The People’s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), more commonly known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (“people’s mujahideen”; MEK), is one of the most organized and controversial Iranian opposition groups. Although it maintains an armed wing—known as the National Liberation Army (NLA)—and numerous front organizations, it derives its greatest strength from the slick lobbying and propaganda machine it operates in the United States and Europe. The MEK also boasts extensive support within U.S. government and policy circles, including many of the most vocal advocates of a U.S. invasion of Iran .
The MEK remains on the list of banned terrorist organizations in the United States and European Union (EU). Both parties have indicated no intention of reconsidering their positions. The May 7 decision by the United Kingdom’s Court of Appeal to overrule the British government’s inclusion of the MEK on its list of banned terrorist organizations, however, may pave the way for both the United States and EU to reassess their positions regarding the MEK down the line. Given the MEK’s history of violence and its willingness to act as a proxy force against Iran, such a move would represent a major escalation in hostilities between the United States and Iran, with consequences in Iraq and beyond.
The MEK is an obscure organization with a long history of violence and opposition activities. It emerged in the 1960s, composed of college students and leftist intellectuals loyal to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq; the popular leftist nationalist prime minister was deposed by a U.S.- and U.K.-backed coup in 1953 that restored Mohammad Reza Shah to power. Its revolutionary zeal combined aspects of Marxist and Islamist ideologies in pursuit of its goal to overthrow the U.S.-backed shah through armed resistance and terrorism. Its primary targets in the 1970s included ranking officials and symbols of the shah’s regime, both within and outside of Iran. The regime responded in kind with brutal repression through SAVAK, the shah’s notorious domestic intelligence apparatus. Thousands of members and associates of MEK were killed, tortured and jailed during this period. Consequently, like many Iranians at the time, the MEK viewed the Islamist opposition as a positive force for change. The MEK supported the revolutionary forces and the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy and subsequent hostage crisis led by student activists in Tehran. The group’s unique brand of Marxism and Islamism, however, would bring it into conflict with the rigid Shiite Islamism espoused by the post-revolutionary government. The failure of a June 1981 coup attempt intended to oust Ayatollah Khomeini elicited a massive crackdown by the regime against the MEK, forcing the group’s leaders and thousands of members into exile in Europe. When France ousted operational elements of the group in 1986, many made their way to Iraq, where they joined Saddam Hussein’s war effort against Iran and enjoyed a safe haven .
Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, a charismatic husband and wife team that fled into exile in Europe, lead the MEK. From her base in France, Maryam Rajavi currently holds the position of “President-Elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)” after her husband’s disappearance sometime in 2003. He is presumed to be in hiding . The Rajavis enjoy a fanatical cult-like following among MEK members and supporters . The group’s cult-like character was displayed when 16 followers of the Rajavis staged dramatic public acts of self-immolation over a period of three days in June 2003 across major European and Canadian cities. The protests followed the arrest of Maryam Rajavi and 160 of her followers after a French court ruled that the MEK and its numerous front groups constituted a terrorist organization. According to former members of the group, the MEK’s “human torches” are a testament to the stranglehold the Rajavis have over their followers and the extent to which members are brainwashed and manipulated psychologically into blindly following them. The MEK is reported to maintain a list of volunteers ready and willing to perform acts of self-immolation on the orders of the leadership . Like other cults, MEK members are often separated from their children and families and discouraged from maintaining contact with individuals outside of the group. Former members who defected from the MEK describe the Rajavis as autocrats who demand unquestioned loyalty from their followers (pars-iran.com, January 30, 2006).
Women make up a significant contingent of the MEK’s ranks, especially in its armed wing. In addition to its Marxist and Islamist pedigrees, the rise of the Rajavis to the group’s leadership led to the introduction of feminist ideologies into the group’s discourse. This aspect of the MEK’s ideology indicates their attempt to tap into local grievances and international sympathy regarding the position of women in the Islamic Republic . In this regard, the MEK presents itself as a liberal and democratic alternative to the rigid brand of Islamism espoused by the ruling clerics, an image it has cultivated in U.S. and Western policy circles to great effect . The U.K. court based its ruling on the premise that the MEK has renounced violence and terrorism, and that it currently maintains no operational capability to execute future acts of violence.
Violence and Terrorism
The MEK’s long history of violence and terrorism includes the abduction and assassination of ranking Iranian political and military officials under the shah in the 1970s, as well as attacks against the clerical establishment throughout the 1980s. Foreign-based MEK operatives also targeted Iranian embassies abroad in a series of attacks. MEK militants struck diplomatic officials and foreign business interests in Iran under both the shah and the Islamists in an effort to undermine investor confidence and regime stability. Furthermore, the MEK targeted and killed Americans living and working in Iran in the 1970s, namely U.S. military and civilian contractors working on defense-related projects in Tehran (mkowatch.com). The group has never been known to target civilians directly, though its use of tactics such as mortar barrages and ambushes in busy areas have often resulted in civilian casualties.
In addition, the MEK’s repertoire of operations includes suicide bombings, airline hijackings, ambushes, cross-border raids, RPG attacks, and artillery and tank barrages. Saddam Hussein exploited the MEK’s fervor during the Iran-Iraq war. In addition to providing the group with a sanctuary on Iraqi soil, Saddam supplied the MEK with weapons, tanks and armored vehicles, logistical support, and training at the group’s Camp Ashraf in Diyala Province near the Iranian border and other camps across Iraqi territory. In a sign of the group’s appreciation for Saddam’s generous hospitality and largesse, the MEK cooperated with Iraqi security forces in the brutal repression of uprisings led by Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens in 1991 . MEK members also served alongside Iraq’s internal security forces and assisted in rooting out domestic opponents of the regime and other threats to Baathist rule.
Despite its history of high-profile attacks, the MEK never posed a serious threat to the Iranian regime. The group never enjoyed popular domestic support, despite its claims to the contrary. Many Iranians actively oppose the clerical regime and sympathize with segments of the opposition. At the same time, most Iranians also regard the MEK as traitorous for joining the Iraqi war effort against Iran and resent its use of violence and terrorism against Iranians at home and abroad (mkowatch.com).
Approximately 3,500 members of the MEK remain in Camp Ashraf. Following an agreement with U.S.-led Coalition forces, MEK units allowed Coalition forces to disarm the group. Decommissioned MEK units are currently under surveillance in Camp Ashraf. Their future status, however, remains a point of controversy. Despite their demobilization, Iran believes that the United States is holding on to the group as leverage in any future confrontation with the Islamic Republic (see Terrorism Monitor, February 9, 2006).
Although it has been disarmed, the MEK retains the capacity to remobilize, especially if it gains a state sponsor. Nevertheless, it is the MEK’s lobbying and propaganda machine in the United States and Europe that enables it to remain a relevant force in Middle East politics and a key factor in U.S.-Iranian tensions. The MEK’s political activism falls under the auspices of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—an MEK political front organization that also serves as an umbrella movement representing various Iranian dissident groups. These efforts persist despite the fact that U.S. authorities ordered NCRI offices in Washington to shut down in 2003 (New York Observer, June 5, 2007).
From Iran’s perspective, the U.S. position on MEK is both ambiguous and at times hypocritical. On the one hand, the MEK remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of banned terrorist organizations, yet the group remains on Iraqi soil, albeit disarmed and under surveillance by Coalition forces. The MEK has cultivated a loyal following among an outspoken network of U.S. politicians, former and active government officials, members of the defense establishment, journalists and academics advocating violent regime change in Tehran. The MEK is even credited in some of these circles for disclosing aspects of the Iranian nuclear program . At the same time, it is accused of fabricating intelligence information to boost its profile in the United States (Asia Times, March 4). With their call for regime change in Iran and pleas for international support, media-savvy MEK representatives based in the United States appear regularly on the cable news show circuit and other forums in Washington, DC in a campaign reminiscent of the one led by Ahmed Chalabi and the network of Iraqi exiles who mustered American support for the Iraq war . The MEK has also gained legitimacy as a liberal and democratic force for positive change in Iran, despite evidence to the contrary.
The MEK will continue to capitalize on the ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran by enlisting the support of elements in Washington seeking a bargaining chip against Tehran. It is important, however, to see this bizarre organization for what it is; that is, to see through the façade of liberalism, democracy and human rights that it purports to represent through its propaganda. The well-documented experiences of scores of former MEK members are reason enough to consider this group and any of its claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.
1. See “U.S. Policy Options for Iran,” prepared by the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), February 10, 2005 at www.nci.org/05nci/02/IranPolicyCommittee.pdf.
2. For a historical narrative of the MEK’s formative years, see Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahidin, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). For an insider’s perspective on the history of the MEK from a former member, see the website of Massoud Khodabandeh at www.khodabandeh.org/.
3. See the official website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) at www.ncr-iran.org/ and the official website of Maryam Rajavi at www.maryam-rajavi.com/.
4. See “Cult of the Chameleon,” an al-Jazeera documentary on the MEK (broadcast October 17, 2007) at www.iran-interlink.org/?mod=view&id=3384. For an insider’s perspective on the cult-like character of the MEK, see the website of the Dissociated Members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran at pars-iran.com.
5. For an overview of the events of 2003, including graphic photographs of the acts of self-immolation, see “MKO Human Torches” at www.mojahedin.ws/art_pdfs/MKO-HUMAN-TORCHES.pdf.
6. For an overview of the MEK’s position on women, see Shahin Torabi, “Women in the Cult of Mojahdin,” March 5, 2003 at mojahedin.ws/article/show_en.php?id=653 and Sattar Orangi, “The Strives [sic] for the Freedom of Women,” March 13, 2008 at mojahedin.ws/news/text_news_en.php?id=1601.
7. A. Ashfar, “The Positive Force of Terrorism,” October 10, 2006 at mojahedin.ws/news/text_news_en.php?id=842.
8. See “MKO and Massacre of Kurd and Turkmen Iraqis,” April 19, 2006 at pars-iran.com/en/?mod=view&id=664.
9. See “U.S. Policy Options for Iran,” prepared by the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), p. 7.
10. For more details on the MEK’s political activities in Washington, DC see “Ali Reza Jafarzadeh, Front Man for the MEK and NCRI in Washington,” February 2004 at pars-iran.com/en/?mod=view&id=851.