An Iranian Exile Cult Jockeying for War Could Have the Ear of Trump’s White House

Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani are both backers of the Mojahedin-e Khalq regime change lobby.

On June 24, 2012, former House Speaker and prominent Republican Newt Gingrich bent at the waist and bowed to the leader of a little-known cult-like Iranian opposition organization called the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, known simply as MEK. Gingrich was in Paris to address the umbrella organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and MEK head Maryam Rajavi accepted his gesture of deference by offering Gingrich a bouquet of flowers as a large crowd cheered enthusiastically.

The moment, which was captured on video, was not Gingrich’s only public embrace of MEK, which at the time of that 2012 meeting, was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Speaking at a July 2016 gala affiliated with the organization, in Paris, Gingrich denounced the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran as “absolutely insane,” declaring that “we will eliminate the dictatorship as a threat to civilization.”

Gingrich is just one among a broad array of political influentials with concrete ties to MEK, a well-funded lobbying group aggressively promoting U.S. military confrontation with Iran. The group stands accused of torturing its members and believes that Maryam Rajavi is Iran’s rightful leader — members refer to her as “president elect.” MEK’s relationship to powerbrokers in Washington has taken on new significance as Gingrich assumes a pow

Gingrich is not the only close Trump associate with ties to MEK. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, also a vice chair of the transition team, has thrown his support behind the organization, declaring at a speaking engagement for the MEK in 2011, "We need regime change in Iran, more than we do in Egypt or Libya, and just as we need it in Syria.”

Giuliani is a contender for the role of Secretary of State, in a cabinet where the extremist right-wing publisher Steve Bannon was recently appointed Trump’s chief strategist. Now, it appears possible that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran could have a direct line to the White House.

Who Is MEK?

The People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran was launched in the mid-’60s by university students who developed what they deemed Marxist-Islamist opposition to the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and carried out assassinations of at least six Americans during the mid-1970s. Following the 1979 revolution, MEK violently split with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was forced to flee to France, where its leaders continued their opposition activities. In 1986, MEK relocated to Iraq, where it cemented ties to Saddam Hussein, established military camps and fought on the side of Iraq during the bloody Iran-Iraq war.

By the late 1980s, husband and wife Massoud and Maryam Rajavi were at the helm of the group and began imposing cult-like standards of behavior, including forcing members to get divorces and become celibate. A Human Rights Watch report published in 2005 concludes that torture became endemic to the organization’s internal practices. “[F]ormer MKO members reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members,” HRW writes. “The MKO held political dissidents in its internal prisons during the 1990s and later turned over many of them to Iraqi authorities, who held them in Abu Ghraib. In one case, Mohammad Hussein Sobhani was held in solitary confinement for eight-and-a-half years inside the MKO camps, from September 1992 to January 2001.” According to HRW, witnesses reported “at least two deaths during interrogation.”

Meanwhile, according to the reporting of New York Times journalist Elizabeth Rubin, “in 1991 Hussein used the Mujahedeen and its tanks as advance forces to crush the Kurdish uprisings in the north and the Shia uprisings in the south,” as detailed by Iraqi intelligence officers, Kurdish commanders and human rights groups. Rubin writes that Maryam Rajavi proclaimed at the time: ”Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”

The State Department says that, on one day in 1992, MEK “conducted near-simultaneous attacks on Iranian embassies and consular missions in 13 countries, including against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York.” Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared MEK a terrorist organization in 1997, and years later, President George W. Bush cited the presence of MEK in Iraq to help justify the disastrous 2003 invasion, stating that Hussein “shelters terrorist groups.”

Yet, there are signs that the U.S. has cooperated with—and even backed—the MEK. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Bush kept the MEK in the country, moving them to Camp Ashraf near the city al-Khalis. According to the Rand Corporation, which says it was asked by Major General Douglas M. Stone to provide a “rigorous analysis of the circumstances surrounding coalition protection of the MEK,” in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, “coalition forces accepted a ceasefire from the MEK, disarmed the group and consolidated its members at one of the MEK’s camps.” Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reported in 2012 that “the Joint Special Operations Command (jsoc) conducted training, beginning in 2005, for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq” at the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site. According to one of Hersh’s sources, an unnamed “former senior American intelligence official,” the training ended before Obama took office. However, it is not clear whether the Obama administration pursued covert support for the MEK.

Meanwhile, MEK has itself been targeted by violence, including a rocket attack last year against its members at Camp Ashraf, as documented by Amnesty International.

According to Jamal Abdi, policy director of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), MEK is “widely reviled” in Iran, and indeed, leaders of the Green Movement have denounced the organization. According to Abdi, “There are families in the U.S. and throughout the world who have lost members of their families to the MEK. They can’t find their family members because they’ve been sucked into the MEK organization.”

The MEK did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

Powerful Lobbying Force in Washington

Being included on a list of terrorist organizations did not stop MEK from building a lobbying empire in Washington. As Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton reported last year for The Intercept, “even while constrained by their terrorism designation, the group and its affiliates poured millions of dollars into a sophisticated effort to rehab their image, creating an influential lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.”

Numerous former U.S. officials have spoken at MEK events, often in exchange for compensation. According to journalist Glenn Greenwald’s tally, they include prominent Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Tom Ridge, Fran Townsend and Andrew Card, as well as Democrats Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson and Lee Hamilton. Dean, who is now jockeying to head the Democratic National Committee again, once reportedly proclaimed that Madame Rajavi should be recognized as the president of Iran.

Notably, Gingrich and other powerful supporters of MEK supported George W. Bush’s call to invade Iraq partly on the basis of the group’s presence in the country, arguing that it would serve as an ally in a democratic transition.

While building support in Washington, MEK was reportedly carrying out more attacks in the form of assassinations inside Iran. In February 2012, journalists Richard Engel and Robert Windrem reported, “Deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists are being carried out by an Iranian dissident group that is financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service, U.S. officials tell NBC News.”

In September 2012, the state department announced the removal of MEK from its list of terrorist organizations, a move that Glenn Greenwald called a symptom of the “rot and corruption” of Washington. “The history of the U.S. list of designated terrorist organizations, and its close cousin list of state sponsors of terrorism, is simple,” he wrote, “a country or group goes on the list when they use violence to impede U.S. interests, and they are then taken off the list when they start to use exactly the same violence to advance U.S. interests.”

A year later, the Obama administration ordered MEK to relocate from Iraq to Albania. While MEK initially refused, the transfer has reportedly gone into effect in recent months. Meanwhile, MEK has been busy trying to scuttle the nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, buoyed by its list of prominent backers on both sides of the political aisle.

In May 2014, Dean and Giuliani co-authored an op-ed denouncing the deal, claiming that “weak policy vis-a-vis Tehran has only emboldened it to intensify suppression, continue massive support for Syrian dictator Assad and to slaughter its opponents, members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran in Camp Liberty in Iraq.” Now, Giuliani could become Secretary of State for Trump, who repeatedly pledged on the campaign trail to tear up the Iran deal.

According to Abdi, Iranian-American civil society groups have endured repeated attacks from MEK. “The group has spread a lot of misinformation and accused their critics who oppose war and sanctions as somehow being connected to the regime,” he said. “If the people who are setting U.S. policy don’t know better than to take money from this group, and to blindly advocate for them, there is no telling what they’ll do when they’re in control.”

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.

By Sarah Lazare / AlterNet

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