TEHRAN, IRAN (Analysis) — With the recent protests across Iran, some people are, for the first time, being exposed to a fringe group of Iranian exiles known as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK, and their political front group, The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
While audiences of Western media may be seeing the group, they aren’t actually being provided the proper context of who the MEK and NCRI are. Instead, MEK protests are being shown across Western media as “anti-regime” protests representative of the general mood of Iranians. The problem with these protests — which have been highlighted by outlets like Fox, Salon, and Vox — is that they aren’t actually taking place in Iran.
Instead of highlighting the concerns of the legitimate protests in Iran, multiple news outlets instead showed protests in cities like Paris, where the NCRI is based. MEK protests were highlighted due to their demand for the fall of the revolutionary government in Tehran, an agenda very different from that of the protesters in Iran.
But who exactly are the MEK and NCRI? How did this group — which claims to be based on a strange, malleable blend of Shia Islam and Marxism, and was listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. until 2012 — become a close ally of the U.S. foreign policy establishment as a tool for applying pressure to Iran? To better understand how the MEK, which is almost universally rejected by the Iranian people, found itself in bed with nations like Israel and the U.S., it is worth examining MEK’s full history.
MEK’s origins in pre-revolution Iran
The MEK was founded in 1965 by six members who splintered from the Freedom Movement of Iran, a moderate party based in the politics of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The MEK founders were followers of a Shia leftist thinker, Ali Shariati. The group split from the Freedom Movement due to that party’s moderate approach in challenging the government of the Shah.
When the MEK was founded it was accepted as a part of the larger anti-Shah revolutionary coalition (which easily integrated Marxist and liberal movements as long as they opposed the government) and, much like other factions of the revolution, the MEK also opposed Western interests in Iran. In the years leading up to the revolution, the MEK was so committed to waging war on U.S. interests that it attempted a kidnapping of U.S. Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II and an assassination of U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Harold Price. The MEK also carried out a host of bombings in Iran, many of which targeted U.S. citizens and assets (although the MEK now blames all these attacks on a splinter group, Peykar).
The MEK continued to work alongside Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries through the fall of the Shah, even claiming to have played a role in exposing the anti-Ayatollah Nojeh coup in 1980. The group attempted to field presidential candidates in 1980, although they were declared ineligible for office by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini due to the organization’s beliefs that ran counter to the Islamic revolution. These events soon led to tension between the MEK and the government of the Islamic Republic, resulting in mutual hostility between the MEK and Hezbollah of Iran, a non-government militia that wasn’t directed by the revolutionary government, nevertheless, these conflicts and the mutual hostility which followed, eventually led to MEK terror attacks on government targets in Iran.
At that time, the revolutionary government in Iran had high levels of popular support, which made the MEK’s activities unacceptable to wide swaths of the population. Predictably, this led to the outlawing of MEK and the exile of its leadership, who ended up in France.
MEK in exile: from revolutionary to reactionary
After its terror campaign against the revolutionary government failed, the MEK was forced to flee to France, where it remained for several years. The MEK was then forced to leave France in 1986, as part of an agreement between Tehran and Paris to return French hostages in exchange for banning the MEK.
At this point, there were few safe havens for the MEK available except for the one country that was engaged in a direct war against the government of Iran: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Despite accurately calling Saddam an aggressor while the group was still in Iran, the MEK now joined the Iraqi government in opposing Iran and formed the National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA) in Baghdad.
The NLA was even more aggressive than the Iraqi army in its incursions into Iranian territory, going so far to assault and destroy Iranian villages during a ceasefire period brokered by the United Nations (UN). It was at this point that the MEK and its partner organizations officially became extensions of Iraqi policy and by extension, the CIA, which backed Saddam against Iran. These changes also led to the MEK improving relations with Israel in exchange for funding as well as intelligence on Tehran which was gathered by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence arm.
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At this juncture, the MEK’s ideology began to stray even further from that of the majority of Iranians (or anyone), and the group essentially evolved into a cult. The group began following the word of its leader Massoud Rajavi, enforcing rules such as making older women divorce their husbands and requiring celibacy for young women. The MEK also separated from its commitment to Marxism, instead adopting beliefs including opening relations with the West, capitalism, and religious freedom.
The MEK continued to coordinate terror attacks on Iran from Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war up until 2003, when it allied with Iraqi forces in the short campaign to resist the U.S. invasion. The MEK surrendered alongside Iraqi troops, however, unlike Iraqi army units, MEK fighters were given a ‘special status’ designation as civilians by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld due to their opposition to Tehran — a controversial move even among right-wing think tanks like the Rand Corporation. This status allowed MEK fighters special protections in American custody, such as their captors’ abiding by the Geneva Conventions at a time when the U.S. torture program was gaining notoriety.
The MEK’s time in Iraq cemented the organization’s unpopularity in Iran. While the Iranian people protest against the government over legitimate grievances, such as economic reform, much like other anti-imperialist powers such as North Korea, Iran remembers the past — and Iranian citizens (no matter how they feel about the current government) overwhelmingly reject involvement by the U.S. in Iran’s internal affairs.
No friends but imperialists
The MEK’s sordid past makes it clear why its only remaining friends are Western nations and their allies who seek regime change in Tehran. The group was happy to play the role and abet the cause in exchange for protection and resources.
The MEK soon became a tool of every anti-Iranian entity seeking to topple the government in Tehran, including Israel, which regularly coordinates with the MEK and uses the organization as a sort of intelligence launderer to release information to the public without crediting them for it. The most notable instance of this relationship was the dissemination of information by the MEK claiming to prove Iran was developing nuclear weapons technology. While these allegations proved untrue, what made them even more nefarious was that the information was allegedly given to the MEK by the Mossad.
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The MEK is also suspected to be behind the assassinations of Iranian civilian nuclear scientists, which they were trained to carry out by the Mossad, during a period in which the group was sheltered in the U.S. military’s Camp Ashraf in Iraq and allegedly allowed to continue carrying out covert terrorist activities in Iran.
The MEK has continued to aid other Israeli projects as well. In Syria, the MEK released ‘intelligence’ on the fight for Aleppo and other conflict zones within the country. The group, which was formerly condemned by U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle, suddenly became a darling of the neoconservative establishment, meeting with everyone from Newt Gingrich to Rudy Giuliani, and welcoming a Senate delegation that traveled to meet the group’s members living in Albania.
MEK in latest protests
While the MEK remains unpopular in Iran, the group still holds value to the U.S. It provides both an image of “Iranians against the regime” as well as a conduit to publish false intelligence demonizing Iran. The initial protests in Iran were started by citizens with legitimate grievances about the rising cost of essential consumer goods and the slow pace of economic reform, yet even those who oppose the government are likely to come from the large portion of Iranian citizens who harbor anti-American sentiment.
While the much of the media may be focusing on peaceful gatherings of the MEK in countries like France, the Iranian government claims several cells of the organization have been found preparing to incite violence in the country. It is important not to be misled by false profiles of MEK demonstrations as regular Iranians vying for change, but to keep in mind that the group is a terror organization and is almost universally despised in the country it claims to wish to “liberate.”
Top Photo | Supporters of Iran’s National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) hold a rally opposite the entrance of 10 Downing Street in London, Jan. 4, 2018, the woman pictured is former MEK leader Maryam Rajavi. (AP/Frank Augstein)
James Carey is journalist and editor at Geopolitics Alert. He specializes in the Middle East and Asian affairs.
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