THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE MUJAHEDIN-E-KHALQ
we were to look for a movement that sums up all the volatility,
inconsistency and unpredictability of the Middle East, one would
point to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK – People’s Mujahedin) in Iran.
Since their founding in September 1965, the paramilitary group has
taken part in every conflict across that Arabian peninsula. They
started off by fighting against the Shah and supporting Khomeini,
they then clashed against the ayatollah’s regime alongside Saddam
Hussein in the war against Iran and until the Iraqi dictator’s
downfall in 2003. When the Shia rose to power in Baghdad, they
managed to obtain US protection, which meant they disbanded their
military units and also avoided being exterminated.
In September 2012 the Mujahedin were de-listed from the terror list at the US Department of State. They had been added in 1997 and their cancelation was the result of intense lobbying in Congress. Their fighters, confined in military bases in Iraq, were gradually relocated across the globe. Their main base is in the United States, where their leadership lives, while many others reside in France. In March 2016, during a visit to Tirana the US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Albanian government for opening its doors to about a thousand Mujahedin.
Is this the epilogue of the history of the MEK? Probably not, they could still come in handy. A lot will depend on the future relationship between the US and Iran. Although not a paramilitary group anymore, the MEK is still the most efficient armed opposition to Tehran out there. They could go back to doing the dirty work they did in the past. It is not a coincidence that both the CIA and the Mossad have supported the Mujahedin’s rehabilitation. Their network of contacts on Iranian soil was and is still very useful. Some of the Iranian scientists involved in the nuclear program were allegedly assassinated by MEK cells supported and trained by the Israelis.
A marriage of convenience
It would be otherwise difficult to understand why the MEK, whose 40 years of armed struggle has led to the killing of several US citizens – a circumstance the group denies and blames on a radical splinter faction called Peykar – and attacks on US companies (Pan Am, Pepsi, General Motors), has now obtained the support from Washington. Back in the ‘70s the MEK was just like any other marxist group carrying out attacks against the imperialists; they were also among the supporters of the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. For a long time they even opposed the “Zionist entity” and fought against the State of Israel.
However, the MEK represents the sole armed opposition group to the Iranian theocracy and this has led to a whitewashing of their past deeds. There is no room for ethics, feelings or resentment when intelligence interests are at stake. The Mujahedin have been capable of switching sides at the right time, offering their services to those who are hostile to the current Iranian leadership. Given his opposition to the nuclear deal with Tehran, it is likely that under Donald Trump there will be fresh job opportunities for the MEK: acts of terrorism and/or attacks on Iranian soil. After all, the Mujahedin were among the most vocal opponents to the negotiations in Switzerland on Iran’s nuclear program.
A terrorist history
After their initial support to the Khomeinist revolution, since 1981 the MEK has targeted high profile members of the Iranian theocracy. According to some estimates, they are responsible for as many as 15 thousand deaths in Iran, including president Mohamed Ali Rajaei, prime minister Jawad Bahonar and 27 members of Parliament.
When they moved to Iraq, the MEK’s armed branch – the so-called National Liberation Army – was a powerful military tool. Saddam Hussein provided Iranian dissidents with heavy weaponry, money, garrisons and barracks where they could live and train. They were to all effects a small army. A paramilitary force that not only fought the Iranian army, or carried out attacks against the regime, but also fought for Saddam Hussein, crushing Shia or Kurdish rebellions at home in 1991. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the MEK could count on two thousand pieces of heavy weaponry, including tanks, armored vehicles and artillery. Although naturally diffident, it seems Saddam Hussein trusted the MEK more than his own army.
When the regime fell and the group’s fighters were confined in the Ashraf camp at the border with Iran and in other three camps in Iraq, the MEK managed to remove its obscure past and highlighted its positive role in the armed struggle against Tehran. This move granted both their physical and political survival as they rebranded themselves as freedom fighters and not terrorists-for-hire hosted by a ruthless regime. A romantic return to the origins of the movement when the Mujahedin were called “Holy fighters for the people of Iran”.
Massoud and Maryam Rajavi
A family leadership
This metamorphosis was possible thanks to the movement’s leader: Massoud Rajavi and his wife Maryam, whom he married in 1985 and that has been named co-leader of MEK in 1993. The Rajavis handle the MEK as if it is a firm. Their management skills have turned the group into a cult of personality. It is sufficient to point how Massoud Rajavi has been declared missing since 2003, and his wife has taken over MEK although there exists a so-called Parliament in exile known as the National Council of Iranian Resistance. Maryam Rajavi now lives in the US with her two sons.
Back in 1981, when he started fighting against Khomeini, Massoud Rajavi went in exile in France in hopes of obtaining asylum. But at that time the French wanted to cash in their support for the opposition to the Shah and had just obtained Iranian help in freeing a number of nationals kidnapped in Lebanon. Rajavi was thus labelled a terrorist and fled to Baghdad, where Saddam Hussein was receiving US support in his fight against the ayatollah’s regime.
The Rajavis have also set up an efficient propaganda machine that markets a positive image of the group. The MEK has opened offices in several capitals across the world: London, Ottawa, Canberra, the European Parliament and even in the Middle East. The Mujahedin have abandoned their marxist ideology in favor of a unique objective: the toppling of the Iranian regime. And to do so they rely on a number of structures, associations, committees around the globe that portray their fight against the Iranian theocracy as a common goal of different groups.
Who supports the MEK?
The MEK has convinced Congress to erase them from the Black List at the US Department of State and, when the time came, to evacuate its disarmed fighters in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. In fact, in 2003 the MEK signed a cessation of hostilities with the US army that allowed them to retreat in the Ashraf Camp without handing their weapons in or surrendering, although at the time they were to all effects still a terrorist group. The US granted them a “protected persons” status under the Geneva Convention and funded UN agencies with 20 million dollars for their repatriation or relocation. The EU erased the MEK from its terror list in 2009.
More recently, the MEK has tried to convince Congress that in order to defeat the ISIS one first had to topple the Iranian regime. Their surprising thesis pointed to non-existing links between Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Tehran. A series of unfounded statements that reached US senators and deputies nonetheless. In Europe instead the MEK uses a series of arguments that can connect with local public opinion: human rights violations, torture and death penalty, discrimination against women, lack of religious freedom and the MEK’s non-violent struggle (post-2003, that is).
The Rajavis and the MEK have the capability of always being on the right side of history, they have erased their terrorist past and point to how useful they could turn out to be in the future. But such a vast international lobbying activity has a cost which cannot be sustained without the external support of actors whose identify can be easily guessed. Donations from wealthy Iranians abroad, or the availability of the assets that were once frozen cannot cover the millions of dollars of campaigning to achieve a target – the toppling of the ayatollah’s regime – which still seems extremely remote.
We know that the 10 thousand or so fighters that stationed in Iraq have been disbanded. The MEK’s military units are no more, the camps closed and the combatants scattered across the world. Yet, there is an information network of operating cells still active inside Iran. This is basically the MEK’s main selling point to the West. MEK informers were the ones that allegedly broke the news to the CIA, and probably the Mossad, of the Iranian uranium enriching activities to produce a nuclear weapon at the Natanz plant as early as 2002. At that time they were still under the wing of Saddam Hussein. In other words, the MEK worked for the Iraqi dictator, the US imperialists and the Zionist entity at the same time. A double/triple game that shows how astute Massoud Rajavi was, as he was preparing to switch sides once more.
Given the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Shia, the MEK could find more clients in the near future. Saudi Arabia and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are top of the list. The Saudis have allegedly increased by ten-fold their financial support to the MEK in recent years. The use of MEK cells in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran was confirmed by the presence, in July 2016, of the former chief of Saudi intelligence, Turki al Faisal, at a conference in Paris hosted by the MEK and possibly financed by Riyadh. During that meeting, Faisal referred for two times to the “late Massoud Rajavi”, creating havoc in the wife-leader of the movement and in all those who want to continue covering up an open secret.