Trump’s supposed policy of bullying Iran into begging for talks has stalled after his all-caps Twitter rant was batted back by General Qassem Soleimani’s kick-ass retort. Time for a re-think of the whole approach perhaps. Indeed, many of the tactics used by the US to bring Iran into line over the past forty years have actually enabled and strengthened the ruling establishment there. It’s not that Iran has got better, but the US has made avoidable blunders.
Not least of these is to threaten to bomb the country to destroy its (so-far peaceful) nuclear capabilities. Allied with cruel economic sanctions, the discriminatory Travel Ban and overt support for violent regime change, this aggressive approach only alienates Iranian people.
But while there is disagreement between the various organisations and factions who oppose the Iranian government on any number of issues, there is one thing which unites almost all Iranians and that is the unaccountable American support for the Mojahedin Khalq terrorist cult.
Since the 1980s, the MEK has been facilitated as a terrorist entity and propaganda outlet by the US establishment specifically because of its violent extremism and regime change agenda. These supporters have no illusions – MEK is unreliable and untrustworthy and has no support whatsoever among Iranians. However, intelligence agencies and the military are amoral institutions; they make no judgment about the ethical or moral value of an asset. So, as long as politicians find the ‘MEK threat’ useful to buttress their regime change agendas, the arrangements for MEK’s continued survival remain largely unchallenged.
Because of this complicity, US Secretary of State Pompeo’s claim that “the Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do” was met with derision among the Iranian diaspora. If the US at any time had wanted to help the Iranian people, it would have dismantled the MEK. For years, successive US administrations have squandered opportunities to remove MEK from the equation. This failure has contributed to the sterility of US policy toward Iran.
What looked like a genuine process to de-list, transfer and de-radicalize the MEK, initiated by Hillary Clinton in 2012, proved simply to be a pragmatic move which allowed continued US support for MEK in a third country after Iraq increased demands for its expulsion. A $9m deal struck with Albanian Prime Minister Berisha included American funding for a De-Radicalization Institute in Tirana. This was advertised to reassure the Albanian people; MEK members would be re-integrated into society and allowed to take up residence as ordinary citizens to live out their lives in peace and security.
Instead, the US facilitated the re-grouping of MEK in a closed terrorist training camp in rural Albania, where MEK leaders continue their horrible human rights abuses against the members. Apparently, neoconservatives find the group’s promise of regime changeirresistible, even in the face of such evidence. However, above all other considerations, the MEK members in Albania are living, breathing souls and it behoves us to pay attention to them as individuals.
The MEK is described as a destructive cult because it poses the greatest threat to its own members. Many hundreds have been killed and continue to be killed by the leaders. The latest example came only weeks ago with the unexplained death of MEK member Malek Sharaii. Sharaii’s family in Iran say that he had wanted to leave MEK but had incriminating information about the September 2013 massacre at Camp Ashraf which MEK didn’t want to be made public. The family allege that he was murdered because of his past. Due to MEK pressure, the police investigation was halted, Sharaii’s body was apparently ‘discovered’ after two weeks and buried without any post mortem because the MEK claimed this was against their religious practices. He joins a long list of disappeared and mysterious, unexplained deaths of MEK members.
Unsurprisingly then, over four hundred people have managed to escape the cultic clutches of MEK while they are in Albania. The latest escapee, Hassan Shahbazi, described his membership with MEK as “slavery”. There is no doubt, that MEK keeps all its members in a state of modern slavery. Former members confirm that many, many members would like to leave but are trapped and afraid. MEK has hired a private armed security group to keep members inside and everyone else, including the Albanian security services, out.
This enforced entrapment and isolation are compounded by the MEK’s refusal to allow families to be in contact with one another – this is as true for related people inside the camp as for the desperate families outside who, since 2003, have come searching for their loved ones in MEK, offering them help and succor.
One such family, Canadian citizens Mostafa and Mahboubeh Mohammadi, have recently come to Albania to try to rescue their 38-year-old daughter who is still unable to meet with her parents. MEK goons are experts in intimidation techniques including threats of physical and verbal violence, actual violence. More significantly, their claim to have CIA and MOSSAD backing has been enough to silence most Albanian media, who do not want their careers or businesses ruined for this group.
Since its arrival in the small Balkan country, MEK has caused nothing but controversy in Albania. Its citizens rightly fear them. Neither its politicians nor its police can control them. And families like the Mohammadi’s must bear the brunt of MEK violence.
So, while American politicians can feign ignorance, Iranians themselves know the truth. And they know that the Hardliners in Iran are the biggest benefactors of this situation. Not only was the terrorist MEK disarmed and imprisoned in Iraq for a decade at American expense, the group is still used as a bogeyman by Iran’s security services to quell protests and rebellion in the name of counter-terrorism. As a first principle, opposition activists in Iran are careful to distance themselves from MEK in every shape and form.
In this context, using the MEK name as lazy shorthand for ‘violent regime change’ can only be counter-productive; it is guaranteed to unite Iranians against you. If President Trump really seeks to change what his predecessors have done and to shake up politics, his most effective move would be to dismantle MEK. Such a move would be a radical departure from the sterile policies of the past. Trump would take the credit for something that should have been accomplished years ago.
Anne Khodabandeh, is an expert in anti-terrorist activities and a long-standing activist in the field of deradicalization of extremists. She has written several articles and books on this subject, along with her husband, who is of Iranian origin.