According to the U.S. State Department:“The group participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that replaced the Shah with a Shiite Islamist regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini. However, the MEK’s ideology—a blend of Marxism, feminism, and Islamism—was at odds with the post-revolutionary government, and its original leadership was soon executed. In 1981, the group was driven from its bases on the Iran-Iraq border and resettled in Paris, where it began supporting Iraq in its eight-year war against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. In 1986, after France recognized the Iranian regime, the MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq, which facilitated its terrorist activities in Iran. Since 2003, roughly 3,400 MEK members have been encamped at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.”[1]

Due to the group’s cult-like organization under leader Maryam Rajavi, its support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and its participation in Saddam Hussein’s crackdowns on Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, the group has been described by the New York Times as “a repressive cult despised by most Iranians and Iraqis.”[2]

Nonetheless, by dint of a well-funded lobbying campaign organized by its supporters, MEK has presented itself to western backers as a popular and democratic Iranian opposition group that could lead the Islamic Republic to democracy—often even referring to Rajavi, who lives in exile in Paris and has never run for office in Iran, as the country’s “president-elect.”[3]

Organizations sympathetic to MEK have garnered an impressive array of establishment supporters inside Washington to speak in favor of delisting the group. The effort, according to the New York Times, “has won the support of two former C.I.A. directors, R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss; a former F.B.I. director, Louis J. Freeh; a former attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey; President George W. Bush’s first homeland security chief, Tom Ridge; President Obama’s first national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; big-name Republicans like the former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Democrats like the former Vermont governor Howard Dean; and even the former top counterterrorism official of the State Department, Dell L. Dailey, who argued unsuccessfully for ending the terrorist label while in office.”[4]

Front groups for MEK have become notorious for offering large speaking fees to recently retired officials and politicians who may or may not be familiar with the group’s history. “Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,000 to speak for 20 minutes,” said a State Department official quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. “They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say.”[5]

Underlying MEK’s more mainstream backing is bedrock of support from neoconservatives who view the group as a useful tool for challenging the Iranian regime. In addition to Woolsey and other former Bush administration officials, the group has enjoyed the avid backing of Iran hawks like former ambassador John Bolton and Clare Lopez of the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), a hawkish U.S.-based outfit whose putative goal is “empowering Iranians for regime change.”

In a 2005 Iran policy paper, IPC placed the delisting of MEK at the forefront of its proposals for U.S. policy toward Iran. The”continued designation since 1997 of the main Iranian opposition group, Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department assures Tehran that regime change is off the table,” wrote the report’s authors. “Removing the MEK’s terrorist designation would be a tangible signal to Tehran and to the Iranian people that a new option is implicitly on the table—regime change.”[6]

Mitchell Reiss, a top foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney, has also spoken on behalf of the group.[7]

MEK’s critics have likened the organization’s advocacy campaign to that of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi exile group led by Ahmed Chalabi that worked to drum up U.S. support for an invasion of Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s. By presenting itself to Western supporters as an Iraqi government-in-waiting, INC enabled Iraq hawks in the United States to claim that there was Iraqi support for the U.S. action. For Iran hawks, write Ali Fatemi and Karim Pakravan of the National Iranian American Council, “Maryam Rajavi, the MEK leader and self-proclaimed president of Iran, is their new Chalabi.”[8]

IPC in particular has embodied the link between pro-MEK groups and pro-INC groups. A 2010 investigation by the U.S. foreign policy blog LobeLog found that “through 2006, IPC shared an address, accountants, and some staff with multiple organizations that either fronted for or had direct ties to the INC, even sharing staff members with those groups. Some of those ties have continued through today.”[9]


Founded in 1963, MEK was one of the many Iranian factions that supported the overthrow of the shah in 1979.[10] However, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor, it was the only one that used violence against Americans in the run-up to the revolution, launching a string of assassinations and attacks against American military and diplomatic officers in Iran in the 1970s.

The group was expelled from Iran in 1981 when it fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khomeini in a post-revolutionary power struggle.[11] Since then, it has launched thousands of attacks against Iranians it has deemed “agents of the regime,” peaking at a rate of three assassinations per day in the 1980s, and staged high-profile raids on Iranian diplomatic offices all over the world—including an orchestrated set of attacks on 12 diplomatic facilities in 10 countries on a single day in 1992.[12]

In the mid-1980s, MEK settled in Iraq as a guest of Saddam Hussein, who offered the group use of Camp Ashraf, an encampment and army base north of Baghdad. There, not only did MEK fight on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq war, but it also helped Saddam crush the CIA-instigated Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that came on the tail of the 1991 Gulf War, leading to the precipitous erosion of its support in Iran and Iraq alike.[13]

MEK’s fighters at Ashraf were disarmed by the United States following the fall of Saddam’s government in 2003. In the ensuing years, the camp was subject to occasionally violent raids by the new Iraqi government, which sparked concerns about further violence or a humanitarian crisis when it ordered the camp closed by the end of 2011. Although the Ashraf issue is separate from the issue of MEK’s status as a terrorist organization, MEK’s backers in the West have often used the conditions at the camp to garner sympathy for the group’s broader agenda in Washington and to argue that its continued listing as a terrorist group is the cause of its mistreatment.[14]

In late 2011, the United Nations and the Iraqi government agreed on a plan to relocate the Ashraf encampment to a new location in northeastern Iraq—possibly Camp Liberty near the Baghdad international airport—but as of January 2012 the relocation had yet to take place.[15]

MEK’s current lobbying efforts were foreshadowed in a 1994 report by the U.S. State Department, which concluded that the group was unlikely to be serious about its democratic overtures. According to the Christian Science Monitor:

“Noting the MEK’s ‘dedication to armed struggle’; the ‘fact that they deny or distort sections of their history, such as the use of violence’; the ‘dictatorial methods’ of their leadership; and the ‘cult-like behavior of its members,’ the State Dept. concluded that the MEK’s ‘29-year record of behavior does not substantiate its capability or intention to be democratic.’

“That report describes tactics that foreshadow the MEK’s lobbying campaign today, 16 years later. It notes a ‘formidable Mojahidin outreach program,’ which ‘solicits the support of prominent public figures,’ and the ‘common practice … to collect statements issued by prominent individuals.’”[16]

The group formally renounced the use of violence in 2001, but an FBI investigation found MEK members to be “actively involved in planning and executing acts of terrorism” as recently as 2004.

Institute for Policy Studies/Right Web
[Please note: IPS Right Web neither represents nor endorses any of the individuals or groups profiled on this site.]

[1] U.S. State Department, “Country Reports on Terrorsm 2010: Chapter Six: Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” August 2011,
[2] Scott Shane, “For Obscure Iranian Exile Group, Broad Support in U.S.,” New York Times, November 26, 2011,
[3] See Matt Duss, “The MEK Are Not Iran’s ‘Democratic Opposition,” Middle East Progress, July 19, 2011,
[4] Scott Shane, “For Obscure Iranian Exile Group, Broad Support in U.S.,” New York Times, November 26, 2011,
[5] Scott Peterson, “Iranian group’s big-money push to get off US terrorist list,” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2011, p. 3,
[6] Iran Policy Committee, “U.S. Policy Options for Iran,” February 10, 2005,
[7] Eli Clifton, “Romney Adviser Advocating For Controversial Iranian Terrorist Group,” ThinkProgress, August 23, 2011,
[8] Fatemi and Karim Pakravan, “War With Iran? US Neocons Aim to Repeat Chalabi-Style Swindle Ali,” Truthout, July 15, 2011.
[9] Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton, “Neocon Iran Policy Committee tied to disgraced Iraqi National Congress,” LobeLog, September 10, 2010,
[10] U.S. State Department, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2010: Chapter Six: Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” August 2011,
[11] U.S. State Department, “Country Reports on Terrorism 2010: Chapter Six: Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” August 2011,
[12] Scott Peterson, “Iranian group’s big-money push to get off US terrorist list,” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2011, p. 7,
[13] Scott Peterson, “Iranian group’s big-money push to get off US terrorist list,” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2011, p. 8,
[14] See, for example, Eli Clifton, “Defending MEK, Mukasey, Ridge & Freeh Attack Obama For Hastily Exiting Iraq, While Admitting He’s Trying To Stay,” ThinkProgress, August 15, 2011,
[15] AP, “UN, Iraq agree on Camp Ashraf resettlement plan,” December 26, 2011,
[16] Scott Peterson, “Iranian group’s big-money push to get off US terrorist list,” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 2011, p. 8,

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