The MEK cut a ‘swath of terror’ in the Middle East, but leaders have worked hard to convince the west they are peaceful now
Why did the US designate the MEK a terrorist organisation in 1997?
The MEK’s supporters say it was banned as a move by the Clinton administration to appease the Iranian government. The US state department, which decides which groups to include on the list of designated terrorist organisations, points to a long and bloody history.
The MEK ran a bombing campaign inside Iran against the Shah’s regime the 1970s. The targets were sometimes American, including the US information office, Pepsi Cola, PanAm and General Motors. The group routinely denounced Zionism and "racist Israel", and called for "death to America".
A state department report in 1992 identified the MEK as responsible for the killing of six Americans in Iran during the 1970s. They included three military officers and three men working for Rockwell International, a conglomerate specialising in aerospace including weapons, who were murdered in retaliation for the arrest of MEK members over the killings of the US military officers.
The MEK was an enthusiastic supporter of the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran following the Iranian revolution. It called the eventual release of the American hostages a "surrender".
After falling out with Iran’s new rulers, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, the MEK launched a bomb campaign against the Islamic government. In 1981, it attacked the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party, killing 74 senior officials including the party leader and 27 members of parliament. A few months later it bombed a meeting of Iran’s national security council, killing Iran’s president and the prime minister.
The state department described the MEK as cutting a "swath of terror" across the country in the following years and of "violent attacks in Iran that victimise civilians".
"Since 1981 the [MEK] have claimed responsibility for murdering thousands of Iranians they describe as agents of the regime," the report said.
The bombings continued into the 1990s including one at [Ayatollah]Khomeini’s tomb and against oil refineries.
Who supported the MEK?
After the MEK leadership fell out with the Islamic regime it fled first to Paris. France expelled the MEK leader, Masud Rajavi, in 1986. The group then ran into the arms of Iran’s enemy, the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Iraq helped arm the MEK’s thousands of fighters with artillery, guns and tanks and housed them in three camps near Baghdad and along the border with Iran. Baghdad also supplied money.
The MEK’s armed wing, the National Liberation Army (NLA), conducted raids into Iran during the last stages of the Iran-Iraq war. It also became a tool of Saddam Hussein’s campaign of internal oppression.
"The NLA’s last major offensive reportedly was conducted against Iraqi Kurds in 1991 when it joined Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression of the Kurdish rebellion," the state department report said.
The last major act of violence committed by the MEK in the west was in 1992 when it stormed Iranian diplomatic missions in the US, Britain, Canada, Germany, France and Switzerland. The assault was in response to an Iranian air force bombing raid on an MEK base in Iraq.
Wouldn’t the killing of Americans, calls for the destruction of Israel and supporting Saddam Hussein be enough to scare off any American politician from ever supporting the MEK?
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed everything for the MEK. Its fighters at Camp Ashraf, near the Iranian border, and other sites near Baghdad were disarmed by the Americans. The MEK leadership moved swiftly to distance itself from Saddam Hussein, emphasising its opposition to the Islamic government in Tehran and casting its supporters as selfless and long suffering supporters of freedom and democracy. From then on the MEK reinvented itself in American eyes.
Until the 1990s it was known as the People’s Holy Warriors of Iran, but that’s not the kind of name to win support in the west these days so it tweaked the name.
Two decades ago, the state department identified the MEK as running what it called "a determined lobbying effort among western parliamentarians".
"To conduct its propaganda campaign the group has established offices through western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia and the Middle East," it said. "Through such efforts, the (MEK) attempt to transform western opprobrium for the government of Iran into expressions of support for themselves".
The MEK leadership has played on opposition to the present Iranian leadership, which is in part bound up with concerns among US politicians over Tehran’s nuclear programme and fears for Israel’s security, to bury its past by portraying itself as a democratic and popular alternative to the Islamic regime.
"Exploiting western opprobrium of the behaviour of the current government of Iran, the (MEK) posit themselves as the alternative. To achieve that goal, they claim they have the support of a majority of Iranians. This claim is much disputed by academics and other specialists on Iran, who assert that in fact the MEK have little support among Iranians," it said.
The state department report quotes an American journalist as saying of the MEK: "They hope to transform their public image in America from terrorists to freedom fighters".
It appears to have been largely successful in that. Few of the MEK’s American backers appear to know the detail of its past, particularly the scale of its killing and the depth of its hostility to the US and Israel. Instead it described as a loyal and useful ally. Supporters say that it was the MEK that first provided the US with information about Iran’s nuclear programme.
Has the MEK changed?
It has certainly abandoned violence, at least for now. But that is in part because it was forcibly disarmed by the US army in Iraq. It also recognises that since 9/11, bombing attacks by a mostly Muslim organisation are not likely to win it friends in the west.
In exile, the MEK leadership established the National Council of Resistance which has evolved into what the group calls a parliament in exile.
But the MEK is far from democratic. It is autocratically run by a husband and wife, Masud and Maryam Rajavi, who the state department say have "fostered a cult of personality".
In its 1992 report on the MEK, the state department said the group’s leadership "never practices democracy within their organisation".
"Many Iranians who have dealt with MEK members assert that the [MEK] suppress dissent, often with force, and do not tolerate different viewpoints. The [MEK’s] credibility is also undermined by the fact that they deny or distort sections of their history, such as the use of violence or opposition to Zionism. It is difficult to accept at face value promises of future conduct when an organisation fails to acknowledge its past," the report said.
So what is the likelihood of the MEK being unbanned?
As part of their campaign, the MEK’s supporters have won a federal court order requiring the state department to make a decision on whether the group should remain on the designated terrorist list by October 1.
Some pro-MEK activists have interpreted that as a foregone conclusion that the state department will have to delist the organisation. They have been bolstered by its unbanning in Europe.
The MEK’s well financed and organised lobbying campaign has placed enormous pressure on the state department to delist the group. But the state department has warned the MEKthat its status will in part be decided over whether it obeys a demand to leave its main camp in Iraq. Its refusal, so far, to move remaining supporters from Camp Ashraf – where it used to train its paramilitary fighters – to a former US military base near Baghdad is said by the state department to be a significant obstacle to delisting the group.
The MEK has moved 2,000 of the 3,200 people who were living in Camp Ashraf but refuses to shift the rest. The MEK has portrayed the issue as a humanitarian one to its sympathisers in Washington, saying that all that remains in Camp Ashraf are families and that conditions in the Baghdad camp are inadequate. They say it is effectively a prison – even going so far as to call it a concentration camp – and alleged they will be vulnerable to violence from the Iraqi government and forces.
Some US officials say that those refusing to leave shows that the MEK has not really abandoned its past.
By Chris McGreal in Washington