The recent demise of the JCPOA has been met with a concentrated but vocal chorus of applause from the deal’s fiercest critics, many of whom now occupy positions in the White House. Among them is the short-lived Ambassador to the United Nations under the Bush Administration, John Bolton, who was recently appointed Trump’s National Security Advisor. Bolton’s history in the State Department is marred with intimidation, manipulation of intelligence, and an overall contempt for the institutions he was chosen to represent. All of these Bolton-esque traits manifested in his pursuit of pushing the United States towards war in Iraq under a false premise and slandering any critics of the Bush-era policy. His rhetoric in the Trump administration has remained unsurprisingly consistent. Bolton’s comments now fan the flames of regime change in Iran, comments which have made him the strange bedfellow of a dissident, Marxist/Islamist faction; the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK). It is worth examining how such a group, seemingly antithetical to the ways of the self-styled “Pro-America” adviser, became pariahs for which Democrats and Republicans praise: how they transtioned from Anti-American terrorists to democratic freedom fighters.
“The Khmer Rouge of Iran”
The Mujahideen e-Khalq have their roots in the early 1960s, as a militant faction in opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, conducting largely violent resistance campaigns. Much of their activity throughout the 1970s involved the bombing of the U.S. embassies and businesses, as well as the assassination of U.S. military and civilian personnel alike. Ultimately they would take part in the 1979 Iranian revolution, having participated in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and expressed scorn at the “surrender” of the hostages to the United States in the aftermath of the crisis. The MEK’s schism with the newly minted Islamic Republic formed shortly after the revolution, with assassination campaigns and executions being traded between the two factions, finally resulting in the exile of the MEK from Iran and into France.
Their role in the French hostage crisis in Lebanon would prompt a swift exit, before landing at the doorstep of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, embroiled in a conflict with Iran in 1986. They became a de-facto militia to the client state of Iraq, crossing over into Iran towards the end of the war to raze towns and murder civilians. Their complicity with Saddam’s atrocities, coupled with their participation in the brutal repression of the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions of 1991, forever cemented their role as traitors in the eyes of Iranians. Iranian activists say that given the chance, the MEK could become the “Khmer Rouge of Iran”. A string of attacks on Iranian Embassies and the UN consulates in the years that followed earned them a spot on the United States’ Foreign Terrorist list. However, in the midst of the invasion of Iraq, and following the group’s disarmament at Camp Asharaf near Baghdad, they quickly pivoted to distance themselves from Saddam, and re-branded as “In opposition to the Islamic government in Tehran…and long suffering supporters of freedom and democracy”. An extensive PR campaign was underway, as they set out to become the most powerful, and only, Iranian lobby in the United States.
“How cheaply (politicians) value their own integrity to sell out to the MEK cult”
The main driver behind the MEK’s America-loving image is its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) based in France. Their leader, Maryam Rajavi, is the wife of co-leader Massoud Rajavi, who has been missing since the invasion of Iraq and was wanted for crimes against humanity. Many analysts conclude their is little to no degree of separation between the militant MEK and the NCRI, and as such were included together on U.S. and European terrorist watch-lists. Rajavi and her group’s lobbying efforts have been able to bring the topic of Iranian regime change to the forefront like no other, thanks to a determined effort to court western parliamentarians and an aggressive media campaign, according to a State Department report in 2007.
Indeed, the NCRI’s efforts have largely focused on targeting former heavyweights within Washington to speak on the organization’s behalf, extolling the virtues of their charismatic leader, and the sincerity of their mission to bring peace and democracy to a nation ruled by theocratic tyrants. The support is bipartisan, having courted the attention of former civilian and military leaders alike, who until recently were pressuring the State Department from the outside. A 2014 speaking event shows former Vermont Governor Howard Dean supporting the MEK while blasting the Iran Deal. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich scolding President Obama for appeasing Saudi Arabia while in a separate video bowing solemnly for Rajavi at a rally. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has also had his fair share of speaking events, most recently at the MEK-affiliate OIAC several weeks ago, where he thanked President Trump in tacitly supporting the cause of Iranian freedom by pushing to end the JCPOA.
All of these politicians turned lobbyists have two things in common; namely a stunning lack of awareness of the group’s history, and sizable speaking fees to help placate their cognitive dissonance. Many of their supporters openly admit they knew little about the organization prior to being asked to speak on their behalf. The speaking fees are handsome, according to anonymous State Department officials, who stated that appearances at public events and rallies can range up to $100,000. Their campaign seems to have prevailed, as the State Department felt pressured enough to remove them from the terrorist watch-list, primarily on the basis of their status as a threatened group by the recently elected Shiite-majority government in Iraq. But despite this victory, many who have a more familiar knowledge of the group’s past believe this does little to dismiss their scrupulous activities. As one former State Department official lamented ““How cheaply (they) value their own integrity to sell out to MEK cult.”
“A reviled cult group with a direct line to the president.”
The organization’s separation of men and women, the members’ sworn fealty to the co-leaders of the MEK, and Rajavi’s willingness to sacrifice lives in martyr-like operations suggests their core beliefs have hardly changed. A 2009 report delivered by the RAND corporation found that following the alliance between Saddam and the MEK, the group faced a sharp decrease in volunteers. The Rajavi’s thus began “A campaign of disingenuous recruiting”, approaching not only Iranian dissidents, but economic migrants and asylum seekers, promising employment and asylum in exchange for fealty. The report estimates that up to 70% of the group’s members might have been forced to join in these “recruitment traps”.
None of these troubling qualities seem to dissuade American supporters, who are adamant the now-former terrorist faction shares the same values of freedom and human rights as the West. They defer to the oft-used quote “the enemy of the enemy is my friend”. But advocates of regime-change should be wary about the group’s legitimacy beyond its lobbyist circles. Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council points out how little support the MEK have among activists in Iran, noting “Many Iranians are eager for change, but they don’t want to go from the frying pan of an Islamic government to the fire of the MEK”.
To be sure, the fact that the group is so despised within the country could only serve to strengthen the Islamic regime’s rule and jeopardize a legitimate democratic movement in Iran. The lack of historical awareness on the part of these lobbyists, one in particular who is Trump’s National Security Advisor, brings these concerns immediately to the forefront. We cannot afford to support another misguided rebel faction in a foreign intervention. And yet today, we have a reviled cult group with a direct line to the president.