The People's Mujahedin of Iran (Mojahedin-e Khalq-e Iran, or MEK) is an Islamic- and Marxist-inspired militant organization that advocates the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The group was founded in 1963 as an armed guerrilla group after the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi violently suppressed opposition to his regime.
The group has a history of using force and violence against the government in Tehran—including against both the Shah and the Islamic Republic—as well as against countries perceived to be supporting them, like the United States. For years, the group was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. But after an aggressive and well-funded lobbying campaign supported by a bipartisan cast of high-profile former public officials, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in September 2012 that the group would be removed from the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.
According to one journalist, the "MEK's influence in Washington, particularly with Iran hawks, has coincided with a flow of money from the group to American politicians." From 2009 to 2015, the MEK reportedly spent more than $330,000 on political contributions. Since being removed from the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, the MEK's influence on Capitol Hill has apparently "spread from the fringes of Congress to include more mainstream and respected Republicans and Democrats." One politician who before MEK's terrorist delisting generally avoided the group, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), has since the MEK's delisting become one of the group's most outspoken champions. The Intercept has reported that between 2013 and 2015, Menendez was also the largest recipient of money from donors affiliated with the MEK, having received over $25,000.
The group's origins are eccentric and its history tumultuous. According to the U.S. State Department, "The group participated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that replaced the Shah with a Shiite Islamist regime led by Ayatollah Khomeini. However, the MEK's ideology—a blend of Marxism, feminism, and Islamism—was at odds with the post-revolutionary government, and its original leadership was soon executed by the Khomeini regime. In 1981, the group was driven from its bases on the Iran-Iraq border and resettled in Paris, where it began supporting Iraq in its eight-year war against Khomeini's Iran. In 1986, after France recognized the Iranian regime, the MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq, which facilitated its terrorist activities in Iran. Since 2003, roughly 3,400 MEK members have been encamped at Camp Ashraf in Iraq."
As of late 2012, most of the residents of Camp Ashraf had been relocated to another facility in Iraq—Camp Liberty—to await resettlement in third countries. The MEK's cooperation in the relocation—which had previously sparked concerns of a planned mass suicide by group members resistant to the move—was reportedly a key factor in Clinton's decision to delist the group.
Because of the MEK's cult-like organization under leader Maryam Rajavi, its support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War, and its participation in Saddam Hussein's crackdowns on Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, the group has been described by the New York Times as "a repressive cult despised by most Iranians and Iraqis."
U.S. officials have recognized this reputation. "While they present themselves as a legitimate democratic group worthy of support, there is universal belief in the administration that they are a cult," one official told CNN after the decision was made to delist the group. "A de-listing is a sign of support or amnesia on our part as to what they have done and it does not mean we have suddenly changed our mind about their current behavior. We don't forget who they were and we don't think they are now who they claim to be, which is alternative to the current regime."
Despite its murky reputation, MEK has presented itself to western backers as a popular and democratic Iranian opposition group that could lead the Islamic Republic to democracy—often even referring to Rajavi, who lives in exile in Paris and has never run for office in Iran, as the country's "president-elect."
In April 2015, Rajavi was invited to provide testimony at a congressional hearing on ISIS, spurring widespread criticism. Two former officials who were also scheduled to speak at the hearing, former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and former State Department official Daniel Benjamin, refused to testify alongside Rajavi. Benjamin decried the invitation to Rajavi as "disgraceful" while Ford agitatedly told Al Monitor: "What the fuck do the MEK know about the Islamic State?"
In the face of this backlash, Rajavi's invitee, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), defended her presence as relevant given the threat to MEK members at Camp Liberty in Baghdad from ISIS. According to Eli Clifton, MEK's significant campaign contributions to Poe "may offer at least part of the answer" for the unusual invitation. During her testimony, Rajavi argued that the "ultimate solution" to extremism such as ISIS, is "regime change" in Iran. The Nation's Ali Gharib responded: "It sounds counter-intuitive—Iran's aid to the Iraqi government and various Iraqi militias, after all, is widely credited with stopping ISIS's advances there—but not when you know about the MEK's tortuous past."
There have been reports that the United States has directly aided the MEK in the past, providing assistance that would have been illegal given the group's terrorist designation. In April 2012, for example, journalist Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. special forces had provided communications and weapons training to MEK members in the Nevada desert sometime from 2005 to 2007, considerably improving the group's capabilities inside Iran. "The MEK was a total joke," a Pentagon consultant told Hersh, "and now it's a real network inside Iran. How did the MEK get so much more efficient? Part of it is the training in Nevada. Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and part of it is inside Iran. MEK now has a capacity for efficient operations that it never had before."
Some analysts warned that the U.S. decision to delist the MEK could cause U.S.-Iranian relations to deteriorate even further. "The decision will no doubt make the Iranian leadership even more distrustful of U.S. intentions regarding the future of Iran, particularly given the congressional support for the MEK to spearhead regime change," wrote Iran expert Farideh Farhi. "Less trust will make compromise less likely, presumably a preferred outcome for the high profile supporters of the MEK in Congress and elsewhere."
Divisive Impact on U.S. Politics
The MEK has had a divisive impact in the United States. While it has garnered supporters from across the U.S. political landscape, it has also spurred negative reactions from representatives of nearly all political factions. Neoconservatives are a case in point. Several high-profile neocons outlets have praised the group, arguing that it could serve to spearhead regime change efforts in Iran.
After news agencies reported in early 2012 that the MEK—with support from Israel—was involved in the assassination of Iranian scientists, a number of neoconservative mouthpieces hailed the group. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post ran an editorial stating: "Were the MEK to play the critical role in derailing an Iranian bomb, it would be far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than a certain president of the United States we could mention."
Similarly minded ideologues—like Raymond Tanter, a member of the Committee on the President Danger—have called the MEK "the best source for intelligence on Iran's potential violations of the nonproliferation regime," arguing that delisting the group "would allow regime change to be on the table in Tehran."At a rally for the group in Paris, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani proclaimed, "Appeasement of dictators leads to war, destruction and the loss of human lives. For your organization to be described as a terrorist organization is just really a disgrace."
On the other hand, many neoconservatives view the group with antipathy, largely because they think that an alliance with it is short-sighted with respect to the goal of achieving regime change in Iran. An example is Michael Rubin, who has been sharply critical of MEK supporters. Responding to the news about the MEK's alleged role in assassinating Iranian scientists, Rubin wrote: "By utilizing the MEK—a group which Iranians view in the same way Americans see John Walker Lindh, the American convicted of aiding the Taliban—the Israelis risk winning some short-term gain at the tremendous expense of rallying Iranians around the regime's flag. A far better strategy would be to facilitate regime change. Not only would the MEK be incapable of that mission, but involving them even cursorily would set the goal back years."
Organizations sympathetic to MEK garnered an impressive array of establishment supporters inside Washington to speak in favor of delisting the group. The effort, according to the New York Times, "won the support of two former C.I.A. directors, R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss; a former F.B.I. director, Louis J. Freeh; a former attorney general, Michael B. Mukasey; President George W. Bush's first homeland security chief, Tom Ridge; President Obama's first national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; big-name Republicans like the former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Democrats like the former Vermont governor Howard Dean; and even the former top counterterrorism official of the State Department, Dell L. Dailey." Mitchell Reiss, a top foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan presidential campaign, also spoke on behalf of the group.
A potential explanation for this diverse list of supporters is the large speaking fees the MEK network has offered to big-name public figures. "Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,000 to speak for 20 minutes," said a State Department official quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. "They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say." Pro-MEK individuals and organizations also reportedly donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of several sitting members of Congress, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Bob Filner, Ted Poe, Mike Rogers, and Dana Rohrabacher.
Underlying MEK's more mainstream backing has been a bedrock of support from foreign policy hawks. In addition to Woolsey and other former Bush administration officials, the group has enjoyed the avid backing of Iran hawks like former ambassador John Bolton and groups like the Iran Policy Committee (IPC), a right-wing U.S.-based outfit whose putative goal is "empowering Iranians for regime change."
In a 2005 policy paper, IPC placed the delisting of MEK at the forefront of its proposals for U.S. policy toward Iran. The "continued designation since 1997 of the main Iranian opposition group, Mujahedeen e-Khalq (MEK), as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department assures Tehran that regime change is off the table," wrote the report's authors. "Removing the MEK's terrorist designation would be a tangible signal to Tehran and to the Iranian people that a new option is implicitly on the table—regime change."
MEK's critics have likened the organization's advocacy campaign to that of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an Iraqi exile group led by Ahmed Chalabi that worked to drum up U.S. support for an invasion of Iraq in the 1990s and early 2000s. By presenting itself to Western supporters as an Iraqi government-in-waiting, INC enabled Iraq hawks in the United States to claim that there was Iraqi support for the U.S. action. For Iran hawks, write Ali Fatemi and Karim Pakravan of the National Iranian American Council, "Maryam Rajavi, the MEK leader and self-proclaimed president of Iran, is their new Chalabi."
IPC in particular has embodied the link between pro-MEK groups and pro-INC groups. A 2010 investigation by the U.S. foreign policy blog LobeLog found that "through 2006, IPC shared an address, accountants, and some staff with multiple organizations that either fronted for or had direct ties to the INC, even sharing staff members with those groups. Some of those ties have continued through today."
Founded in 1963, MEK was one of the many Iranian factions that supported the overthrow of the shah in 1979. However, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor, it was the only one that used violence against Americans in the run-up to the revolution, launching a string of assassinations and attacks against American military and diplomatic officers in Iran in the 1970s.
The group was expelled from Iran in 1981 when it fell out of favor with Ayatollah Khomeini in a post-revolutionary power struggle. Since then, it has launched thousands of attacks against Iranians it has deemed "agents of the regime," peaking at a rate of three assassinations per day in the 1980s, and staged high-profile raids on Iranian diplomatic offices all over the world—including an orchestrated set of attacks on 12 diplomatic facilities in 10 countries on a single day in 1992.
In the mid-1980s, MEK settled in Iraq as a guest of Saddam Hussein, who offered the group use of Camp Ashraf, an encampment and army base north of Baghdad. There, not only did MEK fight on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq war, but it also helped Saddam crush the CIA-instigated Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that came on the tail of the 1991 Gulf War, leading to the precipitous erosion of its support in Iran and Iraq alike.
MEK's fighters at Ashraf were disarmed by the United States following the fall of Saddam's government in 2003. In the following years, the camp was subject to occasionally violent raids by the new Iraqi government, which sparked concerns about further violence or a humanitarian crisis when it ordered the camp closed by the end of 2011. Although the Ashraf issue is separate from the issue of MEK's status as a terrorist organization, MEK's backers in the West used the conditions at the camp to garner sympathy for the group's broader agenda in Washington and to argue that its continued listing as a terrorist group is the cause of its mistreatment.
MEK's lobbying efforts were foreshadowed in a 1994 report by the U.S. State Department, which concluded that the group was unlikely to be serious about its democratic overtures. According to the Christian Science Monitor: "Noting the MEK's 'dedication to armed struggle'; the 'fact that they deny or distort sections of their history, such as the use of violence'; the 'dictatorial methods' of their leadership; and the 'cult-like behavior of its members,' the State Dept. concluded that the MEK's '29-year record of behavior does not substantiate its capability or intention to be democratic.' "That report describes tactics that foreshadow the MEK's lobbying campaign today, 16 years later. It notes a 'formidable Mojahidin outreach program,' which 'solicits the support of prominent public figures,' and the 'common practice … to collect statements issued by prominent individuals.'"
The group formally renounced the use of violence in 2001, but an FBI investigation found MEK members to be "actively involved in planning and executing acts of terrorism" as recently as 2004. In February 2012, NBC News reported that the Israeli government had coordinated with MEK to launch a series of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists. The group's delisting may open the door to future cooperation with the United States as well.