As the landmark Iraqi elections loom closer, the fate of a controversial and often misunderstood Iranian opposition group hangs in the balance. The formerly armed Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) has been based in Iraq for twenty years with regime change as its exclusive cause. Not only was it a long term irritant for Iran, launching waves of terrorist attacks from across the border, it also waged a remarkably intensive – albeit unsophisticated – anti-Iranian propaganda campaign from major Western capitals. It was a tempting prospect for hawks in the U.S. administration, therefore, to use the MKO – officially classified a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU governments – as a tool against Iran, particularly for those with regime change at the forefront of their agenda. But on the eve of the Iraqi elections, the MKO seems to be more of a liability for the U.S. than ever.
Shortly after the fall of the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, the organization’s value was such that Iran offered to exchange some top al-Qaeda operatives for the MKO. But whether the U.S. administration had over-estimated the MKO’s value and wanted more, or whether there were covert plans to use the group rather than be rid of it, the offer was refused. In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war in 2003, U.S. forces displayed a puzzlingly ambiguous attitude toward the MKO; first negotiating a ceasefire and subsequently disarming it, but then protecting the group against Iraqi revenge attacks. Even when the Iraqi Interim Governing Council (IGC) voted for the MKO’s expulsion in December 2003, the U.S. failed to comply, further fuelling Iranian suspicions over U.S. motives. 
Outside Iraq, the MKO’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance (NCR), found common ground with U.S. advocates for regime change in Iran. The NCR exposed intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program during last autumn’s negotiations between Iran and the EU, and supported U.S. moves to take the issue to the UN Security Council. The NCR stopped short of asking the U.S. to bomb Iran, instead claiming it could perform the task of regime change if given the right support. That would entail maintaining the MKO as an armed force in Iraq and, as a prerequisite, removing both the MKO and the NCR names from the U.S. terrorist list. While this hopelessly unrealistic approach could have been tried even six months ago, it is difficult to see how it could be implemented following an election in Iraq.
While Iran lined up with the United States to push for the January 30 elections to go ahead, the MKO struck a defiant tone, effectively adopting the same rhetoric as the neo-Baathists, Salafi Islamists and other insurgent forces that are desperate to derail the election process. But despite its vociferous criticism of the elections, the MKO has no power or mandate to influence the outcome of the electoral process. Implausibly, the organization claims a constituency of support among Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal leaders (especially in Diyala Province) which contrasts strangely with its inability to show any meaningful support inside Iran. The emergence of democratic institutions in post-war Iraq will severely undermine the MKO, as it will lend popular legitimacy to calls for their immediate expulsion. In short, the United States will not be able to ignore the wishes of the new elected government as it ignored the wishes of the unelected IGC back in December 2003.
Either the MKO will have to be expelled as already requested, or its members will face trial and punishment as cohorts of Saddam Hussein. In any case, the organization’s potential value as a U.S. bargaining chip in complex negotiations with Iran will be effectively ended by the elections. 
In any event, the notion of sending MKO members inside Iran as secret operatives tasked with undertaking espionage and sabotage operations was always a non-starter. This proposal entirely overlooks the actual state of the organization itself. The average age of the members is over 48 years, with a significant number over 50 years old. And these are people whose bodies have been ravaged by the conditions of constant military training, sleep deprivation and inadequate nutrition. Most have not set foot in Iran for nearly 24 years and would have difficulty now navigating around their own neighborhoods, let alone an unknown nuclear facility. More than this, the psychological state of the members following years of isolation and psychological coercion would not allow them to act independently or intelligently outside their immediate organizational environment – let alone in hostile territory. In short, the U.S. covert operation would need local Iranians not burnt-out ex-patriots. In addition, the MKO has become so heavily infiltrated, and not just by the Iranians, that it is hard to see how such a plan could be even formulated without Iran becoming forewarned of it.
MKO: Still Terrorists?
In many ways, MKO behavior in the West points to quite another deal being struck with the U.S. and other Western governments. Conditions for its continued existence in any form appear to be that the MKO ditch its ideological leader, Massoud Rajavi; that it changes the strategy of armed struggle for exclusively propaganda work; and that it changes its name so that the MKO stays on the terrorist lists but members continue to work as the NCR.
The significance of these demands is that they cut right to the heart of the MKO’s existence as a coherent force. For years, Massoud Rajavi has remained invisible while his wife, Maryam, was presented as the acceptable public face of the MKO. This barely disguised deception has enabled the organization to present itself as a democratic force, despite its well known pseudo-communist origins and the cult-like characteristics it has acquired since 1985. This massive inconsistency in the MKO’s public profile and its internal dynamics, at times produce dramatic and disturbing events. For instance when Maryam Rajavi was arrested in Paris in 2003 on terrorism charges, the MKO had no other recourse but to orchestrate a series of self-immolations by members in order to terrorize the French government into releasing her.
Moreover the MKO has been deeply committed to “armed struggle” since its emergence in the 1960’s. Therefore, relinquishing the “principle” of armed struggle would seriously unsettle the organization and most likely lead to the emergence of splinter groups. Western governments need to take this into account before they consider removing the MKO from their terrorist lists.
While the U.S. has been aware of the problems presented by the MKO, it has only lately begun to address them seriously. The designation of protected status under the Fourth Geneva Convention in July 2004 constituted the first practical step the U.S. has taken to deal with the group. This allows the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to process individual members and remove them from Iraq without lifting the terrorist status of the whole organization – a kind of controlled dissolution.
Almost as though they had anticipated the outcome from the start, the Iranians had, since the summer of 2003, been offering amnesty to “repentant” MKO who wanted to return to Iran. This was hugely controversial inside Iran. While the vast majority of Iranians are either ignorant or indifferent toward the exiled group, supporters of the Islamic Republic are highly sensitive to the violence inflicted by the organization on their leaders and fellow supporters, particularly in the period 1981-1984 when the MKO’s armed struggle was at its peak. In spite of this, Iranian officials pushed ahead with the offer, and since December 2004, the ICRC has voluntarily repatriated 41 individuals who have been de-briefed and then re-united with their families. No prosecutions are planned, although it is understood that repatriated members should not take part in political activity. However, the officially repatriated members constitute only a tiny number of MKO members that have returned to Iran since May 2003. According to reliable sources, more than 300 members have fled Ashraf and returned to Iran in the past 19 months. In almost all cases these members surrendered to the Iranian customs authorities on the Iran-Iraq border, who subsequently handed them over to the Ministry of Intelligence. The former members were transferred to Tehran and debriefed for two days by Iranian intelligence officers in specially designed reception centers in the Marmar and Esteghlal Hotels, before being released to their families.
But more interesting than this has been the information given by returning members about conditions in the Ashraf camp in Diyala. While U.S. forces control the camp perimeter, they have allowed the MKO to maintain its internal command structure, leaving the members under conditions of psychological coercion. It is widely believed that around 1,000 disaffected MKO members approached the U.S. army and requested to be separated from the organization, and are now apparently being held in a separate part of the camp.  These developments seem to suggest that the longer the MKO remain ensconced in Ashraf, the more likely it is that the organization disintegrates in the face of overwhelming internal and external pressures.
The downfall of Saddam Hussein effectively spelled the end for the Mojahedin-e-Khalq’s presence in Iraq—armed or otherwise. While the U.S. could have made the best out of the situation by swapping MKO leaders for senior al-Qaeda members in Iranian custody, for a variety of complex reasons this “near-deal” was never implemented. The only real issue on the ground is how and when to remove the MKO from its Ashraf base. The Iraqi elections are likely to accelerate this process and thus remove a major obstacle in improving ties between Iran and the new Iraqi regime.
Whether Western governments subsequently remove the MKO from the terrorist list remains to be seen. But before any de-designation takes place, western policy makers should bear in mind that the MKO – irrespective of its massive decline in recent years – is still a highly sensitive issue for the Islamic Republic. Therefore de-designation runs the risk of complicating wider counter-terrorism efforts in the region – not least Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic groups.
Massoud Khodabandeh is a former member of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, and mainly served in the organization’s intelligence/security department. Khodabandeh left the Mojahedin in 1996 and currently lives in the north of England, where he works as a security consultant.
1. Iraqi Television, November 5, 2003
2. Mehr News Agency, September 2, 2004
3. Nejat Association, May 17, 2004. The Nejat Association—based in Tehran – brings together families of MKO members currently based in the Ashraf camp in Iraq. The Association has been lobbying the ICRC and the Iranian government for the repatriation of MKO members to Iran.