Cult-like MeK was listed as terrorist group in US until 2012 – but its opposition to Tehran has attracted backing of John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani and others bent on regime change in Iran
The Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK), the extreme Iranian opposition group who was the target of a foiled bombing attack in France, was once a sworn enemy of the United States. The cult-like Iranian group was responsible for the killing of six Americans in Iran in the 1970s; in 1979 it enthusiastically cheered the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, when angry students held 52 American diplomats hostage for a period of 444 days.
Its opposition to Tehran’s current rulers, however, has earned the group powerful allies in the west, particularly among Americans bent on regime change.
Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, addressed an MeK rally in Paris on Saturday, calling for regime change in Tehran. On Monday, Belgian authorities said four people, including a diplomat at the Iranian embassy in the Austrian capital Vienna, have been arrested after being accused of preparing a bomb attack in France targeted at the MeK rally.
Many in the crowd of about 4,000 that Giuliani was addressing were eastern Europeans bussed in to attend the event in return for a weekend trip to Paris. He is among a series of high-profile US politicians, including John McCain and John Bolton, who have met the MeK’s leader Maryam Rajavi or spoken at its rallies.
It was only in 2012 that the US delisted it as a terrorist group. But the arrival of John Bolton, the MeK’s most powerful advocate, as US national security adviser has given the group unprecedented proximity to the White House and a new lease of political life.
“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centred in this room today,” Bolton said at an MeK rally in Paris last year. “The behaviour and objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
Bolton’s ascent to the White House has reinvigorated the group, analysts say, raising questions about the dangers of having in the earshot of the US president a group that some experts say uses human rights concerns to bury its murky past and portray itself as a democratic and popular alternative to the Islamic Republic.
Believed to have between 5,000 to 13,000 members, the MeK was established in the 1960s to express a mixture of Marxism and Islamism. It launched bombing campaigns against the Shah, continuing after the 1979 Islamic revolution, against the Islamic Republic. In 1981, in a series of attacks, it killed 74 senior officials, including 27 MPs. Later that year, its bombings killed Iran’s president and prime minister.
During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the MeK, by then sheltered in camps in Iraq, fought against Iran alongside the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a turning point for the group, which sought to reinvent itself as a democratic force.
Today, it functions as a fringe exiled group with characteristics of a cult that works for regime change in Iran, though it has little visible support inside the country. It portrays itself as a democratic political institution although its own internal structure is anything but.
Eli Clifton, a fellow at the Nation Institute, said the MeK’s influence in the US is multilayered. “When [MeK] members go and swarm Capitol Hill and seek meetings with the members of Congress,” Clifton said, “they’re very often the only voices that are heard, because there is simply not a lot of Iranian-American presence on Capitol Hill.”
Clifton said the MeK, which operates under a set of front groups, writes very large cheques to those speaking at their events. Estimates are in the range of $30,000 to $50,000 per speech. Bolton is estimated to have received upwards of $180,000 to speak at multiple events for MeK. His recent financial disclosure shows that he was paid $40,000 for one speech at an MeK event last year.
Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American Washington Post journalist who was jailed in Tehran for more than a year, wrote in March that in the seven years he lived in the country, he saw a great deal of criticism towards the ayatollahs but “never met a person who thought the MeK should, or could, present a viable alternative”.
Clifton said the MeK “shares many qualities of a cult”. That description was echoed by Iraj Mesdaghi, a Sweden-based Iranian activist who was jailed in Iran from 1981 to 1991 for his links to the MeK. Mesdaghi left Iran in 1994 and worked for the MeK in its headquarters in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, until 2001.
“In the MeK, everything has to morph into leadership, and leadership means Masoud Rajavi [Maryam Rajavi’s husband, missing since 2003]. Not only your heart belongs to him, any love belongs to him, it’s forbidden to have love for spouse, mother, children,” he said.
He compared working for the MeK to holding an electric wire. “You have to follow the path, you have to transfer what you’re given, you’re not meant to add or reduce anything, you can’t pose any ifs.”
A 2007 state department report included claims that MeK has forced members to divorce. Human Rights Watch, in a 28-page report, has shed light on the MeK’s mistreatment of its members, including claims that those wishing to leave the group have been subjected to “lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture”.
Iran, which considers the group as a terrorist organisation, also has a history of mistreating MeK supporters. In the summer of 1988, thousands of leftists and MeK supporters were executed in a massacre of political prisoners.
Mesdaghi said MeK members kept in a massive military-style complex in Albania are particularly vulnerable because they are not given refugee status and depend on the group’s leadership for survival. From March 2013 to September 2016, about 3,000 MeK members are believed to have been sheltered in Albania, after being transferred from Iraq.
Masoud Khodabandeh, a former senior MeK official, has written that MeK members in Albania are “effectively being held in a state of modern slavery”. In a recent interview, he described the group as a “destructive cult” which controls its members financially, physically and emotionally.
The MeK did not respond to email queries seeking comments.
Djavad Khadem, a co-founder of Unity for Democracy in Iran (UDI), an umbrella group of exiled Iranian opposition groups, said MeK’s “collaboration with Saddam against Iranian people will never be wiped out from the memory of Iranian people”.
Khadem said Bolton’s appointment by Trump may have looked liked a coup for the MeK, but argued that Bolton was bound to act more responsibly in administration. “But Bolton will use them as an instrument of pressure on the regime,” he said. “This is bad tactics, because the Islamic regime will use it to frighten the middle class in Iran, as they have done for the last 40 years.”
Clifton said the MeK’s claims of intelligence revelations about Iran are often “hit and miss”, with “some monumental screw-ups”. The group, however, has revealed intelligence relating to Iran’s nuclear programme, which Clifton said was likely to have been passed on by Israel or Saudi Arabia. In 2016, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of the Saudi intelligence agency, was one of several VIPs who attended a MeK conference near Paris.
The MeK, Clifton said, presents a narrative that it is a vibrant, secular, democratic government-in-waiting that has popular support within Iran.
“That’s built on so many falsehoods,” he said. “It’s scary if policymakers listen to that and believe that fairytale.”
Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Iran correspondent