For the last several months, articles about the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident group, have spread like wildfire through the mainstream U.S. press. The firestorm began in early February 2012 after anonymous White House officials accused the group of assassinating several Iranian nuclear scientists with the help of the Israeli government. Media coverage gained further traction after reports surfaced about alleged payments made by the MEK to former, high-ranking U.S. officials in exchange for their work in lobbying to remove the group from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
While focused mainly on these issues, the MEK media frenzy has also reflected several notable tendencies. First, the coverage has overwhelmingly depicted the group as a cultish, terrorist organization. Second, with its single-minded focus on the group’s “terrorist” pedigree, reporting on the MEK has made short shrift of the its long, complex, and controversial history. Little background has been provided on the group’s origins as a popular political organization and transformation into a resistance movement in exile, and even less insight has been given about its current status as a cult-like group.
In order to evaluate competing claims about the MEK’s terrorist credentials and its current position vis a vis the United States, Iran, and Israel, an understanding of this history is critical.
The Political Organization
The MEK was established in 1965 by three young university-educated professionals, Mohammed Hanifnejad, who would become the group’s first leader, Saied Mohsen, and Ali Asghar Badi’zadegan. From its inception, the organization dedicated itself to the overthrow of Iran’s then-ruler, Reza Shah Pahlavi. While committed to armed struggle, the MEK’s work remained largely non-violent and focused on spreading its anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist message to students and factory workers, among others.
The MEK espoused a political ideology described as “Eslame Vaghee” or “True Islam,” which combined Islamic concepts with principles of social justice. While religious practices, like daily prayer, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and zakat (alms giving to the poor), formed an important part of its political philosophy, the MEK was far from a militant Islamic organization. Eschewing regressive and reactionary forms of Islam, the MEK’s religious philosophy developed out of a commitment to the progressive, liberating power of Islam and reflected Iranian society’s strong Islamic identity.
Over time, the MEK gained substantial support, particularly among students, religious clerics, and “bazaaris,” Iran’s powerful merchant class. In response to this growing popularity, the MEK’s leadership and many of its supporters were arrested in 1971 by the SAVAK, Iran’s notorious secret police. While the organization’s founders along with most of its leadership were executed in April-May 1972, a handful of MEK leaders were spared execution and sentenced to life imprisonment. Among this small group was Massoud Rajavi, who would go on to become the MEK’s primary leader in the decades to come.
After the Iranian Revolution began and MEK leaders were released from prison, the group formally joined forces with various organizations, including the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Living as an exile in Paris during the lead up to the revolution, Khomeini had appreciated the value of working with the MEK, which enjoyed a strong support base inside the country.
This collaborative relationship substantially changed after the Ayatollah’s triumphant return to Iran in February 1979, following the ouster of Iran’s shah. Shortly after his arrival, the Ayatollah’s followers presented the MEK with an ultimatum – either unconditionally support Khomeini as Iran’s next ruler or face political isolation. Refusing to accept these terms, the group began publicly opposing Khomeini’s bid for power.
An outright war quickly developed between the two sides, with the new government arresting and killing countless MEK followers. The group responded with armed attacks against government installations and officials. By mid to late 1981, most MEK members who had not been arrested or killed fled the country, in what would become permanent exile for most.
Armed Resistance in Exile
Now focused on toppling the Islamic Republic, the MEK continued its work abroad. It established political headquarters in Paris and operated a series of “kanoons”, or community centers, around the world, including in several U.S. cities. A kanoon, which was typically an apartment or house owned or rented by a MEK supporter, served as a gathering place, center for grassroots organizing, and venue for community celebrations. In the early 1980s, most MEK members living outside of Iran were overwhelmingly young, recent émigrés. For these displaced individuals, the kanoons represented a safe haven, where they could live rent-free, speak Farsi, socialize, and meet other like-minded individuals.
Despite the civic and political work happening in these venues, armed resistance was at the heart of the MEK’s struggle against the Islamic Republic. In 1986, with the blessing of Saddam Hussein, the group established Camp Ashraf, a military base in Iraq near the Iran-Iraq border. Here, the MEK transformed its most committed supporters, both male and female, into a conventional fighting force. Periodically, this small but fervent group of soldiers would stage incursions into Iran [and only Iran], the most notable coming after the 1988 ceasefire ending the Iran-Iraq war.
While Saddam had provided the MEK with the vast majority of its arms, by the end of the 1991 Gulf War, this financial and logistical support had started to dwindle, an unintended victim of UN sanctions against Iraq. While the MEK continued to stage minor assaults into Iran, armed incursions became less and less feasible, and less and less frequent throughout the 1990s.
To add insult to injury, the MEK was also becoming increasingly irrelevant as an opposition group, having lost substantial support among the Iranian public. Many MEK supporters still inside Iran had been executed in 1988, in an infamous purge of the notorious Evin Prison. The decision to center MEK operations in Iraq was, however, the most damaging to the group’s reputation. Despite the clear practical and strategic reasons for this move, many Iranians saw the establishment of Camp Ashraf as an act of national betrayal, coming as it did during the height of the Iran-Iraq war.
With prospects of toppling the Islamic Republic increasingly slim, the MEK focused on perpetuating its ideology and maintaining the devotion of its remaining members. Massoud Rajavi was presented as the organization’s god-like ideological father, while his wife, Maryam Rajavi, became the figurehead and public face of MEK leadership. Despite an avowed commitment to democratic ideals, the MEK intensified its already regimented system of internal governance, quashing dissent and rewarding only those blindly obedient to the group’s leadership.
Although these tendencies had existed before the post-Gulf War period, panic and desperation took these practices into overdrive. In the hopes of developing a devoted cadre of followers, the MEK divided families, separating husbands from wives and parents from children. Many of the organization’s most fervent members, who had willingly given up family and career, became wholly dependent upon the MEK. For these individuals, daily life was largely restricted to the confines of Camp Ashraf, the Paris headquarters, or the kanoons. These institutions functioned as echo chambers in which the organization’s philosophy was repeatedly emphasized. To feed this propaganda machine, the MEK, which already published its own books and newspaper, created a satellite television network, began producing its own music, and, eventually, had its own boy band to boot.
While this strategy helped forge a deeply committed, though small, group of MEK supporters, for many the intolerance and subjugation was unbearable. Unsurprisingly, throughout the 1990s, the group lost scores of supporters.
The United States, Israel, and Iran
With its armed activities curtailed, its support within Iran virtually non-existent, and its membership abroad dwindling, in the 1990s, the MEK increased efforts to build support among Western government officials. While the results were tepid at best, the Presidency of George W. Bush, September 11, 2011, and the 2003 Iraq invasion changed the rules of the game. Suddenly, prominent American politicians of the neo-conservative strain were ready to speak with the MEK. And the MEK was more willing than ever to join these conversations.
In 1997, the group had been placed on the State Department’s terrorism list, in response to pressure from Iranian President Mahmoud Khatami. In the hopes that Khatami, a reformer, would soften Iran’s stance towards the United States, the Clinton Administration acquiesced to the request. Although the State Department designation initially had little affect on the MEK, after September 11th, the group’s activities in the United States were significantly curtailed, coming to a near standstill.
Desperation makes strange bedfellows. Facing virtual annihilation, in 2002-2003, the MEK solidified its now notorious relationship with certain neo-conservative elements of the Bush Administration, as well as with the Israeli government. In the short-term, the MEK focused on removing its name from the State Department list and protecting its military base in Iraq, which was threatened by talks of an impending U.S. invasion of the country. In the long-term, the group saw its dreams of toppling the Iranian government align perfectly (for the first time) with the goals of a sitting U.S. President. Israeli support for the MEK was welcomed for similar reasons, although the assistance was deeper both ideologically and logistically. The MEK’s leadership threw itself head on into cultivating these relationships and the rest, as they say, is history.
As it stands today, the MEK is a broken and largely irrelevant group. Concerned only with generating support among a narrow segment of the U.S. political elite, it has engaged in a bitter rivalry with a number of Iranian-American leaders and groups, such as the National Iranian American Council. While this bad blood partly explains the recent negative publicity about the MEK, at base, the group remains very insular and secretive, with little interest in cultivating public opinion within Iran or the diaspora.
Given its past relationships and strategic-interests, rumors about the MEK’s role in assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists may be true, and, if so, raise serious concerns about removing the group from the State Department’s list. Putting these allegations aside, however, the MEK’s reach and impact, whether inside or outside Iran, has dwindled to a trickle. With its Iraqi military base virtually lost and its credibility with most Iranians permanently destroyed, the group has come far from its roots as a popular political organization. Regardless of the power and influence of its new friends, the MEK stands little chance of ever coming to power in Iran.