MEK, Iranian friends of the Far Right Spanish VOX
The upstart far-right party is unapologetically Islamophobic, but without donations from Iranian exiles, it may have never gotten off the ground.
Spain’s far-right party Vox launched its 2019 election campaign this month in the tiny town of Covadonga. Situated in a lush valley in the northern region of Asturias, with fewer than 100 inhabitants, Covadonga is sometimes referred to as the “cradle of Spain.” According to the historical narrative of Spanish conservatives, Covadonga was the site of the first victory by Christian Hispania against Spain’s then-Muslim rulers, and the start of the Reconquista, the 780-year process of reclaiming Iberian lands for Christendom.
“Europe is what it is thanks to Spain—thanks to our contribution, ever since the Middle Ages, of stopping the spread and the expanse of Islam,” Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, Vox’s vice secretary of international relations and a candidate in the April 28 elections, told Foreign Policy over the phone on his way to Covadonga. At the campaign launch, Vox leader Santiago Abascal added: “History matters, and we shouldn’t be afraid of that,” to cries of “¡Viva España!”
While Spain’s right-wing has previously been relatively light on anti-Islam rhetoric, preferring to rail against secessionists in Catalonia and elsewhere, Vox has no such compunction. One of the party’s earliest controversies was a wildly Islamophobic video conjuring a future in which Muslims had imposed sharia in southern Spain, turning the Cathedral of Córdoba back into a mosque and forcing women to cover up. Recently, Vox’s No. 2, Javier Ortega Smith, was investigated by Spanish prosecutors for hate speech after he spoke of an “Islamist invasion” that was the “enemy of Europe.”
Given Vox’s staunch Islamophobia, it was an embarrassment for the party when reports of Iranian funding emerged in January.
Vox’s racist, homophobic, and sexist policies had already provided plenty of ammunition for its critics and rival parties; the claims that Vox had been established with the help of Iranian money in 2013 was less expected. However, Vox was not actually funded by Iran itself. The reality is even more surprising.
Documents leaked to the Spanish newspaper El País show that almost 1 million euros donated to Vox between its founding in December 2013 and the European Parliament elections in May 2014 came via supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an exiled Iranian group. The NCRI was set up in the 1980s by Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and a number of other Iranian dissidents and opposition groups. The MEK’s allies later abandoned the NCRI, making the organization functionally an alias for the MEK.
The MEK and NCRI dispute that they are synonymous, but many disagree, including Daniel Benjamin, a former coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, who refers to the NCRI as the MEK’s “front organization.” The MEK and NCRI also share the same leader, Maryam Rajavi. The U.S. government and a U.S. Court of Appeals decision affirm that the NCRI is an alias of the MEK, while a 2009 Rand Corp. report sponsored by the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense refers to the NCRI as an “MeK subsidiary.”
The MEK is billed by U.S. politicians like Rudy Giuliani and current National Security Advisor John Bolton as the legitimate opposition to the current Iranian government. But the MEK also happens to be a former Islamist-Marxist organization that was only taken off the U.S. list of terrorist organizations in 2012—raising the question of why supporters of such a group would want to back an Islamophobic, hard-right Spanish party like Vox.
In Spain, much has been made of Vox’s links to U.S. President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who met a senior figure from the party in Washington last year, and has promised to tour Spain in the near future. But the mysterious MEK-linked funding points to another controversial relationship.
With Vox poised to win more than 10 percent of the vote in this weekend’s Spanish elections, the party could end up propping up a new right-wing government, as happened in regional elections in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia in December. It would be the first time a Spanish government has depended on a far-right party since Francisco Franco, and this would send shockwaves through Spain’s entire political system.
The question of Vox’s funding is now more burning than ever.
In 1953, a U.S.- and British-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected prime minister of Iran and propped up a monarchical dictatorship led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Waves of oppression followed, including scores of executions, thousands of incarcerations, and the choking of civil society. In the ensuing political vacuum, many radical groups popped up. One such group, the MEK, or People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, combined both Marxism and Islamism. The MEK set about fighting the Western-backed dictatorship, staging attacks against the shah’s regime and U.S. targets. The shah responded in kind, torturing and executing opposition leaders, including those of the MEK.
In the months preceding the Islamic Revolution of 1979, thousands of prisoners were set free, including Massoud Rajavi, a prominent MEK figure. Rajavi was a young, charismatic orator, who rejuvenated the organization and even met Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader, hoping to secure his endorsement for the MEK. Khomeini refused. Rajavi then tried to run as a candidate in Iran’s first-ever presidential election, but confronted with Khomeini’s disapproval, he was forced to drop out. The winner of that election, Abolhassan Banisadr, was not an ally of Khomeini either. The MEK saw an opening and allied itself with Banisadr.
In 1981, Rajavi and Banisadr fled Iran together after Banisadr was impeached and removed from office with Khomeini’s blessing and MEK followers had lost deadly street battles with Khomeini loyalists that had threatened to turn into a civil war. The MEK was now an official enemy of the Islamic Republic, which was at the time fighting a bloody war with Iraq, so the MEK came to see Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as a viable ally. The MEK started helping Saddam in his war against Iran.
Since that moment, the group has been widely seen as a pariah among the Iranian public. Later, the MEK reportedly helped Saddam in his massacres of Kurds and Iraqi Shiites. As stated in the Rand report: “MEK officials strenuously deny any involvement in the atrocities against the Shia and Kurds. … However, the allegations of the group’s complicity with Saddam are corroborated by press reports that quote Maryam Rajavi encouraging MEK members to ‘take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards,’ as well as the timing of Saddam’s conferring the Rafedeen Medallion—a high honor in the Iraqi military—on Masoud Rajavi.” In return, Saddam gave the MEK near-unlimited funding and a stretch of land to build itself a city, about 60 miles north of Baghdad and just 50 miles away from the Iranian border.
When the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 overthrew Saddam, the MEK lost its biggest ally.
The country was now ruled by parties and people the MEK had helped suppress, friends of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and a United States at the height of its global war on terrorism and which had designated the MEK as a terrorist group. What’s more, the MEK had by now morphed into something resembling a cult, according to allegations by various people who have left the group.
Hassan Heyrani, a former member of the MEK’s political department who defected in 2018, told Foreign Policy about group rituals and routines designed to completely subjugate the individual self, including members’ sexual lives and the slightest hint of free thinking, while forcing near-religious worship of MEK leader Massoud Rajavi. Women were made to adhere to a strict dress code. Members were obliged to record the details of their daily activities and thoughts in personal notebooks and then share them in group meetings, with the risk of public shaming and punishments, according to Heyrani. The MEK did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but its representatives have denied such claims in the past.
Despite the MEK’s metamorphosis from an opposition group to designated terrorist organization, hawks in the George W. Bush administration decided that they could use the MEK in their redrawing of the Middle East. Instead of apprehending members of the group as terrorists, during the occupation the U.S. Army was instructed to defend the MEK’s base from possible attacks by Iraqi forces, various Iraqi militias, or forces loyal to the Iranian government.
The MEK quickly seized on Washington’s change of heart. The organization started an intense lobbying campaign to have itself removed from terrorist lists in the United States and European Union. A vast and impressive range of current and former U.S. politicians and officials ended up being linked to this effort, from Giuliani and Bolton on the right to Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez and former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean on the left. In Europe, the list included Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a now-retired Spanish politician, who previously served as one of the 14 vice presidents in the EU Parliament. The MEK was finally delisted by the U.S. government in 2012 and by the EU in 2009.
Spain’s Vidal-Quadras went on to help found Vox in late 2013. And supporters of the NCRI provided the funding needed to launch the right-wing party and contest the 2014 European elections, according to El País.
“From the day it was founded in December 2013—the same day that it registered as a political party with the Spanish Ministry of Interior—Vox started to receive Iranian funds,” said Joaquín Gil, one of the El País journalists who first reported on NCRI-linked funding of Vox. The donations came from dozens of individual sources, from several countries including the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Italy in amounts ranging from 60 to 35,000 euros, totaling almost 972,000 euros, in the period from December 2013 to April 2014, shortly before the European parliamentary elections.
According to Gil, Vidal-Quadras said he had “asked his friends at NCRI … to instruct its followers to make a series of money transfers.” Vidal-Quadras told El País that he had informed the current leader of the party, Abascal, about his relationship with the organization and that the NCRI would finance the party. Vidal-Quadras has confirmed that the NCRI organized the international fundraising campaign for Vox and the group was willing to discuss the matter with Spanish journalists. “We knew that it was a new party, but not a far-right one,” a spokesperson for the NCRI told El País.
This money would be fundamental to the launch of the party—without it, Gil suggested, Vox wouldn’t exist. But the NCRI had already achieved the goal of having the MEK removed from the EU terrorist list years earlier, so why did its supporters agree to fund a fringe Spanish party? “It’s totally surreal,” Gil admitted.
When asked about the party’s links to the NCRI, Espinosa, the Vox vice secretary of international relations, told Foreign Policy: “We don’t have any relationship with them.” The funding of Vox by the NCRI came out of a “personal relationship” with Vidal-Quadras, who had supported the Iranian organization throughout his stint in the EU Parliament until 2014, when he lost his race to win a seat as part of the newly founded Vox. (Vidal-Quadras had previously been a lifetime member of Spain’s conservative People’s Party, or PP.) “They supported him,” Espinosa claimed. “Not the party so much as him. And when he left,” Espinosa added, “when the campaign was over, they never came back.” Like the NCRI and MEK, Vidal-Quadras did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.
In December 2013, Spain’s electoral commission reminded the political parties that foreigners were not allowed to finance parties during the 2014 European elections campaign. Spain’s electoral law prohibits parties from receiving money from foreign entities or individuals 54 days before elections, although foreign funding is permitted outside of the campaign period.
While there is no evidence that Vox has broken Spanish or EU funding rules, Espinosa clearly had no qualms about accepting foreign funding:
“I try to get as much funding from abroad as I can—not to say that it’s significant, but I’d be lying if I told you nobody from abroad [had made donations].”
Espinosa, who was part of Vox’s European parliamentary candidates list in 2014 alongside Vidal-Quadras (Vox narrowly missed winning a seat), went on to emphasize that the noncampaign funding was entirely legal, transparent, and came through verified bank wires by “professionals—lawyers, bankers, dentists, doctors who live abroad.” Other parties remain suspicious.
Spain’s ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), currently in a minority in the Senate, has asked the Senate’s majority party, the PP, to request that Vox appear in front of the Commission of Investigation for Funding of Parties. The conservative PP, which would likely need Vox’s support to have any chance of forming a right-wing coalition government after the election, has expressed concerns about Vox’s funding but has stopped short of a Senate investigation, instead urging Spain’s Court of Auditors to investigate Vox. Espinosa told Foreign Policy that the party has presented all the related documents to the Court of Auditors.
Espinosa also insisted that Vox’s funding had never come from “foundations, organizations, parties”—only individuals. But while the donations to Vox technically came from followers of the MEK rather than directly from the organization, the distinction between “members,” as in those actually part of the MEK, and so-called “supporters” outside the organization itself is false, claimed Heyrani. “Those in other countries are also members. They have daily schedules. There are circles led by MEK offices in each country, and they act upon their orders,” he said. NCRI and MEK representatives have not responded to requests from Foreign Policy for comment on this allegation.
The MEK may have just been returning the favor to a long ally, Vidal-Quadras, who has been supportive of the MEK for years. But as one former member of the MEK executive committee told Foreign Policy, the financial resources the group gained under Saddam Hussein have likely run out—which suggests that it may have another source of funding today.
“Mojahedin [MEK] are the tool, not the funders. They aren’t that big. They facilitate,” said Massoud Khodabandeh, who once served in the MEK’s security department; Khodabandeh defected in 1996, a year before the MEK was designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. “You look at it and say, ‘Oh, Mojahedin are funding [Vox].’ No, they are not. The ones that are funding that party are funding Mojahedin as well.”
Khodabandeh said he himself was involved in moving money for the MEK and its funders during the reign of Saddam Hussein. “I went to Riyadh and recovered three trucks of gold bars from agents of [the] Saudi intelligence agency [at that time] led by Prince Turki bin Faisal. We transferred them to Baghdad and then to Jordan. We sold the bars in Jordan,” he claimed.
Khodabandeh’s account raises the question of where the MEK’s money is coming from today. Heyrani, the recent MEK defector, also handled parts of the organization’s finances in Iraq and was blunt when asked about the current financial backing of the MEK: “Saudi Arabia. Without a doubt,” he said. Once the MEK was given a safe haven in Albania after U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, with no U.S. Army to defend the group’s camp and the Iraqi government wanting them gone, one of the ranking members of the political department told Heyrani that Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud had finally laid a “golden egg.”
The so-called egg was the massive installation, or camp, based just outside Tirana, Albania, which has been used by the MEK as its base of operations since 2016. “Habib Rezaei [a top-ranking member] told me that we will bring some U.S. senators to parade in front of Albanians so that they know who they’re dealing with,” Heyrani said. (In August 2017, Republican Sens. Roy Blunt, John Cornyn, and Thom Tillis visited the MEK in Albania and met with Maryam Rajavi.)
Saudi Arabia’s state-run television channels have given friendly coverage to the MEK, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, even appeared in July 2016 at an MEK rally in Paris.
“I want to topple the regime too,” the prince said, to cheers. It has also been widely reported that the MEK has collaborated with Israel’s Mossad, including in attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists, according to U.S. officials. The MEK has called the allegations of their role in assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists “patently false.”
There is evidence that Gulf leaders, fearful of Iranian influence and Islamist movements at home, are warming to anti-Islam parties in Europe, as Ola Salem and Hassan Hassan have argued in Foreign Policy. Khodabandeh agreed. “It’s all over Europe,” he said. “Far-right, anti-EU parties have support that comes from lots of places. … There is outside backing. This backing is the same as [those backing] MEK.”
Experts in the United States have reached similar conclusions about the source of the MEK’s funds. “Group supporters claimed the money came from the contributions of ordinary Iranians in exile, but the sums seemed far too great,” wrote Benjamin, the former State Department counterterrorism official, who added that some believed Arab governments of the Persian Gulf to be behind the MEK “lucre,” as he put it.
Even so, a fringe party in Spain just getting off the ground does not seem to be a natural destination for supporters of an organization dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian government, much less a party whose ideology was not known to the NCRI and MEK at the time of those donations, according to an NCRI spokesperson quoted in the El País report. Moreover, Spain’s governments and its royal family have long enjoyed amicable relations with the Gulf monarchies, reducing the likelihood of these governments wanting to prop up an extremist far-right party in Spain.
Ultimately, the revelations by El País about MEK-linked funding being used to establish Vox leave more questions than answers. As Benjamin wrote in 2016, the removal of the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organizations ended “any hope of gathering more information from MEK proponents on their financial relations with the group, or where all that money came from.”
Renowned enemies of the Iranian government may have been happy to see their funding reach a European supporter of the MEK, given that the organization has been promoted internationally by some as the legitimate Iranian opposition-in-exile, but either these alleged financial backers didn’t realize their cash would ultimately be used to fund a far-right party—or they didn’t care.
Sohail Jannessari is a doctoral candidate in political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University and a contributor to BBC Persian TV and other Persian-language media. Twitter: @SoJannessari
Darren Loucaides is a British writer who covers politics, populism, and identity. Twitter: @DarrenLoucaides
Sohail Jannessar, Darren Loucaides, Foreign Policy