Filings reveal Iranian dissident group’s foreign influence operation to push for regime change
Tensions between the United States and Iran are rising to a fever pitch following the downing of an American drone Wednesday by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard over the Strait of Hormuz. It comes less than a week after an attack on two tankers purportedly conducted by Iran.
Iran has declared that although it does not want conflict, it is “ready for war.” Hawkish voices in the U.S. have called for aggressive action as top military leaders review plans for a possible confrontation.
As both nations move closer to the brink of war, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a little-known advocacy group determined to install itself as the new government of Iran, continues to build a powerful influence network in Washington and beyond.
Recent documents in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act reveal that the council, the political arm of opposition group Mujahedeen Khalq or MEK, has been hosting opulent events at the National Press Club and elsewhere, publicizing itself through national and international media, and meeting with dozens of current and former government officials, all with the end goal of toppling the current Iranian government and rising to power in its place.
OpenSecrets previously reported on the MEK’s deep ties to National Security Advisor John Bolton and other voices currently agitating for war against Iran. The new documents reveal the extent to which the dissident group is using media and its vast array of prominent supporters to push the national discourse toward confrontation.
The council of resistance either submitted or was quoted in 51 media pieces between December 2018 and May 2019, according to FARA filings. These pieces were concentrated in right-leaning media outlets such as Fox News, The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner and NewsMax.
Throughout their appearances, the organization stood firm behind dubious claims that Iran is currently carrying out assassinations in Europe and the U.S., an assertion widely rejected by experts. The rhetoric, based on Dutch intelligence reports that two Iranian dissidents were murdered by Tehran in 2015 and 2017, portrays the threat as dire and immediate, including calling for all Iranian embassies in Europe to be shut down in May.
The group also continued to meet with a number of major former government officials, including James Jones, who served as Barack Obama’s national security advisor from 2009 to 2010, and Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security.
The council has been building a war chest of prominent advocates to justify its mission to the public and to national and international political communities, including Bolton, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giulliani, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson.
Some of these individuals were investigated by the Treasury Department in 2012 for accepting significant speaking fees from the MEK, which was, at the time, still designated by the federal government as a terrorist organization. The investigation ultimately dissipated after the group was de-listed as a terrorist organization later that same year following a multi-million dollar lobbying blitz.
The group continues to organize public protests, rallies and speeches claiming to represent the Iranian people, even though the group is reportedly “widely despised” within Iran and has been exiled from the country for decades. The group spoke with several U.S. senators on Nowruz (Persian New Year) in March and received the backing of two sitting senators, John Boozman (R-Ark.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).
Standing between two Iranian flags emblazoned with the MEK’s golden lion insignia, Boozman told the group, “We are committed to helping you in any way that we can.”
Boozman and Shaheen aren’t the only members of Congress to have publicly backed the MEK Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has repeatedly called for launching a first strike on Iran, spoke at a 2015 meeting of the Organization of Iranian American Communities, an advocacy group closely aligned with the MEK.
Two other senators, Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), flew to Albania in 2017 to meet with the MEK’s leader Maryam Rajavi and wish her group “success in their struggle for democracy and human rights in Iran.”
Supporters of the MEK claim that Rajavi will usher in a secular democratic state in the place of the current theocratic regime. They champion her stated commitment to free-market capitalism and promises to modernize the nation.
The council was founded in the early 1980s as the political front of the MEK, which itself was started by self-described Marxist Iranian students in 1965. Initially fighting with other opposition groups to take down the Shah in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the group soon came into conflict with the new Ayatollah Khomeini’s government, with members of the MEK eventually killing the Iranian president and prime minister in 1981.
They later fought alongside Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980 Iran-Iraq war and into the 1990s and early 2000s against Iraqi Shiites, Kurds and Americans. They have been blamed for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and at least six American citizens.
The group plans to demonstrate in front of State Department headquarters in D.C. on Friday in a protest dubbed “March 4 Regime Change by Iranians” by social media supporters and closely-aligned groups, including OIAC. OIAC has been spending to amplify the march with more than $300 going to Facebook ads in the days leading up to the event and multiple tweets promoting the demonstration on Twitter, but the amount of that spending is unknown since OIAC is not on the list of issue advertisers tracked by Twitter’s Ads Transparency Center.
By Reid Champlin , OpenSecrets News