When Iranians rose up against the tyrannical rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979, they had a picture of what they wanted in its place. It took them a short while, however, to translate that picture into a functioning government that would, among the other things expected of it, establish security.
For nearly a year, a number of outfits openly engaged in armed activity against the new government inside the capital and other cities.
One group was particularly notorious: the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), known to most other countries by another acronym, the MEK, which espoused a twisted ideology of Marxism and terror combined.
MKO had its roots in a formerly Islamic, student movement against Mohammad Reza Shah, but it had dropped Islam and adopted Marxism along the way, purging those of its members who had refused to acquiesce.
In its metamorphosized form, and after the Islamic Republic was established, MKO would bomb government buildings, conduct targeted killings of prominent political and religious figures, and most grotesquely, carry out routine blind assassinations of ordinary Iranians out on the streets in an attempt to create a sense of instability, insecurity, and fear.
Fear, it thought, would ultimately lead to popular dissatisfaction with the new regime.
It was wrong. And it failed.
Soon, and as the republic gradually solidified, putting into order its security apparatuses, MKO was subdued. Many of its members were either taken into custody or taken out in well-planned security operations. Others either gradually came to their senses and defected, or fled the country.
Dead men (and women) walking
The killing sprees of MKO were finished. But the group itself wasn’t.
In September 1980, a little over a year and a half after the revolution, the then-regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, wishing to topple the nascent republic and overtake territory.
That invasion started after Hussein won the blessing of the United States, via the then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Berzinski, according to Sasan Fayazmanesh, in his book “The United States and Iran: Sanctions, wars and the policy of dual containment.” (Routledge, 2008)
For MKO, the war had an inherent irony. It both threw the group’s surviving members a lifeline and lay bare their most treasonous colors, hastening their effective death:
They joined the Iraqi invasion of their own fatherland, as rank and file — cannon fodder, really. The Iraqi dictator — who was himself overthrown in 2003 by his initial American backers — gave MKO military training and hardware, and a camp near the Iranian border.
Hussein, who eventually agreed to a truce in 1988, nevertheless mobilized MKO members in a relatively large-scale offensive against Iran days after the truce agreement. MKO declared it would be marching to Tehran in a matter of “48 hours.”
Again, it failed.
In a counter-offensive code-named “Operation Mersad,” Iranian armed forces not only thwarted MKO but also almost decimated the group. Bodies of helmeted, indoctrinated young men and women were strewn across the roads or stuck in the mangled wreckage of tanks and other armored vehicles, along Iran’s western borders after the operation.
An image from the archives of the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) shows Iranian soldiers walking past the dead bodies of MKO members and the wreckage of their military vehicles in western Iran in 1988.
When Saddam was toppled in 2003 and a new government took over, the group felt endangered. (It had been designated a terrorist organization by the US since 1997.) So, it was crucial that MKO now got another lease on life.
In the period between the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, political winds had already begun to shift, in a way that would somehow benefit MKO:
After he failed to overtake Iranian territory, Hussein invaded and annexed the fellow-Arab state of Kuwait, angering the very similarly fellow-Arab states that had funded his war machine against Iran just years earlier. He faced solid opposition, by a coalition of military forces, with the US at its head, which pushed him back to within Iraqi borders but stopped short of an invasion.
Training assassins and taking them off the terror list
But, no more an obedient friend of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and America, Hussein was bound to be taken out, a fate that met him in 2003.
What had remained intact of MKO in the ruins of Iraq, however, could still be exploited. At least, so thought Iran’s adversaries.
Saudi funding began to pour in. And “generously-compensated” legions of American lobbyists joined. To no one’s surprise, the group was taken off the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations in 2012.
In the lobbying campaign that was launched, “[m]any of the American supporters, though not all, accepted fees of $15,000 to $30,000 to give speeches to the group, as well as travel expenses to attend M.E.K. rallies in Paris,” The New York Times reported that same year.
Furthermore, American journalist Seymour Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written for The New Yorker, reported in 2012 that a number of MKO members were secretly trained by the United States Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site, a secretive training facility northwest of Las Vegas, in a program that began in 2005 and purportedly ended “sometime before President Obama took office.”
“The M.E.K.’s ties with Western intelligence [had already] deepened after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003,” Hersh wrote.
He also cited an NBC report — itself citing “two senior Obama Administration officials” — that said MKO “units… financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service” had been involved in the assassination of four Iranian nuclear scientists and an attempted attack on another one after 2007.
Funding ‘regime change’
But Iranian counterintelligence stopped any more such activity.
By 2016, MKO’s hands were increasingly tied. It had to fully leave its last camp in Iraq for the Albanian capital, Tirana. Yet, it was now being more openly embraced by Iran’s Western and Arab adversaries.
In 2016 and 2017, Saudi Arabia’s former spy chief, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, attended MKO meetings in Paris. “Advance with God’s blessings,” bin Faisal said in a speech in the 2016 meeting, wishing the terrorists success in attempting “regime change” in Iran.
In 2018, another meeting in Paris attracted Rudy Giuliani, personal attorney to US President Donald Trump, and Stephen Harper, a former prime minister of Canada. Both of them, too, gave speeches advocating “regime change” in Iran.
In September came a revelation of how the group received funding for its “regime change” agenda all along the way: through Saudi smuggling networks and Saudi-linked black market sales.
Former MKO member Massoud Khodabandeh, “who personally oversaw the transfers,” told Jordanian newspaper Albawaba that “Saudi officials operating within the security apparatus of Turki bin Faisal al Saud, the head of Saudi intelligence at the time, and the late king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, gave the MEK three tons of solid gold, at least four suitcases of custom Rolex watches and fabric covering the Kaaba, the most holy site in Islam. The transfers were worth hundreds of millions of dollars.”
“Gold and other valuable commodities were be shipped from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad. Then, they would be sold in black markets in Amman, Jordan[,] via Saudi-linked businessmen; the money would go to offshore accounts linked to the MEK, funding their operations.”
“Fraud and money laundering” were other source of revenue.
“From Washington D.C., to Tampa, Dallas, Los Angeles and even London, Stockholm and Paris, the MEK operated ‘cells’ that took part in fraud schemes and fake charities,” according to Albawaba, which cited an FBI investigation of the activities.
But, despite the showbiz and the speakers beckoned by the specter of Saudi money, MKO grew increasingly irrelevant in actual space in later years. That was when it took to the virtual.
In an article titled “Faking the online debate on Iran,” Al Jazeera looked at MKO’s latest anti-Iran activities, online.
Late last year, when short-lived protests erupted in some Iranian cities, MKO saw a virtual opening.
Hassan Shahbaz, another former MKO member, said, “Our orders would tell us the hashtags to use in our tweets in order to make them more active. It was our job to provide coverage of these protests by seeking out, tweeting and re-tweeting videos while adding our own comments,” according to Al Jazeera.
Hassan Heyrani, also a former member, said “several thousand accounts” were being run “by about 1,000-1,500” MKO members to turn anti-Iranian hashtags into top trends.
And bots came in handy, too. Lots of them.
Marc Owen Jones, a keen observer of online political propaganda by Saudi Arabia, told the Qatar-based news channel, “If you want to use bots to be effective, you need a lot of accounts, which means you might create a lot of accounts on a specific day or week or month. The majority of the accounts tweeting on the #FreeIran and #Iran_Regime_Change hashtag from late December  up to May, were created within about a four-month window. What that would suggest is that a lot of the activity on those hashtags came from bots.”
The MKO online propagandists may be aided by Saudi companies that, according to an earlier investigation by BBC, offer “automated ‘bot’ accounts” for as little as 200 dollars “to artificially boost the popularity of hashtags to make them trend on Twitter – in contravention of the social media network’s rules.”
(Although not exactly well-liked by his cousin rulers, Saudi Prince Waleed bin Talal — a Twitter shareholder — may be pulling a few strings of his own, may he not?!)
All of that while Twitter recently closed — in the words of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — the accounts of real Iranians while ignoring MKO’s anti-Iran propaganda activities.
Hello @Jack. Twitter has shuttered accounts of real Iranians, incl TV presenters & students, for supposedly being part of an ‘influence op’. How about looking at actual bots in Tirana used to prop up ‘regime change’ propaganda spewed out of DC? #YouAreBots https://t.co/dTs0diYrM4
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 16, 2018
Khodabandeh, the former MKO member, told Al Jazeera that the group had “changed from a terrorist military organisation to an intelligence-based propaganda machine.”
He is wrong. MKO continues to be the terrorist organization that it has always been. The only difference now is that, facing Iranian power like never before, the group and its sponsors can only attempt online subversion against Iran. Like Saddam Hussein of Iraq, MKO and the House of Saud will have their expiration dates for the US. And until that day arrives, they can wiggle only as much.
By Hossein Jelveh,
(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV.)