The Mujahideen-e Khalq will never have the necessary popular grassroots to carry the banner of a future revolution against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
With the failure of yet another round of nuclear talks and the Islamic Republic of Iran remaining ever more defiant, sentiments in the West may once again shift to regime change and positioning opposition groups as alternatives to the current leadership. The Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian Islamic-leftist terrorist organization, is one of the major such opposition groups to the current regime in Iran.
Espousing a controversial blend of Islamic-Marxism and claimed secular outlook, the MEK originated from anti-Shah university students. It later adapted into the cultish militant group of the 1990s and eventually into the self-described liberal-Islamic alternative to the regime that exists in Tehran today.
Continuing an apparent metamorphosis, the MEK and its associates claim to have shirked their original anti-Western roots and now seek recognition by the international system in their struggle to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran and to establish an apparent democratic society with secular ideals. From their current base of operations in Iraq and around the world, the MEK continue to fight a battle for legitimacy and identity through a well-funded lobbying campaign to gain the favor of the West and facilitate opposition to the Islamic Republic. Still, the MEK’s violent history and Iran’s long cultural memory do not bode well for its prospects of acceptance by Iranians as an alternative to the authoritarian state. Thus, while it will continue to expediently transform, it is unlikely that the MEK can effectively rebrand its image to suit the Iranian people. This can be attributed to its violent history, cultish overtones, and cooperation with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
Enemy of the State
The MEK’s ideology has been developing since the group emerged in 1963. Initially, the organization sought to antagonize what it perceived as a US–Shah dependent relationship. Violent undercurrents were evident in their efforts as some members underwent combat training with fighters from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). By 1972 two failed attacks on the regime brought reprisals as the SAVAK — the Shah’s secret police — imprisoned half their members. The militant trend continued as the MEK’s terrorist attacks and street fighting, with Westerners also in the crosshairs, contributed to the overthrow of the Shah. In the consolidation of power after the Shah fell, the MEK positioned itself as ideologically antithetical to the proponents of an Islamic republic, and thus suffered additional retaliations.
The group eventually dissolved and its remaining leadership fled from the hostility of the Islamic regime. In 1981, the leaders escaped to Paris and completed the transition of the MEK from a grassroots peoples’ movement to a cultish organization focusing on an armed attrition. From their base of operations, the MEK fought a “tit for tat” with Hezbollah, engaging Iranian targets across the world.
From Terrorists to Traitors
While the MEK has an extensive public history of violence in Iran, the pinnacle of its repugnance in the eyes of many Iranians came during its cooperation with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Chased out of Iran, the MEK settled under the wing of the Ba’athist regime in the 1980s. From Iraq, the National Liberation Army (NLA), the paramilitary wing of the group, carried out military excursions and over the horizon attacks on Iran. Directly fighting against their countrymen while guests of Saddam, the MEK reached a new low for Iranians as it became allies with one of Iran’s most hated enemies in one of her bloodiest wars.
After the Iran-Iraq War, the counterstrike between Iran and the MEK continued well into the 1990s. Military incursions into Iran were met with an MEK base falling victim to Iranian airpower. In response, 13 Iranian embassies were targeted by the MEK. Other attacks inside Iran, such as bombings and assassinations, continued throughout the decade.
In 2002, the MEK released corroborated intelligence that Iran was covertly enriching uranium, seeking to gain the favor of the West and to undermine Tehran. Today, the MEK remains on the US State Department’s terrorism list, and its personnel in Iraq at Camp Ashraf remain in a dangerous state of flux while their fate is debated in a newly hostile Iraq. Despite the publically uneasy relations with Western governments, the MEK reportedly maintains a partnership with international intelligence agencies in a covert sabotage and espionage effort against Iran’s nuclear program.
As the MEK continues to weather hostility from the Iraqi government, it also fights a different kind of battle for legitimacy from the West. The MEK’s old hostility towards the West has been supplanted by a professional and well-funded public relations campaign to convince Western policy elites of a reformation from a violent past and of the MEK’s new status as a viable democratic opposition group to the Islamic Republic.
Regardless of whether these claims of rebirth are true, the MEK faces huge obstacles in its struggle for legitimacy in the hearts and minds of the Iranian people. Its violent history of political resistance and its treasonous relationship with Saddam has left a stubborn sense of loathing for the organization within Iranian consciousness. The animosity and mistrust for the MEK will be persistent as history shows that the proud Persian culture does not take such interference and hostility lightly.
For Iranians, past “insults” persist within their cultural memory; the Arab invasion of the Sassanid Empire in the 7th century is still lamented to this day in Iranian culture as a grand affront against Persian heritage. In modern times, Iranian’s have felt their sovereignty was being infringed upon due to the great game in Iran being played by Russia, Britain and the US. Indeed, this has not been forgotten either.
Perhaps most salient is the American led coup d’état of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953, which resulted in a still seething animosity and blowback, which helped trigger the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Furthermore, Iranians are very nationalistic, and in dire straits, such as during the Iran-Iraq War, they have supported their country despite reservations towards the new Islamic Republic. It is thus unlikely that the proud Iranian public will forget the MEK’s violent, cultish and treasonous past.
Although clouded by the intense propaganda from both the Islamic Republic and the MEK, there appears to be very little love or sympathy for the MEK from Iranians. These sentiments are practical corroborators of the theoretical possibility that, despite its resistance to the hated Iranian regime, the MEK will continue to receive its share of animosity from Iranians.
If not mass popular appeal, the MEK does have impressive funding and apparent support from entities not well disposed to the Iranian regime. However, without a grassroots momentum, the MEK can never become the viable superstructure of an opposition movement that some in the West, who ignore the MEK’s failings for the potential prize of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, hope for.
In fact, it need not be.[..]
That is not to say that MEK has no role in Iran’s future. In the past, revolutionary scale resistance movements in Iran have been populist amalgamations of varied and diverse groups from both the right and the left. If the cauldron of popular dissent once more reaches a critical point in Iran, the MEK cannot hope to completely — ideologically and fundamentally — encompass what will surely be a larger and more diverse enterprise. Nonetheless, that reality does not preclude it from some role in fighting with their fellow Iranians, as they have in the past, for a free future.
Ari Katz, Fairobserver