Eli Clifton, LobeLog, August 31 2016:… By outward appearances, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the ex-terrorist Iranian opposition group hell-bent on regime change, appears to be losing their influence in the media. The group’s allegations about Iran’s nuclear program are met with increased skepticism after, for example, photographic evidence of “Lavizan-3,” a secret uranium enrichment facility in suburban Tehran, was revealed …
Congressional Research Service Expert and Gulf Lobbyist Headline MEK Event
By outward appearances, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the ex-terrorist Iranian opposition group hell-bent on regime change, appears to be losing their influence in the media. The group’s allegations about Iran’s nuclear program are met with increased skepticism after, for example, photographic evidence of “Lavizan-3,” a secret uranium enrichment facility in suburban Tehran, was revealed to be a stock photo from an Iranian safe company. But their spotty track record on providing verifiable information from inside Iran hasn’t stopped the group from gaining the support of Washington’s biggest Iran hawks—and, more recently, anti-Iran ideologues associated closely with Arab kingdoms in the Persian Gulf.
The MEK’s latest purported revelation, exclusively reported in the UK tabloid, The Daily Mail, is that Iran commands 60,000 pro-Assad fighters in Syria, has spent as much as $100 billion in Syria since 2011, and maintains a secret command post near the Damascus airport. The fact that Iran is supporting the Syrian government comes as no surprise, but the scale of its involvement, if true, would mean Iran is far more deeply invested than was previously thought. But the Daily Mail’s reporting on the MEK’s allegations provides little evidence to back up the tough-to-swallow claim that Iranian led forces outnumber the Syrian army.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the MEK’s political front, will present its findings tomorrow at its Washington offices with a panel discussion featuring, among others, Dr. Kenneth Katzman, a prominent Iran expert at the taxpayer-funded Congressional Research Service (CRS), and Amb. Adam Ereli, a lobbyist for Qatar and former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain.
Katzman’s participation in the panel is particularly surprising, given his previous critical writings about the group. In 2010, he authored a CRS report featuring a section on the MEK, which he characterized as advocating “Marxism blended with Islamic tenets,” a fact that the MEK—despite its well-documented history—now denies. Katzman cited a 2007 State Department report which “notes the group’s promotion of women in its ranks and again emphasizes the group’s ‘cult-like’ character, including the indoctrination of its members and separation of family members, including children, from its activists.” And in 2012, Katzman warned about exiled opposition groups like the MEK, comparing them to the internal Iranian opposition Green Movement:
Some groups have been committed to the replacement of the regime virtually since its inception, and have used violence to achieve their objectives. Their current linkages to the Green Movement are tenuous, if existing at all, and some indications suggest these movements want to dominate any coalition that might topple the regime.
Katzman did not respond to questions about his decision to participate in the panel.
In contrast to Katzman, J. Adam Ereli, another MEK panelist, is an often-quoted critic of the Iran deal in the media and lobbyist for one of Iran’s biggest regional rivals, Qatar. Over the past year, news outlets have consistently failed to disclose his work on behalf of Qatar when publishing his attacks on the White House’s nuclear diplomacy.
Ereli, along with former Rep. Vin Weber (R-MN), is listed as “personally and substantially involved in the performance” of Mercury’s work on behalf of Qatar, according to the 2015 contract between Mercury Public Affairs, where Ereli is a vice-chairman, and Qatar. Qatar pays Mercury $100,000 per month for Ereli and Weber’s services. That contract has been extended twice and now continues until the end of 2016. Ereli didn’t respond to a question about whether he was appearing on the panel in a personal capacity or as a lobbyist for Qatar.
The Thursday appearance on the panel won’t be the first time that Ereli has participated in one of MEK’s events. In July, 2014, Ereli appeared at a Capitol Hill event hosted by the Organization of Iranian American Communities, a coalition whose sole purpose is supporting the MEK, and praised the NCRI. He noted, contra Katzman’s assessment, that the MEK was a voice for Iranians who are dissatisfied with the country’s leadership, saying, “Outside of Iran, and both inside of Iran, there is a credible organization that helps channel that dissent, that is the NCRI or Mojahedin-e Khalq.”
While the MEK and many of its stateside boosters promote the group as the legitimate Iranian opposition, impartial Iran experts believe the group lost any popularity and legitimacy it once held inside Iran thanks to its decision to fight alongside Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Ereli also spoke at another pro-MEK Hill event in 2015 and attended the NCRI’s Nowruz (Iranian New Year) celebration in March.
Ereli wouldn’t be the first MEK-advocate with Sunni-Gulf ties to jump on the MEK’s bandwagon. Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, the former head of the Saudi intelligence agency and longtime ambassador to the U.S., praised MEK leader Maryam Rajavi at the group’s annual gathering last July, in Paris. Prince Turki’s appearance, and his show of open support for the MEK, lends new credence to the rumors that the Sunni Gulf states are a possible source for the group’s mysterious funding.
Photo: Maryam Rajavi, the Paris-based leader of the MEK/NCRI, walks through a group of enthusiastic supporters.
About the Author
Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent New Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.
Saudi Supports Anti-Iran Fanatics (Mojahedin Khalq, Rajavi cult)
Ali Gharib, Lobelog, July 15 2016:… Let’s be blunt: MEK is neither a viable agent for regime change in Iran nor the “government-in-exile” the group pretends to be. They enjoy almost no support among Iranians at home or abroad. Exiled royalists hate them for their terror war against the Shah’s regime and their part in the Islamic Revolution. Inside the country, they are reviled across …
Saudi Supports Anti-Iran Fanatics
If Saudi Arabia is on a quest to paint itself as a responsible actor in the region, the kingdom took a big step backward over the weekend. That’s when a former top official—who remains an influential figure—declared support not only for regime change in Iran but for one of the strangest would-be agents of overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, the former head of the Saudi intelligence agency and a longtime ambassador to the U.S., spoke to a gathering of thousands of Iranian exiles in Paris. The group was gathered to fête Maryam Rajavi and her movement, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a group that, until 2012, the United States and other Western countries listed as a terrorist organization.
Al-Faisal more than played his part in the adulatory chorus. “You, Maryam Rajavi,” he said, according to the Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, “your endeavor to rid your people of the Khomeinist cancer is an historic epic that, like the Shanameh”—the most famous Iranian epic poem—“will remain inscribed in the annals of history.” Rajavi’s endeavor, of course, has been the monomaniacal pursuit of bringing down the Iranian regime—under any banner she can fly—in order to install herself atop Iran’s government.
MEK has a long and strange history. With roots as an Islamo-Marxist revolutionary organization dating back to the 1960s, MEK launched various terrorist attacks during the time of the Shah to achieve its aim of toppling the monarchy. As a result, it faced a brutal crackdown. During the 1979 Islamic Revolution, MEK fought at the vanguard of anti-Shah forces. But after the king’s overthrow, Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republicans stripped MEK of its potential place in the halls of power by. Around that time, the group consolidated itself around the leadership of the charismatic and mustachioed Massoud Rajavi. Facing another round of brutal repression, this time under Khomeini’s nascent rule, Rajavi led his followers into exile, setting up a political base in France and a military one in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein’s regime lavished weapons and cash on MEK fighters. In 1985, Rajavi took Maryam Abrishamchi as his wife and co-leader. Critics, including no small number of former adherents, allege that a cult of personality has developed around the pair.
MEK and Petrodollars?
Al-Faisal’s appearance at the MEK gathering was remarkable on a number of fronts. The anti-Iran Gulf Arab monarchies, among which Saudi Arabia is the driving force, haven’t made a show of open support for such a controversial anti-Iran groups like MEK. (Other Gulf monarchies and their allies also appeared at the Paris summit: a member of parliament from Bahrain gave a speech, as did a delegation from Jordan, another monarchy with close security ties to the Gulf.) The Sunni Gulf states—flush with petrodollars and bearing sectarian grudges against Shiite Iran in a regional battle for hegemonic primacy—have long been suspected as a source of funding for MEK’s lavish spending, but no reliable reports have definitively established where the group gets its cash. Al-Faisal’s public move in support of the group certainly provides one more piece of evidence to link Gulf states to MEK”s financing.
Then there was al-Faisal’s speech explicit call for regime change in Iran and support for MEK. The crowd at the MEK rally, donning their standard yellow vests and hats, interrupted al-Faisal’s speech with Arabic chants in favor of bringing down the Iranian regime. Al-Faisal, who had been delivering his speech in Arabic, responded in kind: “I, too, want the fall of the regime.” At The Intercept, Robert Mackey noted an irony: the Arabic chant to which al-Faisal responded so positively is the same one that “was used in the pro-democracy protests across the Middle East in 2011 that Saudi Arabia fought so hard to repress.”
A host of other ironies also loom over al-Faisal’s appearance. MEK, for instance, long ago gave up its aim of an Islamic Marxist state in favor of hollow pledges to establish a secular democracy in Iran. But Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are about the farthest thing from a secular democracy. Conservative religious sentiments inspire the Saudi royal family’s rule, and political repression is endemic wherever Saudi Arabia enjoys considerable influence. What’s more, MEK directed the first decade of its terrorist attacks at bringing down the Shah’s repressive monarchy, denouncing its form of government as inherently unjust. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, then, makes an especially strange bedfellow.
Let’s be blunt: MEK is neither a viable agent for regime change in Iran nor the “government-in-exile” the group pretends to be. They enjoy almost no support among Iranians at home or abroad. Exiled royalists hate them for their terror war against the Shah’s regime and their part in the Islamic Revolution. Inside the country, they are reviled across the political spectrum for siding with Saddam Hussein—and fighting against Iranians—in the Iran-Iraq war.
Why, given all that, would such a well-connected former Saudi official make such a show of supporting MEK? Although MEK is famous for lavishing money on its supporters—paying as much as $50,000 for a short speech and investing in politicians through campaign contributions—al-Faisal, as a member of Saudi Arabia’s super-rich royal family, probably scoffs at the sort of cash MEK offers. Instead, al-Faisal attended for obvious reasons: to put a thumb in Iran’s eye. In this, the high-ranking prince is acting like the Washington Iran hawks that have warmed up to Saudi Arabia since, mostly out of mutual enmity for Iran, the Gulf Arab states and Israel began blowing kisses to each other over their shared antipathy for the Iran nuclear deal. Several such hawks were in attendance in Paris. As The Intercept reported, among the attendees were Newt Gingrich and superhawk former UN ambassador John Bolton.
For close MEK watchers, such as myself, perhaps the most interesting wrinkle—aside from the Saudi prince’s ridiculous gesture toward Rajavi—was al-Faisal’s apparent announcement of Massoud Rajavi’s death. The MEK leader hasn’t been seen in public since the US invaded Iraq in 2003, at which time Massoud was holed up with thousands of MEK fighters at the desert base Saddam Hussein had bestowed upon the group. Occasional reports of Massoud addressing followers by phone have appeared, but even the last of these was years ago. Rumors of his death have swirled for years. Al-Faisal appeared to confirm them when he referred to Massoud Rajavi as “marhoom,” which means “late.” Here’s how Al Monitor’s Arash Karami reported the fallout:
In response to Faisal’s comments about the “late” Massoud Rajavi, the MEK continued to deny Massoud’s death. Shahin Ghobadi, spokesman for the MEK, said Faisal’s comments were “misinterpreted.” In the audio, however, Faisal refers on two different occasions to Massoud as “marhoom,” which means “late” in both Arabic and Persian.
That’s just like MEK: lying about something everyone can see is true. The possible revelation of Massoud Rajavi’s death, however, doesn’t change the geopolitics: Maryam Rajavi is still around. With Massoud out of sight for nearly a decade and a half, MEK has operated under her aegis, their relevancy slipping away but the core of adherents holding to the pipe dream of retaking Iran. Perhaps al-Faisal’s appearance does indicate a program of Saudi Arabian support for MEK. But it will only allow the group’s followers to cling to their fantasy of putting Rajavi in charge of their homeland. MEK trudges on, thanks to supporters with deep pockets in high places.
Photo: Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud
About the Author
Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.
Iran’s Intellectuals, Going Underground ( Review)
Ali Gharib, New Republic, April 12 2016:… But the alliance with Khomeini was tenuous, at best, and the Mojahedin suffered from its own eccentricities; by that time, the Mojahedin had coalesced around a charismatic leader named Massoud Rajavi, who would later lead the group into being little more than an armed cult of personality. When it became clear that Khomeini had no intention of sharing too much power with these lay, Marx-inspired radicals …
Iran’s Intellectuals, Going Underground
Laura Secor’s new book traces the embattled history of the Islamic Left in Iran.
In February, Iranians went to the polls for yet another election. These affairs are never dull, and neither was this parliamentary race. More than 10,000 candidates filed paperwork to compete for 290 seats, but, of these, some 5,000 were rejected before Iranian voters even had the chance to do so. The disqualifications came at the hands of the Guardian Council, one of the bodies of the Islamic Republic’s byzantine political system, and most of those unable to run hailed from a political camp known popularly as the reformists. Reformism had coalesced as a political outlook in the 1990s aimed at liberalizing Iran’s harsh social strictures, remedying class divisions and ending the country’s international isolation. Despite the disqualifications ahead of this winter’s election, many reformist-minded Iranians cast their vote with moderates, centrists and even a few conservatives aligned with the aims of Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani.
Rouhani, whose government brokered the nuclear deal with world powers last summer, is distinctly not a reformist; he hails from the circle around a beardless cleric and former centrist president named Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But this is the game in Iran: the reformist faction has, for some three decades now, sought out openings wherever it could find them and accepted allies in any form, not least because the country’s most powerful political force, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has had it out for them from the start. The latest parliamentary contest, then, was a reformist victory of sorts, not in the election of their own politicians, but in taking what they could get in the narrow bounds allowed by the nezam—system—within which they, better than anyone, know they must operate.
Though she barely arrives at Rouhani’s 2013 election in her epilogue, this delicate push-and-pull is similar to many situations described in Laura Secor’s new book on the Iranian reform movement, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. Secor, a magazine writer with intense experience and interest in Iran, reviews the history—namely, the origins of and tensions between the Islamic left and Islamic right—but the volume does so much more. The facts, of course, are all there: The book presents profiles and sometimes surprisingly intertwining narratives of a cast of characters who, though they have yet failed to win the soul of the country, formed the beating heart and main arteries of the Islamic left and later the reform movement. Over the top of these stories, however, Secor layers on a rich intellectual history.
The journey could have begun at the turn of the century, when Iranian leftists started to organize in earnest and intellectuals began to coalesce around the aim of imposing a constitution that would restrain the absolute monarchy. But that would have been quite the tome, and Secor instead locates as a starting point the 1968 publication of a children’s book called The Little Black Fish, by a leftist author named Samad Behrangi. In the book, a little black fish finds its way from the stream to the sea and once there, in a dark conclusion, sacrifices itself so that another fish may survive an attack by a bird. Back up river, the narrator, an old grandmother fish, tells the bedtime story to a school of fish, leaving another fish—this one, what else for the man of the left, a little red fish—restlessly awake dreaming about the freedoms of the sea. Behrangi, in a poetic turn almost too good to be true, couldn’t swim and, the same year Little Black Fish came out, drowned in the powerful current of a remote river.
From there, we’re off. One of Behrangi’s friends, Jalal Al-e Ahmad, fashioned the young author’s life and death into a folk tale of its own, an inspirational parable for leftists struggling under daunting odds against the monarchy. Al-e Ahmad also made a foundational contribution to the revolutionary impulses stirring among leftists and Islamists alike: An essay he wrote in 1962 called Westoxification implored Iranians to cast off the corruptions of Western influences—especially those being foisted upon Iranians by the autocratic and aspirationally modernizing shah. Another thinker, the lay religious radical Ali Shariati, laid leftist notions of class struggle upon a framework of Shiite Islam, Iran’s dominant sect. With his innate charisma, Shariati would rally scores upon scores of students into militant opposition to the shah’s regime.
Not unlike other ideas that gave rise to the 1979 Islamic Revolution—not least among them the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theologically groundbreaking formulation of velayat-e faqih, or rule by Islamic jurisprudence—notions like Westoxification and Shariati’s sort of liberation theology would be at various times seized upon by the hardest of hard-line revolutionaries or rejected by them, carried out to extremes or suppressed by force, but always debated among the more liberal and left strains of the Revolution’s victors.
The proliferation of these intellectualized disputes is where Secor is at her best, deftly weaving a narrative that encompasses the top-level machinations and history of the Islamic Republic, but also including what might be considered the middle-management of reform. There are profiles of editors of intellectual journals, journalists, activists, aides to the political names we should all know well by now and, in a few fascinating cases, the opponents of these strains of thought Secor clearly admires. The narratives are accompanied by concise exegeses on the ideas themselves. The academic Abdolkarim Soroush, for instance, excited a generation of Islamic Republicans by harnessing Karl Popper—a relative unknown among Iranian philosophy departments—against godless Marxism, but eventually evangelizing along the lines of Popper’s call for open societies. Secor describes the theories of urban development—or in the case of the capital Tehran’s chaotic post-revolutionary boom, the lack thereof—and places them in their context as the sites of battles over politics: Reformist intellectuals sought to use municipal governance to sow seeds of, as one intellectual put it, “political development” at a low level that could be reaped by a national movement
These debates and the theories laid out therein seem in retrospect almost absurdly abstract, for the Islamic Left and later the reformist movement never achieved enough power to thoroughly impose these ideas as any sort of lasting policy. And yet the very notion of debate itself would be essential to reformist aims: for these children of the Revolution, the system they had helped erect was strong enough to withstand the internal scrutiny of a free-thinking academia and press. The hard-liners in charge, however, demurred over and over again. The import of the ideas reformists fought for would be perversely proved in the price paid in blood by those who dared to imagine them possible. This was ever the tale of the Islamic Republic: the idealism of the Islamic Left against the empowered, brute force of the Right.
If the Islamic Left—those revolutionary mollahs, intellectuals and politicians who became the reform movement—had wanted to know what was in store for them, they might have glanced further to their own left. At the time of the revolution, a Shariati-inspired group of lay radicals espoused a militant blend of Marxism and Islamism. The Mojahedin-e Khalq (Holy Warriors of the People) organized lower- and middle-class university students into fighters and, despite the Shah’s crackdown, maintained enough force to be a factor in fighting at the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution. But the alliance with Khomeini was tenuous, at best, and the Mojahedin suffered from its own eccentricities; by that time, the Mojahedin had coalesced around a charismatic leader named Massoud Rajavi, who would later lead the group into being little more than an armed cult of personality. When it became clear that Khomeini had no intention of sharing too much power with these lay, Marx-inspired radicals, Rajavi bristled, and Khomeini cracked down with violent force, sending many of the group’s members to prison, to exile or to their graves.
Secor’s history of post-revolutionary Iran points to this pattern again and again: The Islamic Left and later its inheritors in the reform movement gain some cachet and press at the outer boundaries of what is permissible to the hard-line leadership, only to have their progress and hopes dashed by force. Then the circle of acceptable discourse shrinks to exclude them. Khomeini had kept the religious Left and Right at odds, playing them off each other but never definitively picking a side, all the better as the Left helped shepherd the new country through a difficult period of isolation and a devastating, long war with Iraq. But when Ali Khamenei came to power in the late-1980s, he sided unequivocally with the right against all comers. Driven into the political wilderness, the Left holed up in academia and journalism. Then in the mid-1990s, reformism leapt out of the pages of journals and newspapers into the political scene: A smiling and unlikely cleric named Mohammad Khatami swept into the presidency and with him a group of sometimes aloof intellectuals into parliament.
Even this unified elected government, however, faced resistance from more powerful corners, exposing a pattern that holds as true today as it did then: Khamenei and his claque controlled the unelected structures of government, such as the army of the Revolutionary Guards, other security forces like the Basij militia and the judiciary. Small gains were made: Newspapers sprung up like the sprouts all Iranians grow at their New Year’s tables; the excesses of the state, such as a series of murders of intellectuals and dissenters by those closely linked to the seat of power, came under unprecedented scrutiny; “civil society,” by now a buzzword for a network of NGOs and community groups focused on progress, blossomed; and Khatami’s reassuring face signaled a willingness to end Iran’s international isolation.
Yet the power of reactionaries was too great; Khatami proved ineffectual, sometimes for timidity, though perhaps a knowing one. His reforms were not lasting, but the hope for a better life visited upon huge swaths of Iranian society held, even as the progress made vanished. With the hard-line right-wing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, not without some irony, emerged from Tehran’s city council and mayor’s office, skies darkened over reformist circles. Newspapers and journals closed; academics with any modicum of a reformist bent came under pressure; and the government cast a wary eye upon civil society groups.
The storm finally came with the June 2009 presidential election. The thunderclaps were the gunshots of security forces that left dead dozens of protesters disputing Ahmadinejad’s victory over an early Islamic Left stalwart named Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had abandoned politics for two decades and emerged as the leader of a reformist campaign that would come to be called the Green Movement. Blood spilled from overcrowded prisons, rife with torture and rape, deaths in custody of ordinary protesters and organizers alike. Mousavi and other reformist leaders of the protest would after not too long be placed under house arrest—if they were lucky—without charge. Khatami, a two-term president, eventually became persona non grata; newspapers were forbidden to print his photograph or even his name.
Secor renders the ecstatic rise and bloody fall of the Green Movement through the eyes of a poet and journalist turned anti-stoning and women’s rights activist, Asieh Amini, tracing with her the hopes in Mousavi and their brutal crushing. Amini’s friends disappeared from the streets and before too long it became evident that she, too, was at risk. She fled with her daughter and, later, husband to Norway.
Thus the circle shrank yet again, and yet again, no matter how small it became, Iranians found a way to have their debates. Soon enough, Rouhani would emerge—not a reformist, but with reformists’ blessing, and facing the same problems they did. Hard-liners in the security forces and judiciary continue to run amok. The human rights of Iranians are still violated, often with impunity. And yet Rouhani was able do the unthinkable: strike a deal with, among other much-demonized Western powers, the United States.
Like many of his compatriots, Rouhani and his ruling cohort, particularly his reformist-aligned foreign minister, Javad Zarif, seem to understand America better than most Americans—and especially our politicians—seem to understand Iran. Rouhani’s entreaties to diplomacy were met in Washington with receptiveness from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and unmitigated hostility from the other. Yet the seemingly implacable forces of reaction in both Tehran and D.C. were held at bay long enough to make a deal that should give ordinary citizens of both countries a moment to breathe easy—at least for now.
Americans, for their part, might take this moment to enjoy Secor’s book to gain a better understanding of Iran’s rich recent history. In it, they will find this lesson: the circle may tighten around intellectual life in Iran, around political progress, and around the complicated heroes who hold down, often unsuccessfully, those barricades—but the ideas that animate these figures and their impulses, the debates behind them, will live on underground, behind closed doors, until it’s time to bloom again. Secor’s story has almost nothing do with the United States—it is a refreshingly Iranian tale—but for us there is this implicit warning: Do not trample this soil and foreclose that next Spring.
Mojahedin Khalq (MKO, MEK, Rajavi cult) Our Men in Iran?
(Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, April 2012)
… Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2007. M.E.K. spokesmen have denied any involvement in the killings, but early last month NBC News quoted two senior Obama Administration officials as confirming that the attacks were carried out by M.E.K. units that were financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. NBC further quoted the Administration officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding …
Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, April 6 2012
From the air, the terrain of the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site, with its arid high plains and remote mountain peaks, has the look of northwest Iran. The site, some sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, was once used for nuclear testing, and now includes a counterintelligence training facility and a private airport capable of handling Boeing 737 aircraft. It’s a restricted area, and inhospitable—in certain sections, the curious are warned that the site’s security personnel are authorized to use deadly force, if necessary, against intruders.
It was here that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conducted training, beginning in 2005, for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a dissident Iranian opposition group known in the West as the M.E.K. The M.E.K. had its beginnings as a Marxist-Islamist student-led group and, in the nineteen-seventies, it was linked to the assassination of six American citizens. It was initially part of the broad-based revolution that led to the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran. But, within a few years, the group was waging a bloody internal war with the ruling clerics, and, in 1997, it was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. In 2002, the M.E.K. earned some international credibility by publicly revealing—accurately—that Iran had begun enriching uranium at a secret underground location. Mohamed ElBaradei, who at the time was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, told me later that he had been informed that the information was supplied by the Mossad. The M.E.K.’s ties with Western intelligence deepened after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, and JSOC began operating inside Iran in an effort to substantiate the Bush Administration’s fears that Iran was building the bomb at one or more secret underground locations. Funds were covertly passed to a number of dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for anti-regime terrorist activities. Directly, or indirectly, the M.E.K. ended up with resources like arms and intelligence. Some American-supported covert operations continue in Iran today, according to past and present intelligence officials and military consultants.
Despite the growing ties, and a much-intensified lobbying effort organized by its advocates, M.E.K. has remained on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations—which meant that secrecy was essential in the Nevada training. “We did train them here, and washed them through the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owns all this land in southern Nevada,” a former senior American intelligence official told me. “We were deploying them over long distances in the desert and mountains, and building their capacity in communications—coördinating commo is a big deal.” (A spokesman for J.S.O.C. said that “U.S. Special Operations Forces were neither aware of nor involved in the training of M.E.K. members.”)
The training ended sometime before President Obama took office, the former official said. In a separate interview, a retired four-star general, who has advised the Bush and Obama Administrations on national-security issues, said that he had been privately briefed in 2005 about the training of Iranians associated with the M.E.K. in Nevada by an American involved in the program. They got “the standard training,” he said, “in commo, crypto [cryptography], small-unit tactics, and weaponry—that went on for six months,” the retired general said. “They were kept in little pods.” He also was told, he said, that the men doing the training were from JSOC, which, by 2005, had become a major instrument in the Bush Administration’s global war on terror. “The JSOC trainers were not front-line guys who had been in the field, but second- and third-tier guys—trainers and the like—and they started going off the reservation. ‘If we’re going to teach you tactics, let me show you some really sexy stuff…’ ”
It was the ad-hoc training that provoked the worried telephone calls to him, the former general said. “I told one of the guys who called me that they were all in over their heads, and all of them could end up trouble unless they got something in writing. The Iranians are very, very good at counterintelligence, and stuff like this is just too hard to contain.” The site in Nevada was being utilized at the same time, he said, for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat units. (The retired general said he only knew of the one M.E.K.-affiliated group that went though the training course; the former senior intelligence official said that he was aware of training that went on through 2007.)
Allan Gerson, a Washington attorney for the M.E.K., notes that the M.E.K. has publicly and repeatedly renounced terror. Gerson said he would not comment on the alleged training in Nevada. But such training, if true, he said, would be “especially incongruent with the State Department’s decision to continue to maintain the M.E.K. on the terrorist list. How can the U.S. train those on State’s foreign terrorist list, when others face criminal penalties for providing a nickel to the same organization?”
Robert Baer, a retired C.I.A. agent who is fluent in Arabic and had worked under cover in Kurdistan and throughout the Middle East in his career, initially had told me in early 2004 of being recruited by a private American company—working, so he believed, on behalf of the Bush Administration—to return to Iraq. “They wanted me to help the M.E.K. collect intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program,” Baer recalled. “They thought I knew Farsi, which I did not. I said I’d get back to them, but never did.” Baer, now living in California, recalled that it was made clear to him at the time that the operation was “a long-term thing—not just a one-shot deal.”
Massoud Khodabandeh, an I.T. expert now living in England who consults for the Iraqi government, was an official with the M.E.K. before defecting in 1996. In a telephone interview, he acknowledged that he is an avowed enemy of the M.E.K., and has advocated against the group. Khodabandeh said that he had been with the group since before the fall of the Shah and, as a computer expert, was deeply involved in intelligence activities as well as providing security for the M.E.K. leadership. For the past decade, he and his English wife have run a support program for other defectors. Khodabandeh told me that he had heard from more recent defectors about the training in Nevada. He was told that the communications training in Nevada involved more than teaching how to keep in contact during attacks—it also involved communication intercepts. The United States, he said, at one point found a way to penetrate some major Iranian communications systems. At the time, he said, the U.S. provided M.E.K. operatives with the ability to intercept telephone calls and text messages inside Iran—which M.E.K. operatives translated and shared with American signals intelligence experts. He does not know whether this activity is ongoing.
Five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated since 2007. M.E.K. spokesmen have denied any involvement in the killings, but early last month NBC News quoted two senior Obama Administration officials as confirming that the attacks were carried out by M.E.K. units that were financed and trained by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. NBC further quoted the Administration officials as denying any American involvement in the M.E.K. activities. The former senior intelligence official I spoke with seconded the NBC report that the Israelis were working with the M.E.K., adding that the operations benefitted from American intelligence. He said that the targets were not “Einsteins”; “The goal is to affect Iranian psychology and morale,” he said, and to “demoralize the whole system—nuclear delivery vehicles, nuclear enrichment facilities, power plants.” Attacks have also been carried out on pipelines. He added that the operations are “primarily being done by M.E.K. through liaison with the Israelis, but the United States is now providing the intelligence.” An adviser to the special-operations community told me that the links between the United States and M.E.K. activities inside Iran had been long-standing. “Everything being done inside Iran now is being done with surrogates,” he said.
The sources I spoke to were unable to say whether the people trained in Nevada were now involved in operations in Iran or elsewhere. But they pointed to the general benefit of American support. “The M.E.K. was a total joke,” the senior Pentagon consultant said, “and now it’s a real network inside Iran. How did the M.E.K. get so much more efficient?” he asked rhetorically. “Part of it is the training in Nevada. Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and part of it is inside Iran. M.E.K. now has a capacity for efficient operations than it never had before.”
In mid-January, a few days after an assassination by car bomb of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, at a town-hall meeting of soldiers at Fort Bliss, Texas, acknowledged that the U.S. government has “some ideas as to who might be involved, but we don’t know exactly who was involved.” He added, “But I can tell you one thing: the United States was not involved in that kind of effort. That’s not what the United States does.”