The terrorist status of the exiled Iranian resistance might be used to pressure Iran’s regime over the next few months as the US, the UN and the EU step up efforts to get the country to comply with specific rules on its nuclear program. The proposition is simple: the Mujahiddeen stays on the terrorist list for at least another two years and in return for this goodwill, Iran is more forthcoming in its nuclear pledges.
There wouldn’t be all that much substance to such a deal, but comments from diplomats reveal that it’s been pondered rather matter of factly time and again as a feasible bargaining ploy. The exiled Iranian resistance groups’ terrorist label can either be used as little more than a bargaining chip or -less likely- they might find that they might be fitted into a US cooked up plan for inciting popular uprisings inside Iran. Both ends of the spectrum have implications that might be unforeseen.
At the center of the action would be the dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). It is also known as the Mujahiddeen el Khalq (MeK) or the National Liberation Army (NLA). Some 3,000 of its members have been granted protection in July 2004 by the US in their camp in Ashraf, northwest of Baghdad. The organization’s main appeal to Western backers, of whom the Europeans are even more enthusiastic than the Americans, is the result of intensive campaigning over the last 15 years. In a sense, it has found the perfect organizational formula to win over Western hearts and minds – it puts women’s rights at the heart of its philosophy. Women make out 30 percent of the group yet they are covering 70% of all leadership functions.
The MeK has successfully attracted world media attention and it appears that it charmes work. US congress member for Florida, Illeana Ros Lehtinen, who frequently campaigns for the recognition of Iranian resistance groups certainly will have bought into the female message. However, it appears that the group got some wires crossed when it made news headlines that indicated practices in stark contrast with such lofty idealism. The freedom fighters have a dysmal appreciation of human rights according to a report last May by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report exacerbated the controversy surrounding the terrorist status of the group, and highlighted some rather gruesome incidents inflicted on people trying to leave the group. One of the instances involved a former bodyguard of Rajavi. Le Parisien describes what happened to him. "When he decided to leave MKO, they injected narcotics into his body and Tahmasebi was under heavy mental torture". The former bodyguard’s fate was relatively mild compared to the punishments the leadership cooked up for other members and which frequently ended in the death of the people punished.
Even though in some eyes the MeK has made significant strides in becoming an acceptable organization, vowing to lay off terrorist actions, insiders say that the last decade its leaders have adopted a cult like aura that not everyone has found to be admirable and which likely contributed to its difficulty in recruiting new members. In the early 1990s, the husband and wife team leading the group, Masoud Rajavi and Maryam Uzdanlu, asked all its members to undertake their own "ideological revolution" by divorcing their spouses. One of the victims of this kind of brainwashing operation is the Iran affairs analyst Ali Reeza Jafarzade who frequently appears on Fox TV. An Iranian exile, Jafarzade is an ex MeK member, as well as the head of a think tank that is not part of the group. It was Jafarzade who was the NCRI’s official spokesman breaking the news to the world of Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz and Arak two years ago.
Iran Interlink, an organization that claims to reveal the MeK’s true face to the world, runs a website that claims that Jafarzade married his wife, Robabeh Sadeghi of Babol, in 1986 on Massoud Rajavi’s orders. Four years later, the couple divorced after Rajavi told all the group’s members to do so for ideological reasons. Iran Interlink published a bio of Jafarzade, that cast a shadow of doubt over his links with Fox News. "Fox News now introduces Jafarzadeh as either their employee or as the head of a consultancy company. But as recently as 2002 the same man was interviewed by Fox News as the MKO’s representative in the US Congress", according to the website. "There are serious allegations that Jafarzadeh has been involved in illegal deals in the USA, including deals involving chemicals which can be used to produce WMDs. There are also allegations that the MKO, with him as its representative, have been involved in serious money laundering and drug trafficking in the USA. These allegations, as well as his and Fox News’ dodgy connections in Washington, are currently under investigation," Iran interlink contends. Jafarzadeh apparently was such a committed member that he repeatedly volunteered for suicide operations, Interlink claims, adding that in one of the organization’s publications he is quoted as saying that he is ready to burn himself in front of the UN’s New York office whenever it is needed.
Even though it is unlikely that the MeK is not at all involved in helping out the covert agents running around inside Iran, it is equally unlikely that they are being heavily relied upon as an organization, observers believe. Ron Jacobs at counterpunch.com believes that it is not necessarily logical to expect that the US would immediately enlist the services of the NCRI’s members to conduct a foreign invasion of the country, even though this group has been actively publicizing the locations of Iran’s nuclear sites. "Should change come to Iran with minimal US interference, it seems likely that those groups and people with the fewest connections to DC will be those held in greatest favor by the Iranian people", Jacobs believes. But it is difficult to get a clear picture on this issue.
The only recent official sign that the Bush administration is working on the situation was the release by the US State Department to members of Congress of a classified report entitled ‘non compliance report’, covering the nuclear situation in Iran and a few other countries. Parts of the report were publicized, but it was also announced that there is a "secret" as well as a "top secret" version of the report in circulation – a clear sign that Washington wants the world to know that the wheels are turning.
For all that it matters, the main investigations that are ongoing into the role of individuals and groups like the NCRI are also mostly classified. It is virtually impossible to gain access to even the review dates of the three State Department lists that brand the MeK as a terrorist organization and which happens every two years.
This is bad news for the MeK, which has focused on losing the terrorist stigma for the last Decade. In recent years, the MeK appealed three times to the United States Court of Appeals to review the 1999 and 2001 decisions of the state Department to designate it as a foreign terrorist organization. But from a rational point of view it would be hardly possible to grant the MeK its wish. The Bush administration has named the organization a major reason for its invasion in Iraq, believe it or not. In a white paper released in September 2002, the US administration restated a claim President Bush had made before in a speech to the UN General Assembly, saying that one of the main reasons it had invaded Iraq had been its "sheltering of terrorist groups including the Mujahideen-e-Khalq Organization, which has used terrorist violence against Iran and in the 1970s was responsible for killing several U.S. military personnel and U.S. civilians." Michele Steinberg, a writer for the Executive Intelligence Review says that "the only major concrete charge that the Bush administration made about a terrorist organization was against, rather than in favor of the MeK.
One of the allegations to haunt the organization most persistently is that it was actively involved in suppressing an uprising of the Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1991. One of its official spokespeople has a lot of experience countering this threat and says that even the PKA dismisses these allegations. That’s one example of putting out a fire that showcases the organization’s potential use yet again as an outfit that conveys reliability. If the US administration is at all orchestrating the publicity, it’s casting the group as precisely this – a source of information.
Aside from the revelations on the two nuclear power plants that the Iranian leadership had not told the IAEA about, Jafarzade has recently started to take to repeating stories. News broken to the world by the Financial Times a few months ago was regurgitated once again, as well as the allegations that there are some 4,000 centrifuges spinning at full speed inside Iranian nuclear facilities. What the point is of such allegations is dubious. Outside observers believe that Washington might be readying the public opinion for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. Analysts say that the majority of the policymakers in favor of attacking Iran favor this option over inciting an uprising. "Even so, the fate of democracy in Iran will hardly be determined solely in Washington. A year after NATO bombed Serbia to halt Milosevic’s brutal crackdown against the Kosovo Albanians, Serbian students led a peaceful struggle to overthrow Milosevic. The forces that lead to regime change are often unpredictable — and not easily suppressed", writes Laura Rozen, who is voicing just what some analysts at lobby groups are banking on. It remains to be seen whether such a scenario will be volunteered as easily. People at NCRI say they have a very difficult time educating the population on just how much money the Iranian regime is spending on the nuclear program. If the population finds it has any bones to pick with their government, it will likely be more inspired by economic incentives that are more readily digestible.
Rozen believes that a strike wouldn’t be without considerable risks either. "However, an unfortunate link might be made between the even more unfortunate bombing by US troops of Sarajevo .. in 1998 … US leaders might be dreaming of a similar scenario, when, a month after the bombing, a peaceful demonstration of a bunch of students led to the revolt that ousted the then president Slobodan Milosovic. However, it’s unlikely that policymakers will be so naieve as to think history repeats itself at their whim even without making an attempt whatsoever."
The main challenge the Iranian resistance abroad poses aside from the controversy surrounding the status of the MeK in the US and France are widely convering views within the organizations. For all the MeK hype’s worth, one wonders whether alternative support of Iranian dissidents exists besides the choice of this flagship group. But this is offset by equally few scrupules over trading the MeK’s terrorist status for better nuclear pledges from the Iranian regime. From the ground up however, there is a growing movement among Brussels politicians that wants to end the restrictions on the MeK as an organization. The French closed the organization down two years ago . They kicked out the organization before too, when in 1986 it forced the movement to relocate to Baghdad and effectively hire itself out as Saddam Hussein’s private army. Surprisingly, the French are said to be most effective in garnering results from nuclear negotiations.
It’s most likely the MeK is only used to incite terror inside Iran in a non official capacity. Or even without direct approval from the very people that are responsible at the top in the US Bush administration. This won’t be a unique development. The officials like Bush and Rice were not informed of the decision by the US army to give the Mujahiddeen fighters their arms back upon invading Iraq and very shortly after the group were bombed by the Iraqi army. Yet as soon as she got wind of what the Vice President Dick Cheney and a few like minded friends were condoning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled this agreement and declared the Asraf grounds a protected zone later on. It is US policy not to allow dealings between US officials and members of organizations that officially are listed as terrorist. The US, round about the same time as France, closed the MeK offices in the summer of 2003.
Even from the more recent State Department documents it appears that there is scepticism within the State Department. The Decades old claim that the group is essentially Marxist and that it does not envisage Iran as an Islamic state has obviously not been updated for years save on its stay in Iraq. "The MeK philosophy mixes Marxism and Islam. […] Its primary support came from the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein starting in the late 1980s. The MeK conducted anti-Western attacks prior to the Islamic Revolution. Since then, it has conducted terrorist attacks against the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad. The MeK advocates the overthrow of the Iranian regime and its replacement with the group’s own leadership."
Massoud Rajavi confirms that a Marxist coup d’etat took place within the group when he was in prison following the street rallies in the MeK’s heydays, but that he managed to regain control even from his prison cell. In a bid to make the organization acceptable overseas, he has repeatedly repudiated all Marxist leanings. Aside from its dodgy philosophical makeup, information about how the group functions internally reads much like the accounts of the Davidian Waco cult that was butchered by the FBI in Texas in 1993. Radio messages are broadcast every day to induce members to the gospel according to its leaders and psychological pressure is the standard way of conveying orders. The MeK’s long history starts in 1965, when three former students of Tehran University -Mohammad Hanifnezhad, Saeed Mohsen and Asghar Badizadegan set up the movement to help topple the regime of the much hated Shah. They made Marxism and Islam the foundation of their ideology, a trend that most groups of the time participated in. The MeK found soon after the revolution that the new Ayatollah-run regime would simply not trust it or allow it any role in public life and took to arms. On June 20 1981, the movement started to organize mass rallies and soon thousands of its members inside Iran were arrested and executed in the streets because they had participated in regime hostile activities. With the anti-shah revolution still fresh in the Iranian people’s minds, the new regime’s leaders had legitimate worries that a similar fate could rather easily befall them.
The Mujahiddeen nowadays is not seen by experts as a major military outfit, but it has known its moments and could be up for a similar refashioning. Maryam Rajavi has been arrested while hiding in France and is currently awaiting trial on terrorism related charges. Husband Massoud hasn’t been seen in two years. Meanwhile, Iran Interlink reports that Maryam has been replaced by someone who served in Saddam Hussein’s private army, and who in turn is succeeding a deputy leader that has mysteriously disappeared from the scene. All is very sensitive in Tehran. The European Parliament invited Maryam to outline an alternative view for state organization in Iran and outraged the Iranian regime. It shows yet again that the organization’s international standing is somewhat of a potent bargaining chip with Tehran.
The impression one gets from the official organization is however that the MeK’s aspirations to topple the Iranian regime and replace it with its own officers are still going strong. But the ambitions are rather hopeless without some staunch backing. "The presence of a female-dominated army prepared to fight the mullahs and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards is a powerful symbol to all women in the region. Its effectiveness is not in its military might. The fact that the army exists at all is a huge threat to all male-dominated fundamentalist regimes. It shows what women can do", says Anne Land, a Danish Human Rights lawyer who visited Camp Ashraf. Yet last Summer’s human rights watch report has set the scene once again for a review of the group’s ‘sins of the past’. It looks increasingly difficult to fit the organization in any official US plan for regime change. For all its campaigning however to lose the terrorist label and to muster international support for the dream team of husband and wife aided by an army of innocent virgins, the MeK simply has too much blood on its hands for it to be feasibly considered suitable material by even the most unconscionable neocon in Washington.
Within Iran, the MeK won’t be greeted with open arms either. "The MKO are highly disliked and disregarded by Iranians worldwide. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein financed and utilized the MKO to institute several attacks against Iranians," a writer at the IranTruth blog writes. These reports are confirmed time and again. It appears that it’s likely going to be rather difficult to gain trust as an organization that once has taken up arms against its own people -in the 1988 Iran Iraq war- rather than against only the regime in Tehran. The group is also widely perceived by the Iranian population to have been actively involved in suppressing the Kurds in 1991, together with Saddam’s army. "The MKO do not gain immunity for their previous actions simply by refraining from targeting European and American targets for 30 years", according to the IranTruth blog.
Angelique van Engelen is a former Middle East correspondent and currently runs a writing agency http://www.contentclix.com. She also participates in a writing ring http://clixyplays.blogspot.com/