By outward appearances, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the ex-terrorist Iranian opposition group hell-bent on regime change, appears to be losing their influence in the media. The group’s allegations about Iran’s nuclear program are met with increased skepticism after, for example, photographic evidence of “Lavizan-3,” a secret uranium enrichment facility in suburban Tehran, was revealed to be a stock photo from an Iranian safe company. But their spotty track record on providing verifiable information from inside Iran hasn’t stopped the group from gaining the support of Washington’s biggest Iran hawks—and, more recently, anti-Iran ideologues associated closely with Arab kingdoms in the Persian Gulf.
The MEK’s latest purported revelation, exclusively reported in the UK tabloid, The Daily Mail, is that Iran commands 60,000 pro-Assad fighters in Syria, has spent as much as $100 billion in Syria since 2011, and maintains a secret command post near the Damascus airport. The fact that Iran is supporting the Syrian government comes as no surprise, but the scale of its involvement, if true, would mean Iran is far more deeply invested than was previously thought. But the Daily Mail’s reporting on the MEK’s allegations provides little evidence to back up the tough-to-swallow claim that Iranian led forces outnumber the Syrian army.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the MEK’s political front, will present its findings tomorrow at its Washington offices with a panel discussion featuring, among others, Dr. Kenneth Katzman, a prominent Iran expert at the taxpayer-funded Congressional Research Service (CRS), and Amb. Adam Ereli, a lobbyist for Qatar and former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain.
Katzman’s participation in the panel is particularly surprising, given his previous critical writings about the group. In 2010, he authored a CRS report featuring a section on the MEK, which he characterized as advocating “Marxism blended with Islamic tenets,” a fact that the MEK—despite its well-documented history—now denies. Katzman cited a 2007 State Department report which “notes the group’s promotion of women in its ranks and again emphasizes the group’s ‘cult-like’ character, including the indoctrination of its members and separation of family members, including children, from its activists.” And in 2012, Katzman warned about exiled opposition groups like the MEK, comparing them to the internal Iranian opposition Green Movement:
Some groups have been committed to the replacement of the regime virtually since its inception, and have used violence to achieve their objectives. Their current linkages to the Green Movement are tenuous, if existing at all, and some indications suggest these movements want to dominate any coalition that might topple the regime.
Katzman did not respond to questions about his decision to participate in the panel.
In contrast to Katzman, J. Adam Ereli, another MEK panelist, is an often-quoted critic of the Iran deal in the media and lobbyist for one of Iran’s biggest regional rivals, Qatar. Over the past year, news outlets have consistently failed to disclose his work on behalf of Qatar when publishing his attacks on the White House’s nuclear diplomacy.
Ereli, along with former Rep. Vin Weber (R-MN), is listed as “personally and substantially involved in the performance” of Mercury’s work on behalf of Qatar, according to the 2015 contract between Mercury Public Affairs, where Ereli is a vice-chairman, and Qatar. Qatar pays Mercury $100,000 per month for Ereli and Weber’s services. That contract has been extended twice and now continues until the end of 2016. Ereli didn’t respond to a question about whether he was appearing on the panel in a personal capacity or as a lobbyist for Qatar.
The Thursday appearance on the panel won’t be the first time that Ereli has participated in one of MEK’s events. In July, 2014, Ereli appeared at a Capitol Hill event hosted by the Organization of Iranian American Communities, a coalition whose sole purpose is supporting the MEK, and praised the NCRI. He noted, contra Katzman’s assessment, that the MEK was a voice for Iranians who are dissatisfied with the country’s leadership, saying, “Outside of Iran, and both inside of Iran, there is a credible organization that helps channel that dissent, that is the NCRI or Mojahedin-e Khalq.”
While the MEK and many of its stateside boosters promote the group as the legitimate Iranian opposition, impartial Iran experts believe the group lost any popularity and legitimacy it once held inside Iran thanks to its decision to fight alongside Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Ereli also spoke at another pro-MEK Hill event in 2015 and attended the NCRI’s Nowruz (Iranian New Year) celebration in March.
Ereli wouldn’t be the first MEK-advocate with Sunni-Gulf ties to jump on the MEK’s bandwagon. Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, the former head of the Saudi intelligence agency and longtime ambassador to the U.S., praised MEK leader Maryam Rajavi at the group’s annual gathering last July, in Paris. Prince Turki’s appearance, and his show of open support for the MEK, lends new credence to the rumors that the Sunni Gulf states are a possible source for the group’s mysterious funding.
About the Author
Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent New Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.