The story of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK), is all about the way image management can enable a diehard enemy to become a cherished ally. The MEK is currently campaigning to be officially delisted in the US as a terrorist organisation. Once off the list it will be free to make use of its support on Capitol Hill in order to become America’s most favoured, and no doubt best funded, Iranian opposition group.
The last outfit to achieve something similar was the Iraqi National Congress, the lobby group led by Ahmed Chalabi that talked of democracy and paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq by presenting Washington with highly questionable ‘evidence’ of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links with al-Qaida. Then, as George Bush took the US to war, all that remained for the INC and its leaders was to sit back and prepare for government. Many in Washington believe that, for better or worse, the US will go to war with Iran and that the MEK will have a role to play. But first they will have to persuade Hillary Clinton to take the group off the US’s official terrorist list. Some of Clinton’s officials are urging her to keep the MEK on it but some of the big beasts in Washington are angrily demanding that she delist. After an exhaustive inter-agency process the MEK file is now in her in-tray. Recent State Department statements indicate that she is likely to delist the group.
Formed in the 1960s as an anti-imperialist, Islamist organisation with socialist leanings, dedicated to the overthrow of the shah, the MEK originally stood not only for Islamic revolution but also for such causes as women’s rights – an appealing combination on Iran’s university campuses. It went on to build a genuine popular base and played a significant role in overthrowing the shah in 1979. It was popular enough for Ayatollah Khomeini to feel he had to destroy it; throughout the 1980s he instigated show trials and public executions of its members. The MEK retaliated with attacks on senior clerical leaders inside Iran.
Fearing for their lives, MEK members fled first to Paris and later to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, desperate for allies in the war with Iran, provided them with millions of dollars of funding as well as tanks, artillery pieces and other weapons. He also made land available to them. Camp Ashraf became their home, a citadel in the desert, 80 kilometres north of Baghdad and an hour’s drive from the Iranian border. Since the 1970s, the MEK’s rhetoric has changed from Islamist to secular, from socialist to capitalist, from pro-revolution to anti-revolution. And since Saddam’s fall it has portrayed itself as pro-American, peaceful and dedicated to democracy and human rights. Continual reinvention can be dangerous, however, and the new, pro-Iranian Iraqi government is under pressure from Tehran to close down Camp Ashraf, which has grown over three decades to the size of a small town. And it’s not just Iran. Many Iraqis too bear grudges against the MEK, not only for having worked alongside Saddam Hussein but also for having taken part in his violent suppression of the Kurds and Shias.
Iraqi security personnel have twice attacked Camp Ashraf, in 2009 and 2011, killing more than forty people. Pictures of armoured vehicles running over unarmed Ashraf residents can be seen on YouTube. Iraq has now insisted that Camp Ashraf be closed, and its residents have very reluctantly started moving to Camp Liberty, a former US army base by Baghdad airport which is under UN supervision and guarded by Iraqi security personnel. The UNHCR is now processing the residents with a view to sending them to other countries as refugees, but few countries are willing to take in people the US officially designates as terrorists and who are described by many as members of a cult.
The MEK started to use cultlike methods – isolating members from friends and relatives and managing the flow of information that reached them – after 1989, the year its charismatic husband and wife leadership team, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, launched Operation Eternal Light. After Saddam’s failure to topple the regime in Iran, this was intended to be the big push that would finally win control of the country. Success, Rajavi told his fighters, was inevitable because the Iranian people, both civilians and military, would switch sides and join them on the march to Tehran. It would, he said, be a walkover. In the event the Iranian counter attack was ferocious. More than a thousand MEK fighters were killed and many others wounded. It lost around a third of its personnel.
Rajavi had to come up with an explanation for the defeat. His unorthodox solution was to tell his fighters they had lost because they had been distracted by love and sex. He commanded members to divorce, become celibate and live in communal, single-sex accommodation, just like soldiers in a regular army. Filled with ideas of self-sacrifice and martyrdom, they did as they were told. (The celibacy rule is to this day so tightly enforced that there are separate times for men and women to use Camp Ashraf’s petrol station.) Members were urged to transfer their passions from their former spouses to their leaders, the Rajavis. Aware that people were becoming sexually frustrated, meetings were organised where members were obliged to confess their sexual fantasies in public. If you did confess to something, other members spat at you. Friendships were also discouraged at Camp Ashraf, and so were children. From the mid-1980s, citing safety concerns, the leadership ordered that several hundred children living in the camp be moved to pro-MEK foster families in Europe and Canada. Some parents have not seen their children for more than twenty years.
These practices, along with frequent indoctrination sessions and the banning of news of the outside world (members were not allowed phones), helped the leadership to assert control. But MEK members outside Iraq also displayed remarkable devotion to the cause. When in 2003 the French authorities detained Maryam Rajavi on terrorism charges (she was later released) ten MEK members around the world set themselves on fire in protest; two of them died. The MEK of course denies being a cult, though many outsiders – senior US military officers, FBI agents, journalists and analysts for the largely Pentagon-funded Rand Corporation – have been to Camp Ashraf and come away believing that it is. One senior State Department official (now retired), sent to Iraq to interview thousands of MEK members after the invasion, concluded that the organisation was a cult; that the weirdly child-free Camp Ashraf was ‘a human tragedy’; that members were ‘misused and misled’ by the leadership; and that many had been tricked into joining.
The MEK has used various recruitment methods. The organisation’s elite joined in Iran before the revolution. Others are former Iranian conscripts captured during the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam’s regime offered them a bargain: if they joined the MEK they could move from POW camps to the more comfortable confines of Camp Ashraf. Some members were recruited on US university campuses and promised jobs, money, new passports and the chance to fight the mullahs. Others were simply deceived. One Iran-based MEK activist was told on a visit to Camp Ashraf that his wife and child had died so he might as well stay. It was ten years before he got hold of a phone; the first thing he did was call home: his family were still alive. Some former MEK members say that on arrival in Iraq they were whisked past immigration control and their passports deliberately left unstamped. If later on they said they wanted to leave Camp Ashraf they were told they would be arrested for entering the country illegally. I have heard hours of such testimony from former members. The MEK insists that all the people who tell such stories are Iranian agents. It also denies misleading families. The tears of parents, spouses and children seemed real enough to me.
Despite all this, some US military officers who worked in Camp Ashraf after the invasion came away convinced that the group could be a useful ally. General David Phillips, a military policeman who spent time there in 2004, argues that the MEK is no more a cult than the US marines: in both organisations you have to wear a uniform, obey orders and follow rituals that seem bizarre to the uninitiated. Positive feelings towards the MEK in the US military are easily explained. In 2003 they had been briefed that it was a heavily armed terrorist outfit expected to fight loyally for Saddam against US forces. In the event the MEK leadership realised quite quickly that Saddam was doomed and executed a political pirouette. When US forces arrived at Camp Ashraf, they were welcomed by courteous English speakers who professed their support. Many American soldiers came to see the camp as a safe haven in a hostile country.
This doesn’t explain the MEK’s popularity among politicians in London, Brussels and Washington. Some of it is paid for. Three dozen former high-ranking American officials regularly speak at MEK-friendly events. They include Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Obama’s former national security adviser General James Jones and the former congressman Lee Hamilton. The rate for a speech is between $20,000 and $40,000 for ten minutes. Subject matter is not a concern: some speakers deliver speeches that barely mention the MEK. In recent months the Obama administration has indicated it may put a halt to these events. The Treasury is investigating whether speakers have been receiving funds from a designated terrorist organisation. What they want to know, in other words, is whether the Iranian exiles who paid the speakers’ fees are an MEK front; those who campaign for the group without being paid will not be affected. Most of those who back the group do so because they will back anything that seeks to upset the regime in Tehran. They seem unaware that the organisation has been called a cult and have not heard the complaints of former members. A number of the most prominent MEK lobbyists say they agreed to speak because they were reassured by the respectability of those who were already doing so.
The MEK also hires Washington lobbyists, who issue lengthy ripostes to criticism. The Rand Corporation’s 105-page report on the MEK was written by a team of four who worked for 15 months in the US and Iraq to produce the most thorough analysis to date of the group’s cultish aspects. The response was a 131-page report from a body called Executive Action, which describes itself as ‘a private CIA and Defense Department available to address your most intractable problems and difficult challenges’. The Executive Action report was entitled ‘Courting Disaster: How a Biased, Inaccurate Rand Corporation Report Imperils Lives, Flouts International Law and Betrays Its Own Standards.’ Neil Livingstone, who is now a Republican candidate for the governorship of Montana, said he was retained by an ‘American citizen’ to assess the objectivity of the Rand report. He concluded that, among other shortcomings, its authors were too inexperienced to write about a subject as complex as the MEK. Its supporters still dismiss the Rand paper, published three years ago, as the work of ‘sophomore students’. Rand says these criticisms are references to the lead author’s assistants, who had relatively minor roles and were given a credit on the title page so they had something to put on their CVs. All this lobbying costs a lot of money. Some of it is collected by the organisation’s very determined door to door fundraisers in the UK and elsewhere. US officials also believe that the MEK has at its disposal the return on the large and well-invested stipend it received from Saddam Hussein.
Most pro-MEK campaigning doesn’t directly address the allegations of cultish behaviour: the lobbyists focus instead on delisting. In 1996, a UN General Assembly resolution established a committee to draft a convention on international terrorism. Officials have met annually ever since to discuss the issue. But they can’t agree on what terrorism is. There are two main sticking points. First, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference insists that movements resisting occupying forces and seeking national liberation – for example in Kashmir – should not be considered terrorists. Second, governments fear that they may themselves fall within any definition the committee reaches. So while some have come up with definitions that suit their own situation, at an international level no consensus has been achieved. Whether or not to label a group as terroristic is of course always a political act: the IRA never made it onto the US list; Nelson Mandela remained a terrorist in US eyes until 2008.
The MEK’s record of mounting attacks goes back to the 1970s, when it opposed the shah and railed against America for backing him. The State Department believes that in 1973 the MEK killed a US Army comptroller stationed in Tehran and that in 1975 it assassinated two members of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group. Three executives from Rockwell International and one from Texaco were also murdered. MEK hostility to the US continued after the revolution. On 4 November 1979 Iranian students occupied the US Embassy in Tehran and kidnapped 52 American diplomats, who were held captive for 444 days. One of the diplomats later said he would not have been in the embassy that day had he not been lured there by MEK contacts. Another said he had no doubt the MEK backed his kidnapping and in fact opposed a diplomatic resolution to the affair. Long after Khomeini decided it was time to settle the issue, the MEK was still pushing for the captive diplomats to be put on trial. The group used to claim that its support for the kidnappings was an elaborate pretence; now it denies it altogether. As for the killings, it says that at the time of the murders, its main leadership had been imprisoned by the shah, which allowed a Marxist faction to hijack the organisation. This faction, effectively a splinter group, carried out the killings, and the attacks ceased when the original leadership was freed and reasserted itself. But perhaps these disputes are moot. The 1970s were a long time ago. Organisations change.
The MEK may have stopped killing Americans, but it maintained its commitment to violent struggle in Iraq and Iran. Its efforts on behalf of Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and the Shias were a sideshow compared to the bombs, assassinations and broader offensives it mounted inside Iran throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Its violent history is well documented but the organisation insists it’s a thing of the past. This view has received substantial support from the European courts. In 2007, the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, a specialised UK legal body, declared that the MEK had renounced the use of force and upheld the group’s appeal against a Foreign Office decision to keep it on the official list of terrorist organisations. In 2009, the EU delisted the MEK on the more limited, procedural grounds that it should have been told why it was put on the list in the first place.
To keep the group on the US list Hillary Clinton will have to find that the MEK still has the capacity or intent to commit terrorist acts. Its supporters point out that, as well as convincing a British court they are now peaceful, in July 2004 every member at Camp Ashraf signed a document rejecting violence and terrorism. Critics have their doubts. Given what happens at Guantánamo and Bagram air base, they point out, it would have been surprising if members had not signed a renunciation of terrorism. In November 2004, the FBI reported on the group’s activities in Los Angeles, stating that it had recorded phone calls in which the MEK leadership in France discussed ‘specific acts of terrorism to include bombings’. The FBI claimed that French intelligence, as well as police in Cologne, had gathered similar information with wiretaps. The 2004 FBI report has been public for a year, but most of the material on which Clinton will base her decision is classified. In 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on an MEK lawsuit, and one of the three judges, Karen LeCraft Henderson, remarked that classified material provided ‘substantial support’ for the view that the MEK continues to engage in terrorism or at least retains the capability and intent to do so. A report in February on NBC News cited unnamed US officials as claiming that the MEK had been responsible for the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. While some of its US supporters hint that such actions would be to its credit, the organisation itself has denied involvement.
Raymond Tanter’s book is part of the MEK’s image management campaign, a briefing document for advocates of delisting. Tanter, a long-time supporter of the group, has produced a compact guide, complete with colour pictures and transcripts of speeches by paid MEK advocates. He doesn’t deal with the 1970s attacks or the help the organisation gave Saddam. He also glides over attacks in Iran in the 1990s. Tanter believes that under US law only recent years are relevant to the question of whether or not to delist, and he focuses on the period since 2001. He argues that the MEK offers the best hope of a so-called third option: a way for the US to achieve regime change without relying on sanctions or war. But this exposes a flaw in the argument of the pro-MEK lobbyists. On the one hand, they argue that the MEK has renounced force and should be delisted. But if it really has given up violence, would it not make more sense for the US to back the peaceful protesters who have a proven capability to mobilise huge numbers in contemporary Iran – the Green Movement? In reality the MEK’s US backers believe the organisation has potential precisely because of its history of using force. That’s what they think will shift the mullahs from power.
Since there are no reliable opinion polls in Iran, it’s unclear how much support the MEK has there. Supporters insist it has a strong network inside the country and has maintained its popular base. They argue that the regime would not heap so much abuse on it if it did not fear it. The group’s critics maintain that the regime merely despises it and uses it to advance conspiracy theories about foreign plots. The MEK’s decision to fight alongside Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war, they say, cost it considerable support.
Clinton will not be able to ignore political considerations. The MEK lobby is predicting that MEK activists in Iraq will be massacred. Should Iraq mount another attack on MEK members at Camp Ashraf or should the group provoke one, or stage one, the response from the MEK lobby will be fierce. The State Department’s current priority is to ensure that Camp Ashraf residents are safely moved to Liberty. In February, Clinton said a successful transfer ‘will be a key factor in any decision regarding the MEK’s Foreign Terrorist Organisation status’. Legally, this makes no sense. What does their agreement to leave Camp Ashraf say about the group’s desire or ability to carry out terrorist attacks? Nothing. But it reveals the State Department’s real fear: that out of malice or because of some MEK provocation the Iraqis will attack the MEK for a third time and the State Department will be denounced for ignoring all the warnings. In May, the State Department went so far as to say that it was looking favourably at delisting as long as MEK continues to evacuate its members from Ashraf.
What the statements suggest is that Clinton has all but made up her mind to delist the group – the MEK’s hard work has not been in vain. There’s something else to bear in mind. As one world-weary observer in Washington put it recently, ‘Hillary Clinton is a politico. Right now a lot of her colleagues and associates are making good money from the MEK. They won’t appreciate it if she removes the trough.’ Were the MEK to be delisted, the group could, like Chalabi’s INC before it, receive Congressional funding, and the Rajavis would be seen as likely candidates for office in any government formed after the mullahs’ fall.
A decade ago Donald Rumsfeld and the neocons were so in thrall to the INC’s Ahmed Chalabi that they provided helicopters to bring him and a band of diehard supporters to Nasiriya so he could be seen personally liberating Iraq. But when they landed, it was plain that none of the locals had ever heard of him. Chalabi was beaten to the top job by another former exile, Nouri al-Maliki, and had to satisfy himself with the Oil Ministry. Al-Maliki is now establishing himself as an authoritarian pro-Iranian leader: an outcome far removed from US objectives. But the never-say-die MEK lobbyists in Washington like to look on the bright side. Chalabi, they concede, was not what they thought. But this time it’s different. One retired US colonel who campaigns for the MEK likes to compare Maryam Rajavi with George Washington. The US may be about to demonstrate that once again it has failed to learn its lesson.