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The Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq and Its Media Strategy

The Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and Its Media Strategy: Methods of Information Manufacture

In his book Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare (Porter, 2014b), American journalist Gareth Porter identifies the role played by the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) organization in Israel’s decade-long attempts to prevent a negotiated settlement between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), on the former’s nuclear program. When the negotiations hit a difficult phase in Vienna in May 2014, Porter suggested in an article for Al Jazeera that “If the talks fail … it will be the result of the toxic combination of wilful U.S. self-deception and deliberate falsification of intelligence by the Israelis” (Porter, 2014a).

In this context, this overview seeks to demonstrate how and why, through a sophisticated and persistent media campaign, the MEK has created a place for itself on the Iranian political scene totally disproportionate to its capabilities and support base; and how from this aggrandized position the MEK has exerted a negative influence over Western opinion and policymaking toward the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and Iraq, which began long before and reaches far wider than its role in Tehran’s nuclear dossier. Also, this review seeks to indicate that while this propaganda campaign has been highly successful for the MEK, it has been deliberately detrimental to the growth of a civil opposition movement in Iran as well as significantly affecting Western foreign policy toward the IRI in adverse ways.

The MEK stands out as perhaps a unique example of a belligerent entity that exploits to the maximum a range of propaganda methods and outlets in the West to project itself in the international community as a constructive, almost benign, force. Far from avoiding publicity, the MEK has done everything in its power to maximize what can be described as its virtual presence. In addition to its native Farsi, the group disseminates information about and projects an image of itself in English, French, German and Arabic, in print, in broadcast and on Internet media. But insofar as it has no popular support among indigenous or diaspora Iranians, its image as a popular resistance movement has been largely invented.

Historically the group’s leader, Massoud Rajavi, as the MEK’s spokesman, enjoyed a reputation as a charismatic speaker. As such, he was fully cognizant of the power of publicity in shaping a public image. After the MEK was forced into exile to Paris in 1981, Rajavi assumed sole leadership and appointed his wife, Maryam Rajavi, second-in-command. Since then, the MEK’s raison d’être has remained in its own words “the downfall of the mullahs’ regime in its entirety and the establishment of a democratic republic based on the separation of the church and the state” (Rajavi, 2014), under a Rajavi government. Rajavi understood that he would depend on both political and financial support from the West. He established public relations departments in MEK bases in the major Western capitals. With help from sympathizers, an increasingly sophisticated and expensive propaganda strategy was devised with multiple aims. Primarily, it was used to market the MEK as the “main opposition” and the “only alternative” to the IRI to attract sponsorship. But to ensure the MEK was the only group to garner this support, Rajavi also needed to eliminate all other exiled Iranian opposition groups. This was achieved in the 1980s through physical intimidation and character assassination. This ranged from ostracizing former Iranian president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr (Gessler, 2004), to gate crashing meetings of other groups such as the communist Fedayeen, and beating up attendees. It was also necessary over the years to continuously demonize the Islamic Republic to prevent any possibility of rapprochement. MEK propaganda sculpted Western perceptions of Iran as evil and incapable of reform or moderation.

In its quest to solicit Western support, the MEK morphed its public persona several times to appeal to various Western foreign policymakers and sponsors, but maintained as pivotal its claim to be the main opposition and only alternative. While helping Saddam Hussein’s war effort during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), the glossy print magazine NLA Journal promoted the National Liberation Army; photographs of combatants and armaments projected an image of military might. After losing support during the First Gulf War, a replica of Iran’s Majlis populated by these same combatants posing in Western clothing was advertised as a parliament-in-exile in The Lion and The Sun magazine (print edition in Iran-Interlink archive) and distributed to parliaments and press in the 1990s. Over time, the MEK’s image building was upgraded through emailed PDF publications like Iran Liberation and Iran Liberty Association Newsletter, which reflect the current incarnation of the group. This PDF-manufactured reputation as a democratic opposition enabled the MEK to undertake information laundry for Israel as purveyors of nuclear intelligence on Iran (Nuclear Control Institute, 2014). By extension, this adaptive, mercenary role proved persuasive among American neoconservative regime change pundits who campaigned to remove the group from the U.S. terrorism list (Symonds, 2012). This in turn, after the 2013 election of President Rouhani introduced the possibility of a negotiated settlement of Iran’s nuclear status, allowed for the MEK to be promoted as human rights advocates (Iran News Update, 2014).

The MEK’s ability to maintain its public relations platforms through the vagaries it has suffered over three decades is based largely on one propitious factor: its target audience. Western power brokers have been sympathetic and arguably myopic. Western parliamentarians, if not governments, were looking for “evidence” that the IRI was dangerous and unpleasant—whether as a state sponsor of terrorism or later as a nuclear weaponized state. They were also looking for an opposition to promote as an antithesis to the Iranian government. The MEK, a listed terrorist group for much of this time, used its chameleon-like ability (Bahari, 2007) to adapt its image to mirror Western concerns. That it did this purely for its own survival does not detract from the fact that the MEK has provided a very palatable narrative for those wanting to depose and attack the IRI.

While the Iran-Iraq War was under way, Rajavi was expelled from France but was welcomed in Iraq by Saddam Hussein to help his war effort against Tehran. Saddam provided training for MEK members to form a National Liberation Army, an adjunct to the Iraqi army, and also a generous propaganda budget. Saddam’s purpose was to bolster support for his own war effort by having the MEK present itself as a military force capable of overthrowing the Iranian regime. This became the MEK’s unique selling point, singling it out from among the remaining Iranian opposition groups.

Rajavi micro-managed the MEK’s public relations from his headquarters in Baghdad. International media were monitored for coverage, and he ranked this activity according to how important he believed it was, with “A” bearing any mention of him, “B” if the MEK was mentioned, “C” for Iranian opposition and so on. In addition, the MEK gleaned news published inside Iran for information such as numbers of arrests and executions, which it would then claim to have gathered covertly through its own network of supporters. Although this information was publicly available, the MEK claimed to a non-Farsi-speaking audience to have informants inside the IRI system. In this way, it was able to build a reputation among Western reporters, which would finally draw them to the MEK’s press conference in 2002 to expose Iran’s secret nuclear enrichment site at Natanz (Nuclear Control Institute, 2014). Indeed, it was the group’s media and political contacts that made it an ideal conduit for intelligence originally garnered by the Israeli intelligence organization Mossad on Iran’s nuclear program, not its credibility as an opposition group. The revelation led the United States to push for a United Nations (UN) investigation and subsequent sanctions against Iran. After 2003, having lost Saddam Hussein’s patronage, the MEK abandoned any attempt to build popular support with Iranians and chose instead to work for Israeli and neoconservative interests. Alejo Vidal Quadras, a former member of the European Parliament, admitted that the Friends of a Free Iran group in the European Parliament had benefited from association with the MEK whose “ ‘lobbying activity’ performed for more than 20 years … has been fundamental” (Vidal Quadras, 2014) in promoting its agenda.

A media campaign-employed lobbyists such as the Iran Policy Committee, generously paid speakers (Wilkie, 2011), and took photographs with politicians to try to recast MEK history and present itself as a democratic alternative to an exclusively Western audience. Underpinning any understanding of the MEK’s media strategy is that, according to Steve Hassan’s BITE Model (Freedom of Mind, 2014), it operates as a cult and can therefore utilize an unpaid, dedicated labor force willing to spend every waking hour in pursuit of fulfilling its leader’s requirements. Far from alienating support, this aspect has been instrumental in the creation of an indispensable tool for regime-change pundits in the West. With this free labor, the MEK was able to inundate political and media circles with a continuous flood of literature, information, films, statements, and press releases. Currently, the group ensures a daily presence in PR Newswire and engages in “Google wars,” with its forces performing keystrokes to push MEK items up the search engine scale. It also maintains a physical presence in Western parliaments characterized as “extremely persistent and aggressive” by Eldar Mamedov (2014), who is in charge of the delegation for inter-parliamentary relations between the European Parliament and Iran.

A recent example of the MEK’s efforts to control the narrative of an event through its cyberspace presence came in 2013 with the tragic attack on 101 MEK members based in Camp Ashraf in Iraq (Sen, 2013). Within hours the MEK began to take control of the media narrative by sending real-time video of the attack filmed by the MEK themselves (YouTube, 2013), to newsrooms. On the ground, however, the MEK were uncooperative with UN and Iraqi government investigators. Crucially, 42 survivors who were moved to another MEK base (U.S. Department of State, 2013), were subsequently prevented from speaking to investigators (Khodabandeh, 2013), and the investigating process stalled. Instead, mirroring the agenda of MEK advocates in the European Parliament, the MEK blamed the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki (NCRI Foreign Affairs Committee, 2013), for the attack. An Internet search of the event now throws up a variety of articles, resolutions, and statements published by the MEK, which variously attribute blame for the massacre to the Iraqi government of al Maliki, the Iraqi army, President Rouhani of Iran and Iranian special forces, which have taken on the aspect of factual reporting simply through repetition.

In the autumn of 2013 when the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 got under way, the regime-change narrative shifted to attacks on Iran’s human rights record. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen now specifically referred to Maryam Rajavi as a “human rights advocate” (Ros-Lehtinen, 2014). On May 8, 2014, the MEK paid for a quarter-page advertisement in the British print edition of The Guardian in which a smiling Maryam Rajavi accuses Iranian President Rouhani’s government of “massacring 56 Iranian opponents in Camps Ashraf & Liberty in Iraq” (print edition in Iran-Interlink archive).

The MEK’s media and cyberspace presence is manifest in both positive and negative terms. What is most remarkable is that this group’s narrative is so pervasive and persuasive. The MEK has been instrumental in the manufacture of a false but dominant narrative concerning Iran, but other exiled opposition groups and individuals depict Iran in a very different manner, which is arguably more nuanced and closer to reality. Iranian writer and activist Akbar Ganji, imprisoned in Tehran between 2000 and 2006, describes “How the West gets Iran wrong” (Ganji, 2014). Any indigenous Iranian opposition has two fronts to fight. Not only do they have to challenge the IRI on civil rights, religious freedom, human rights, etc., but will also have to distinguish themselves with a different identity and a different narrative from the MEK’s “regime change” discourse and persuade a skeptical West to listen to them. And while Iran certainly has problems with civil and political freedoms and with its economy, the country has made many advances in important fields, such as literacy, polio eradication, aids education, birth control, and prevention of drug trafficking, which rarely get reported by a skeptical Western media. The root of this hostility deserves greater examination and exposure to enable negotiators, foreign policymakers and the media to dismantle the “wilful US self-deception” (Porter, 2014b) and to approach dialogue and diplomacy with greater realism.


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First published on onlinelibrary.wiley

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