Called a Terror Cult by Many, MEK Wins Friends in U.S. Because It Opposes Tehran
Early this summer, as Washington fretted about Iran’s nuclear program, supporters of Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group, held a rally in an auditorium two blocks from the White House. Prominent members of Congress addressed the crowd, as did the State Department’s recently retired ambassador-at-large for war crimes.
Maryam Rajavi, the dissident outfit’s leader, beamed in a stirring speech via satellite from France. Denouncing Iran’s clerical rulers and their nuclear ambitions, she proclaimed democracy "the answer to Islamic fundamentalism."
Mujahedin-e Khalq, known as MEK, is Iran’s largest exile opposition group and, say its supporters, the best hope of bringing democracy to Iran. It reaches into Iran through its own satellite TV channel and claims an underground network of activists inside the Islamic republic. It also has a big presence in neighboring Iraq, where U.S. soldiers watch over more than 3,000 MEK members gathered in a sprawling camp north of Baghdad.
The MEK, however, has a big handicap: The U.S. government says it’s a terrorist organization. Officials cite its role in the murder of Americans in the 1970s and subsequent terror attacks that killed hundreds of Iranians. Another big blemish is the group’s long collaboration with Saddam Hussein. On top of all that, former members describe the MEK as a personality cult obsessed with celibacy and martyrdom.
So how does an outlaw organization with a bloodstained past, a history of intimacy with Iraq’s toppled despot and a reputation for oddness generate thunderous applause almost within earshot of the Oval Office?
Part of the answer lies in subterfuge: Mujahedin-e Khalq, which means People’s Holy Warriors, has a raft of support groups with innocuous names, such as the National Convention for a Democratic, Secular Republic in Iran, the host of the Washington event. These haven’t been banned and disavow violence.
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein greets Massoud Rajavi, head of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, before America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.
More important in blurring the MEK’s status, however, is the muddle surrounding U.S. policy toward Iran. With the U.S. armed forces bogged down in Iraq and America’s military options against neighboring Iran severely limited, the MEK and its fans are lobbying hard to present the group as an ally that can help curb Tehran’s growing influence. These supporters, who include lawmakers and conservative foreign-policy analysts, insist the MEK has no links to terrorism.
Most U.S. officials scoff at forming any alliance with the MEK and dispute its claims of having a mass following in Iran, stressing that many Iranians despise the organization. A senior White House official says the Bush administration continues to view the MEK as a terrorist organization and "not an advocate for democracy or human rights" in Iran.
But some Iran analysts say the MEK’s thinly disguised presence in the U.S. makes a mockery of the administration’s antiterrorism campaign. The White House accuses Iran of supporting terrorist groups, they say, yet turns a blind eye toward the MEK. "It gives the impression that some terrorist organizations are better than others," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an Iranian-American civic organization.
Leading the push to get the MEK’s "terrorist" tag removed, with help from some members of Congress, is an outfit called the Iran Policy Committee. The committee’s president, Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council official under President Reagan, says the MEK’s designation is "restraining" the organization’s ability to promote democratic change in Iran. His group recently published a glossy book that challenges the terrorism charges made against the MEK, and this month helped host an event on Capitol Hill arguing the same point.
The charm offensive has taken the MEK far from its origins. First set up in 1965 by vaguely Islamic left-wing intellectuals in Tehran, Mujahedin-e Khalq used to curse American "imperialism" and murdered a string of U.S. military personnel and defense contractors in the 1970s, says the State Department. The group blames the attacks on rogue Marxist factions and says they were not endorsed by MEK’s leaders, who were in jail at the time or had been executed.
Mujahedin-e Khalq members at a rally in Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Shortly before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, the Shah’s crumbling America-backed regime released jailed MEK activists. One of them, Massoud Rajavi, a former law student at Tehran University, became the group’s paramount leader and allied with Islamist forces to topple the Shah. But the group quickly split with Iran’s new clerical rulers led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who executed thousands of MEK supporters. The MEK retaliated with a wave of terror of its own.
Mr. Rajavi fled to France, where his brother, a doctor, has a house in Auvers-sur-Oise, a sleepy town outside Paris. To rally Iranians to his cause, Mr. Rajavi sent Massoud Khodabandeh, a British-educated electrical engineer, to Iran’s Kurdish region to set up a radio transmitter. He began to broadcast taped tirades against Ayatollah Khomeini.
In France, the group swiftly fell prey to political and romantic bickering. Mr. Rajavi, who had just divorced his second wife, shocked supporters by taking up with the wife of a close friend and fellow MEK activist. They married and she took the name Maryam Rajavi.
Another contentious liaison followed. Mr. Rajavi moved to Iraq in 1986 with his new wife and forged an alliance with Saddam Hussein, then at war with Iran. Former MEK members say the Iraq dictator provided a six-story office building in Baghdad and military bases, including Camp Ashraf, named in honor of Mr. Rajavi’s first wife, who had been killed in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime.
After a disastrous lunge into Iran in 1988, the MEK embarked on a more successful military venture. It helped Saddam Hussein crush an uprising by Kurds after Iraq’s defeat by U.S. forces during the 1991 Gulf War, according to U.S. diplomats and the State Department’s 2005 Country Reports on Terrorism.
Increasingly seen in the West as an Iraqi stooge, Mr. Rajavi sent Ms. Rajavi back to France to drum up support. Her campaign made some headway but foundered when the U.S. and Europe began looking for ways to reach out to Iran’s newly elected reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
Senior diplomats in the Clinton administration say the MEK figured prominently as a bargaining chip in a bridge-building effort with Tehran. Washington hoped it could get Iran to back a Middle East peace initiative, stop funding terrorist groups and forswear nuclear weapons. Iran, for its part, wanted the U.S. to take a hard line against the MEK.
In 1997, the State Department added the MEK to a list of global terrorist organizations as "a signal" of the U.S.’s desire for rapprochement with Tehran’s reformists, says Martin Indyk, who at the time was assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs. President Khatami’s government "considered it a pretty big deal," Mr. Indyk says.
The MEK also got hit by a string of defections. Among those to quit was Mr. Khodabandeh, the electrical engineer. He married another defector, Anne Singleton, an English woman who had visited Camp Ashraf, where she says she was taught an anti-imperialist song that vowed "death to America." Ms. Singleton wrote a book denouncing the MEK as a crazed cult of enforced celibacy and brutal discipline.
Other former members describe a good cause warped by methods reminiscent of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution — a constant hunt for internal enemies, ideological "cleansing" sessions and harsh punishment of real or imagined dissent. Mohsen Abbasloo, a 28-year-old former MEK activist, says he was jailed and beaten at Camp Ashraf for over a month after he voiced mild doubts. "I went there full of hope but it was not even 1% of what I expected," says Mr. Abbasloo, who says he spent four years at the huge desert complex of barracks, office buildings and military training grounds between Baghdad and Iraq’s border with Iran.
Mohammad Mohaddessin, a veteran MEK member and chief foreign-affairs official of its political arm, denies accusations of brutality and describes defectors as "tools of the Iranian regime."
Throughout the 1990s, the MEK continued to operate in Washington and elsewhere through various front organizations, the most prominent of which was the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. In 1999, the State Department banned the NCRI on the grounds that it is the MEK’s official political arm. The NCRI describes itself as an Iranian parliament-in-exile comprising 530 members and not just representing the MEK.
Its former U.S.-based spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, remained a regular on the Washington lobbying and policy circuits. In recent years he appeared routinely on Fox News as a foreign-affairs analyst. In 2002, he held a Washington news conference to reveal a secret uranium enrichment facility in the Iranian city of Natanz. The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna later confirmed the claim. President Bush and other senior U.S. officials publicly praised what they called an Iranian "dissident group" for unearthing the information.
Former MEK members and some U.S. officials say they believe the Natanz information was fed to the MEK by Israel, which wanted to make it public. The MEK derides this as nonsense.
John Moody, a Fox News senior vice president, says Mr. Jafarzadeh’s contract as a foreign-affairs analyst lapsed, but doesn’t rule out further employment. "He consistently provides accurate and sometimes exclusive information," he says.
In 2002, 150 members of the House of Representatives signed a petition seeking the MEK’s removal from the U.S. government’s terrorist list.
As America geared up for war with Iraq in early 2003, the MEK muted its adulation of Saddam Hussein, say people who were in Ashraf at the time. Top leaders, including the Rajavi couple, quietly bailed from Camp Ashraf.
"We suddenly noticed that a lot of senior people were missing," says Behzad Alishahi, an Iranian who spent more than 15 years at the camp working as an MEK TV presenter. Just before the U.S. invaded in March, he says, hundreds of MEK fighters rushed toward the Iraq-Iran border for an attack on Iran. They turned back, he says, after U.S. planes bombed their convoy and Camp Ashraf.
Ms. Rajavi fled to the group’s compound in Auvers-sur-Oise, France. Her husband vanished, along with his hairdresser and bodyguards. This stirred rumors that he had been picked up by the U.S. military and was providing intelligence about Saddam Hussein and also Iran.
A State Department official says Mr. Rajavi was last seen in Baghdad in March 2003 and is now eit
her dead or in hiding. The MEK says he’s alive and evading Iranian assassins.
When American troops pulled up outside Camp Ashraf shortly after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the MEK offered no resistance and later agreed to disarm. Mr. Alishahi says he and colleagues at the TV station were ordered by MEK commanders to destroy film and other evidence of close ties to Saddam Hussein.
U.S. officials launched a review of camp residents to decide if they should be prosecuted for terrorism. At the same time, the Central Intelligence Agency warned French authorities to watch out for the MEK. The French dispatched hundreds of police to storm the MEK’s Auvers-sur-Oise compound. They arrested Maryam Rajavi and carted away $9 million in cash and documents detailing bank accounts in France, the U.S. and elsewhere holding tens of millions of dollars.
Also confiscated, says a senior French security official, were videos of Mr. Rajavi meeting Saddam Hussein and 99 satellite-positioning devices programmed with coordinates for Iran. The French also found what they say were signs that the Iraqi dictator had bankrolled the organization, something the MEK has always denied. These included stacks of dollar bills wrapped in Iraqi newspapers and documents relating to a gift of Iraqi oil, say French officials who were involved.
The raid drew criticism from lawmakers and others in France and also the U.S. About 10 MEK members set themselves on fire in Europe and Canada in protest. Two died from their burns. French police released Ms. Rajavi but launched a formal terrorism-conspiracy investigation of her and 16 others.
Mr. Mohaddessin, the group’s foreign-affairs spokesman, who was also detained and later released, ridicules the raid as a publicity stunt to win favor with Iran. There were enough police, he says, "for a coup in an African country."
The U.S. review of Camp Ashraf, which began around the same time as the French raid and finished in summer 2004, partially vindicated the MEK. Only one person has faced any U.S. charges, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Iran who was arrested in September in New York for allegedly providing support to a terrorist group. The roughly 3,300 now still in Ashraf were given the status of "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention, which promises humane treatment for nonnationals in a country at war. The U.S. military, as the occupying power, took on the role of protector. A White House official says this "protected" status applies only to individuals, not to the MEK as an organization.
Former Ashraf residents say MEK commanders, most of whom are women, have worked hard to woo the American soldiers who are now nominally in charge, inviting them to use a big swimming pool and serving them pizza. American forces have, under an agreement with the MEK, confiscated the group’s roughly 300 tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers, 250 artillery pieces and 10,000 small arms. They also blew up most of the MEK’s ammunition. But Camp Ashraf still functions as a bastion of opposition to Iran, shielded from the turmoil elsewhere in Iraq by American soldiers.
In June, the MEK camp hosted a mass rally of Iranian dissidents and thousands of Iraqis. Ms. Rajavi sent a message from France urging them to "cut off the tentacles of the Iranian regime." The MEK’s satellite TV station, meanwhile, pumps out adulatory propaganda for Ms. Rajavi and her missing husband, Massoud.
Both the Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command declined to comment on the military’s dealings with the MEK in Iraq. But individual officers have expressed support for the MEK. In May 2003, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, then-commander of America’s 4th Infantry Division, commended MEK members at Camp Ashraf for their cooperation and told reporters that "this should lead to a review of whether they are still a terrorist organization."
In 2005, following a report by Human Rights Watch detailing torture and other abuses at MEK camps in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, the commander of a U.S. military police unit that had been stationed at Camp Ashraf wrote to the U.S.-based human-rights group to defend the MEK. He said U.S. forces had not found "any credible evidence" of any such abuses and said he would "like my own daughter to someday visit these units for the cultural exchange."
In Washington, debate raged during this time over how to deal with the MEK, say current and former U.S. officials. Amid the screening of Ashraf residents, some in the Pentagon pushed to use the MEK as a tool against Iran and Iranian-backed militants operating inside Iraq, say current and former State Department officials involved in Iraq policy.
Colin Powell, who was then secretary of state, pushed back against the idea of cooperating with the MEK, say current and former officials. Mr. Powell and his underlings argued that any flirtation with the MEK would undermine Washington’s stand against terrorism. The State Department then designated the group’s previously tolerated U.S. affiliate, NCRI-U.S., as a terrorist front for the MEK. In August 2003, the Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down its offices at the National Press Club in Washington.
"There was this kind of language [being offered by Pentagon officials] that one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter," says Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Mr. Powell’s chief of staff at the time. He says the State Department pushed through 2003 and 2004 for the MEK’s disarmament.
Douglas Feith, who served as the Pentagon’s No. 3 civilian official until last year, denies any desire by the Pentagon to cozy up to the MEK. "The idea that we would use them against Iran is fantasy," he says.
MEK leaders sheltering in the West are now ramping up a campaign, along with their American and European fans, to present Maryam Rajavi and her missing husband as the only way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. This summer, thousands of their supporters gathered in a Paris convention hall. Ms. Rajavi arrived in a chauffeured Bentley, stepping onto a red carpet to the sound of trumpets. Rose petals were strewn at her feet. A former French prime minister and other VIPs applauded.
Among the MEK’s Washington supporters are a significant mix of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who chairs the International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia, drafted legislation this year that would require the White House to provide funding to Iran’s largest opposition groups, although the bill doesn’t explicitly name the MEK.
Mr. Abbasloo, the former Camp Ashraf resident, who is now in Europe, says he doesn’t like Iran’s current regime but mocks the MEK as an alternative. "I hope America is not going to be that stupid."
By ANDREW HIGGINS and JAY SOLOMON