Luis Illanas García, Atalayar.com, Spain, March 03 2021:… Iran called Albania a small and sinister country, an instrument in the hands of the USA, where the enemies of Iran hide, due to the presence of the MKO in its territory, where it has been settled since 2016. It has not gone beyond a mere exchange of declarations and accusations between Ilir Meta and Hassan Rohani, but it can be descriptive of the extent to which the MKO conditions Iran’s relations with third countries. According to Albanian media, the EU even looks at the presence of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO in Albania with suspicion.
Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO
The People’s Holy Warriors of Iran
The MEK was founded in 1965 by a group of students from Tehran University who opposed the Shah’s regime. Pahlevi’s policy of alignment with the US and westernization of the country displeased a part of the society, which saw in it a loss of its own values and traditions. It is a heterogeneous group where Marxists and Islamists are mixed, who share the idea of direct action and armed struggle as a strategy of opposition to the Pahlevi regime, according to the website MEK, they are, in the mid 60’s the main group of opponents to the Shah’s regime in Iran. They call themselves the People’s Holy Warriors of Iran or MEK (Mujahedin and Khalq).
The intellectual middle classes and the working classes, are those that nurtured militants to the MEK during the first steps of the organisation, Masud Rajavi joins in 67 in Tehran, stand out as one of the ideologists of the group. After 6 years in which political ideas are shaped and a political ideology based on a mixture of Islam and Marxism is formed, the MKO is ready to carry out its first activity.
In the early 1970s they plan their first operation, the attack on Tehran’s electricity grid. However the operation fails, the SAVAK (Sazeman e Ettelaat va Amniyat e Keshvar), the Shah’s fearsome secret police, infiltrated into the MEK’s ranks, disrupts the operation. As a result several MKO activists are arrested and three of their leaders, Mohamed Hanifnejad, Saeid Mohsen and Ali Asghar Badizadegan are executed. An international campaign led by Kazem Rajavi, exiled in Switzerland, in which, according to the MKO website, Francoise Mitterrand, among others, participates, leads to Masud Rajavi, also sentenced to death, having his sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
The SAVAK was the intelligence agency of the Shah’s government, specialized in counter-intelligence and counter-insurgency work. It was formed in the late 1950s under the supervision of the CIA and placed under the direct command of the Prime Minister, personally supervised by the Shah. During the early 1960s it infiltrated all areas of Iranian civil society, workplaces, political, social and religious organisations and universities. He carried out censorship in the media, supervised applications for jobs in the state, while monitoring universities for dissidents. One of its main targets is the Tudeh Party, Iran’s communist party, a political organisation that gained considerable strength at the state level during Mossadeq’s rule but was reduced to a residual political force throughout the country in the early 1970s. The SAVAK in the mid-1970s has almost 15,000 members and an undetermined number of informants throughout the country. However, in the face of growing social unrest against the Shah, they are forced to collaborate with the police in a new organisation, the Anti-Sabotage Committee, to coordinate the fight against political dissent.
They are again turning their attention to relevant sectors of society, infiltrating student associations and labour organisations, both trade unions and employers’ organisations, and political parties and organisations considered to be on the left, including the MEK, although they also operate against conservative parties opposed to the Pahlevi regime. At present, the SAVAK has the capacity to control Iranian students studying outside the country, arresting those who are involved in political activities, including in third countries. It is the CIA that provides capabilities to the SAVAK for the development of this type of operation. During the years before the revolution the SAVAK dismantled most political parties and organisations, did not hesitate to imprison, torture and execute political dissidents or any citizen involved in political actions or dissidents with the Shah’s regime. The SAVAK retaliates not only against those suspected of activities, described as subversive, their families and friends are also in the sights of the fearsome secret police. Confiscations of property, withdrawal of passports, loss of jobs are some of the consequences for families of the political activity of some of their members. They operate outside the law, under the direct control of the Shah, control the streets by operating with small groups and paramilitary organisations, have their own prisons and their own powers to detain or prosecute suspects. The last prime minister of the Pahlevi government, Sapor Bajtiar, faced with the drift of the protests against the Shah, tries to limit the power of the SAVAK by purging the organisation of officers who are followers of General Nematollah Nasirí, the former prime minister, but it is too late. With the march of the Pahlevi into exile in January 1979, Bajtiar dissolved the organisation and arrested its former leaders. In September of that year, the organisation disappeared for good under the direct supervision of Ayatollah Khomeini.
In spite of the difficulties and the danger that the political activity in Iran during the 70’s supposes, the actions of the MEK follow one another, achieving a certain relevance with attacks to American companies, Pepsi-Cola, General Motors or the air company PAN-AM, and American interests in Iran, attacks where civil and military personnel of the USA stationed in the country die. Little by little, throughout the decade, all the leaders of the MEK are imprisoned or victims of the violence of the SAVAK. In 1975, while Rajavi rots in the Shah’s jails, the Mek undergoes its first political split, by the Maoist wing of the organization. With the majority of its main leaders dead or in prison, one of the groups that make up the Mek, expresses in a manifesto its abandonment of Islam and declares Marxism the only engine of the revolution. The Islamic organisations opposed to the Pahlevi dictatorship were quick to declare the entire organisation Marxist, causing the MKO to lose much support among the popular classes, who were heavily influenced by religious rhetoric. In January 1979, Rajavi was released from prison, free and recognized as the only leader of the organization. The differences with the Islamic opposition organizations become more acute when they accuse Rajavi of collaborating with the SAVAK in exchange for his freedom. Despite these accusations he leads the Mek in the protests against the increasingly weak government of the Shah, causing a chain reaction throughout the country against the absolutism of the Pahlevi.
Finally, the protests lead to the overthrow and exile of Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, putting an end to his regime and giving way to the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The differences with the Islamic organizations quickly surfaced, because although they coincided at first with the revolution and the processes that led to it, including the participation of the MEK in the assault on the US embassy in Tehran and the subsequent hostage crisis, since Rajavi is opposed to the release of the hostages decreed by Khomeini.
The rise to power of the ayatollahs implied the suppression of political parties, causing a definitive break with the movement led by Khomeini, until it became one of its main detractors. After the revolution, Masud Rajavi ran in the 1980 elections, his candidacy being vetoed by the Islamic organizations, so that the MEK supported the president who emerged from the first democratic elections in the country since 1951, Abol Hassan Banisadr in opposition to the PRI, the Party of the Islamic Republic of Khomeini.
The PRI, founded in 1979 by the clergymen Mohamed Javad Bahonar, Mohammad Beheshti, Akbar Hashemí Rafsanyaní, the current supreme leader of Iran, Alí Jamenei and Abdolkarim Musaví-Ardabilí, all of them very close to the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. The PRI was the unifying element around which Khomeini’s followers gathered in the early years of the Revolution. The principles of the party were based on the Revolution as a way of coming to power and on Islam as a political ideology, in opposition to economic liberalism. One year before the end of the conflict with Iraq, with the Ayatollahs firmly in power, the party is dissolved.
After the invasion of Iran in September 1980, Baghdad begins to finance and provide arms and resources to the MEK and makes the organisation its main source of information on Iran. Months later, pressure from the PRI and the Islamists forced Banisadr to resign from his post as president, and in the first months of 1981, the Mek, the president’s main political support, went over to the opposition, declaring a return to armed struggle as a form of political activity and making the PRI its main target.
After Banisadr’s dismissal in July 1981, Masud Rajavi founded the NCRI (National Council of Resistance of Iran), as the political arm of the MKO, to bring together the opposition, including the KDPI (Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran), the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, the Union of Communists of Iran and the Workers’ Party. Days after the dismissal of President Banisadr, after an intense campaign by the Iranian government against the MEK, Banisadr and Rajavi leave Iran and go into exile in Paris. Part of the MKO militants go to Europe, a second group goes to Iraq, and finally a third group of MKO militants remains in Iran, going underground to continue the armed struggle. In the NCRI an autocratic style of leadership is quickly revealed, so that the KDPI splits from the organisation.
During the summer of 1981 the MEK intensifies the attacks on high government officials, fails in its attempt to assassinate Ali Khamenei with a bomb, but on June 28, 1981 the MEK achieves one of its greatest successes, by attacking the headquarters of the PRI, killing 75 people, most of them workers. One of the dead in the attack is Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, number two in the Islamic Revolution after Khomeini. Two days later, on August 30, 1981, a bomb attack by an MEK commando killed Iran’s new president, Mohammed Ali Rajai, and the new prime minister, Mohamed Javad Bahonar. Rajai had taken office 15 days before the attack. That summer the MKO kills more than a hundred people.
In October 1981, Rajavi meets Tarek Aziz, Iraqi foreign minister, in Paris, and, granting himself the representation of all the opposition forces in exile, he theatricalizes a peace signature between Iran and Iraq, according to Rajavi, in the name of the Iranian people. The definitive alignment of the MEK with Iraq takes place in 1983, Abol Hassan Banisadr, separates from the NCRI and with him a great number of militants tired of Rajavi’s authoritarianism and the refusal to support Sadam Hussein’s aggressor government.
In 1985 Masud Rajavi divorces and marries Maryam Rajavi, formerly married to an MEK militant, whom he forces to divorce, according to various sources. From this moment on, both share the leadership of the organization. In 1987 the Mek was expelled from France, the terrorist actions attributed to the organisation attacked an Iranian diplomat in Madrid in the summer of that year, and the Mek’s alignment with Iraq in the conflict with Iran led to the Mek being used as a bargaining chip in the kidnapping of French citizens in Lebanon. In exchange for their release, France expelled the Mek from its territory.
The whole organisation is moved to Iraq, Saddam Hussein provides the necessary infrastructure for Rajavi and 1000 of his militants to settle in the country, military equipment, training and logistics. In exchange the MEK would be integrated as a combat force in the Iraqi army. Throughout that year, around 7000 people join the MKO in Iraq, most of them MKO militants, although some also join the opposition to the ayatollahs’ government. According to the NCRI, they remain independent of Baghdad, representing the interests of the people of Iran as the only valid interlocutors with the Iraqi government.
During the war, the MKO specialised in intelligence work and operations on both sides of the Iraqi-Iranian border, directly confronting the CGRI (Guardian Corps of the Islamic Revolution).
In Iraq Rajavi creates the ENL (National Liberation Army) as the armed arm of the MEK, it is also the moment when the organisation settles in Ashraf. It is the moment of greater collaboration with the Iraqi army, leading the attacks to localities in the border and participating in actions in which the Iraqis use massive gas attacks on Iran. On the other side of the border, the government’s efforts to break up the MKO result in arrests and executions of its militants. In early 1988, according to Human Rights Watch, nearly 2,000 of them were executed by members of the MKO, Kurdish and Tudeh militants captured on the front after Operation Mersad or Eternal Light, the last major offensive of the war, executed by the MKO with Iraqi support. In the same year, 5,000 MKO fighters took part in the battle of Kirkuk between the Kurdish rebels and the Iraqi army.
The end of the conflict led the MKO to increase its actions towards its ally in Baghdad, deploying troops and participating in Kurdish repression in Kirkuk and at the United Nations, where the NCRI was struggling to clean up the image of the organisation. The Rajavi were multiplying by giving press conferences as part of an intense propaganda effort. At the same time, they regularly carried out attacks in Iran, operating from Iraq.
In April 1992, the MKO began a chain of attacks against Iranian embassies and interests around the world, which meant that in 1997, the US and the EU included the MKO in the list of terrorist organisations. The NCRI blamed this on a goodwill gesture by the Clinton administration towards the reformist government of Mohammed Khatami.
The MKO’s terrorist actions did not stop after the organisation was placed on the list of terrorist organisations. Between 1998 and 2002, MKO activity multiplied, so much so that in 2002 all EU countries, Canada and Australia recognised the MKO and its political arm, the NCRI, as terrorist organisations.
In 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, the US reached a ceasefire agreement with the MKO, taking control of its main camp in Ashraf and five other smaller camps established throughout Iraq, Anzali, near the Iranian border, Bonyad in Baghdad, Alavi in Kut, Faezeh in Basra and Homayoun in Amara. The MKO accused the U.S. of attacking their camps, as a concession to the Tehran government, while in France, the government was operating against MKO interests throughout the country. At that time, the MKO was a large, fully operational fighting force, with 4,000 MKO members stationed at Ashraf, including about 600 vehicles, including tanks, armoured vehicles and transport, artillery and military equipment to arm about 10,000 fighters. It is at this point that Masud Rajavi disappears, his wife assuming responsibility for leading the organisation.
Between 2004 and 2005, an investigation by the USA was initiated to determine the involvement of the MEK in terrorist acts and war crimes that could constitute crimes against humanity, giving rise to a complaint by militants of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 2005 for war crimes against Rajavi. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the group lost its main source of funding and political support, and was forced to provide 2002 information to both the US and Israel on an Iranian nuclear programme, unbeknownst to the UN, detailing two facilities in Arak and Natanz for heavy water production and uranium enrichment. After obtaining this information, the United States recognized the right of the militants of the MEK in Iraq to the protection due to civilians in time of war. Until 2009, when the MKO camps came under the control of the Iraqi government, ELN members continued to train as military units preparing for combat, leading to clashes with the Iraqi armed forces between 2009 and 2013. In 2010, the Iraqi government evacuated Camp Ashraf, relocating MKO militants and their families near Baghdad’s international airport to a new camp called Hurriya or Camp Liberty, where the MKO says there are clashes and numerous crimes against its militants by the Iraqi army and allied Shi’a militias. Tehran is of course accused of instigating these attacks. In the same year, the Iraqi High Criminal Court requested Rajavi’s arrest on the basis of overwhelming evidence of the MKO’s involvement, among other operations, in the 1991 crackdown on Kurdish rebels. Again, despite the evidence, in September 2012, the US State Department removed the MKO from the list of terrorist organisations. According to the State Department, several factors were taken into account, including the MKO’s quick disposition towards a ceasefire in 2003, the resettlement and evacuation of its base in Ashraf, as well as an alleged renunciation of violence. Human Rights Watch attributes this to the organisation’s intensive lobbying of Western governments and political bodies. This decision was decisively influenced by the support of the group by prominent US politicians such as former governors Howard Dean and Edward Rendell or the former mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who from 2009 to 2012 actively participated in a campaign to remove the MKO from the list of terrorist organisations, influencing the US, the EU and the rest of the countries that had declared the MKO and the NCRI to be terrorist organisations.
In mid-2013, the MEK, under the umbrella of the NCRI, established a headquarters in the US, as a key pillar of the campaign to launder and clean up an organisation which, as we have seen, had not given up its weapons and for which there was more than enough evidence of its terrorist activities. In early 2017, Giuliani put pressure on President Donald Trump, urging him to recognize the NCRI as representatives of the Iranian exile and to open talks between this group and the US government. As part of the support that the Trump administration has given to the MEK, in 2017 one of the guests of honor at the NCRI congress was John Bolton, the other was Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, former ambassador to London and Washington, who during his speech gave condolences to Maryam Rajavi, implying the death of Masud Rajavi. In June 2018, Giuliani was the star guest at the NCRI congress in France. He accused the Iranian government of being Marxist, terrorist and a sponsor of terrorism, recognized the NCRI as the resistance of the people of Iran, and insisted on the need for more belligerent policies against Tehran. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and former presidential candidate, another active militant in the cause of the MKO, also spoke at this conference.
Finally, in 2016 the MEK is relocated to Albania, in a camp near Tirana, after an agreement reached in 2013 between Barack Obama and Sali Berisha. According to the Balkan Post, the agreement included the construction of a de-radicalisation centre for MKO fighters from Iraq. According to this source, in reality the camp where the MKO militants have been resettled serves as a military training camp, where security is provided by the organisation and the Albanian government has no jurisdiction. The establishment of the MKO militants in Albania has created more than a few frictions between the Iranian and Albanian governments, the last disagreement following the death of Qasem Soleimani, when Iran called Albania a small and sinister country, an instrument in the hands of the USA, where the enemies of Iran hide, due to the presence of the MKO in its territory, where it has been settled since 2016. It has not gone beyond a mere exchange of declarations and accusations between Ilir Meta and Hassan Rohani, but it can be descriptive of the extent to which the MKO conditions Iran’s relations with third countries. According to Albanian media, the EU even looks at the presence of the MKO in Albania with suspicion.
During the first years of political action, the MKO shapes a political ideology dominated by two ideas, Islam and Marxism. Although God created the world, he also enlightened human beings so that through lessons as the powerhouse of history they would be able to shape the world. This political idea not only confronted the Mek with the Pahlevi regime, but also with Shiite orthodoxy, which considered the Mek’s erroneous interpretation of Islam as a mere excuse to justify terrorism.
With the founding of the NCRI, Rajavi gave the first signs of his authoritarian style of leadership, which, as we have already seen, led to the departure of several organisations from the NCRI.
The MEK went from being one of the most relevant organisations of the revolution that overthrew the Pahlevi, to becoming one of the most belligerent organisations with the government of Tehran. In 1985 Masud Rajavi initiated the ideological revolution of the MKO. Rajavi’s leadership cult was promoted and he came to control all aspects of the organisation, including the control of the militants, who were forbidden to leave the organisation, to control its assets and activities and to work for the organisation, adopting a structure at the organisational level more appropriate to a sect than a political party. With the end of the war between Iraq and Iran and the need to change the image given during the years of the war as a terrorist organisation, the Rajavi abandoned the pseudo-Marxist revolutionary Islamic ideology and embraced, in the eyes of the world, liberal democracy, but without any democratic intention. By their own definition, they oppose the struggle between atheists and Muslims that the ayatollahs’ government promotes and proclaim themselves to be defenders of democracy in Iran. Or what is the same, part of the process of changing the group’s image since the end of the war is to adopt a more friendly image for the West, separating itself from the ideological Marxism adopted by some of the original organisations that formed the MEK 20 years earlier.
The MEK is a complex organisation that responds to a multitude of different acronyms. The MEK is the original organisation, from which the different branches and denominations that make it up derive. Of the different organisations that make up the MEK, the main one is the NCRI, which is considered the political branch of the MEK and is currently based in France. They define themselves as workers for freedom and democracy and declare themselves representatives of the Iranian opposition in exile. The organisation is presided by Maryan Rajavi and is organised around five secretaries and formed by 25 committees, with the aim of planning the future of Iran. These 25 committees act, according to the organisation, as the 25 ministers of the Iranian government in exile. According to the information provided by the NCRI website, the most relevant committees are the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is in charge of influencing both the United Nations and the different governments, political parties, NGOs and organisations of certain social relevance in the countries where they operate. The women’s committee, which works on the rights of Iranian women both outside and inside Iran. Defence Committee, which acts as a sort of intelligence agency, providing information on Iran and its missile programme. Political committee, which analyses the political situation in Iran. Security and anti-terrorism, again, work on intelligence actions against Iranian infiltration of the organisation and on cyber security. It also monitors and controls all the activities of the other committees and the organisation’s militants. Cultural Committee, according to information provided by the NCRI, organises and promotes events on Iranian culture and provides shelter to all artists fleeing the regime of the ayatollahs.
Under Rajavi’s supervision, they meet regularly in a main assembly at the Paris headquarters. They are represented both in the USA and in Europe, where they have delegations not only in France but also in England and Germany.
The ENL is considered the military branch of the MEK, responsible both for the combatants and for the planning and execution of operations.
The president of the NCRI and the MEK is Maryam Rajavi, wife of Masud Rajavi, born in Tehran in 1953. As a student at the university, she joined the MEK along with several of her brothers. The death and torture of several of her brothers in the Shah’s prisons definitely mark Rajavi. She is elected to parliament in the first elections after the escape of the Shah from Iran, but with the dismissal of the Banisadr in 81, she goes into exile in France. In 1985, the leadership of the NCRI is reorganised, Maryam Rajavi is appointed co-secretary general of the organisation, giving rise to a two-headed leadership shared by the Rajavi couple. In 1991, she took over the sole leadership of the organisation, as such she was accused by the Iranian government of being the main perpetrator of the MEK’s involvement in the repression of the Kurds in Iraq. In 1993 she is elected president of the NCRI, at the same time, she unilaterally proclaims herself president of Iran in exile. From this moment she carries out an intense work of proselytism and publicity of the organisation all over the world, especially Europe and the USA.
Since 2003 he has been pressing for the removal of both the MEK and the NCRI from the list of international terrorist organisations. That same year the DST (General Directorate of Foreign Security) arrested Rajavi and 20 members of the organisation at the headquarters in Auvers-sur-Oise, accused of keeping several million euros destined to finance terrorist actions. The mobilisation of MKO members led to a ban on MKO demonstrations by the Paris Prefecture following three attempts to immolate them in protest at the arrests. Two MKO members were arrested for incitement to suicide. This fact does not prevent Rajavi from continuing her political activity, being invited the following year to intervene in the European Parliament, where she is presented as the third option, accusing the West of acting either with a speech of appeasement towards the Ayatollahs or of constantly threatening Tehran with war. It was also in 2003 that he began to organise the MEK congresses on the outskirts of Paris, which have given the organisation so much political currency.
With the elimination of the MEK and the NCRI from the list of terrorist organisations, Rajavi focused his political activity on presenting the organisation as the legitimate representatives of the Iranian diaspora in exile, with very intense publicity campaigns and pressure on both governments and political parties to recognise the organisation as representing the Iranian opposition. Since 2016 it has been leading a campaign to condemn the Iranian government for the executions of MEK members during the conflict with Iraq, accusing Tehran of genocide.
Despite this, both in the US and in Europe, the MKO remains an organisation that is viewed with suspicion, several agencies and law enforcement bodies have accused the organisation of sectarian practices, encouraging the cult of leaders among themselves or, as a 2009 Rand report states, practices such as compulsory daily community confession, celibacy, authoritarian practices, forced labour, sleep deprivation, physical abuse, confiscation of property, isolation and confinement of dissidents take place within the organisation. It is noted that during the time that the MKO was integrated into the Iraqi army, the children of combatants in the front line were sent away from their parents to be educated by the organisation and when they reached the age considered appropriate to fight and complete their training, they were returned to their parents to serve as soldiers. This same RAND report in its conclusions indicates that about 70% of the MEK members in Ashraf were forcibly recruited. Similarly, a Human Rights Watch report on the MKOE denounces frequent cases of torture in Ashraf.
Over the past few years they have whitewashed their image and blurred their past as a terrorist organisation, in order to present themselves to other Western organisations and political parties as representatives of the political opposition to the Tehran government. The removal of the MKO from the list of terrorist organisations in the US and the EU has been controversial, as there is no evidence that the MKO has abandoned the armed struggle, and there is no evidence of intensive international image whitewashing. According to Tehran, the change in the US and the EU with respect to the MKO as a terrorist organisation is due not only to the profound work of whitewashing the organisation’s image, but also to bribes paid to politicians, parties and institutions in Europe and America.
The truth is that the abandonment of the armed struggle as a form of political opposition has been determined by the change of political regime in Iraq, its main support, after the US invasion in 2003, and the support given to the organisation by prominent US political figures, who see in the MKO a tool to force regime change in Iran, or at least the way to show the face of political opposition to the Ayatollahs. The NCRI frequently proselytizes in the US and Europe in order to attract funding and support among the political classes, most notably the interventions in events during 2015 and 2016 by Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation of the US Government, for which they have spent nearly 70,000 dollars. At a local level they operate with similar organisations, through which they organise different events and where they solicit contributions for the Iranian opposition in exile, such as the Iranian-American Cultural Association of Missouri, Iranian-American Community of Northern or The Society of Iranians professionals in California, USA. In England, they have used the white label Iran Aid. A common practice to attract funding comes from the families of MEK fighters in Europe and the USA, where under the cover of the Iranian diaspora, they form this type of association or organisation, where the MEK is never named, and which through different acts and events collect donations destined for the opposition in exile, which finally end up in the hands of the MEK. Another source of funding is donations from the families that are part of the MKO or from the families of MKO combatants, who, as we have seen, are forced to send their children away from the front, generally Iraq, so that the organisation can take charge of their education. In return, these families make donations to finance the MKO. In most Western countries the MKO cannot apply for or raise funds under this name or any of the other names it uses for the organisation. In Germany they have raised funds under the guise of refugee aid involving even political parties, which otherwise would not have collaborated with the MKO, such as the Greens. In the same way, under the cover of aid to Iranian refugees, they have operated to raise funds from individual donors to whom they promise anonymity, without specifying that these donations go into the coffers of the MKO.
Throughout its history, the MKO has used a variety of names and denominations, MKO, NCRI, ELN...in Iran they are popularly referred to as monafeghin, the hypocrites or the sect. It is considered a blasphemous organisation in which the leader, Rajavi, is worshipped. They accuse the Rajavi of appointing themselves president of the Iranian government and head of the armed forces, and censure the presence of women as combatants in the ranks of the MKO, since part of the MKO’s ideology emphasises the role that women play in the organisation, including during the war between Iraq and Iran, the presence of women in the front line of combat. They consider MKO members to be unthinking machines, and women initiated into the cult of the Rajavi to be sex slaves.
The MEK ( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO ) is not very well established in the country, and its leaders have, as we see, little or no consideration in Iranian society, despite this they operate internally in hiding and have first-hand information about the country. Their historical leader, Masoud Rajavi, is still missing and so far it has not been possible to determine whether he is alive, in hiding, as declared by the MEK in 2011, or dead, as suggested in 2017 by Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, and what the causes of his disappearance have been. What is certain is that since 2003 he has been placed in many different scenarios, dead in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, arrested by the US and then transferred to Bahrain, arrested by the Jordanians and handed over to the US, or in hiding in Paris, where he is sure to meet with Obama.
Tehran holds the organisation responsible for the death of nearly 12,000 Iranian citizens around the world. The abandonment of the armed struggle has reduced, theoretically to a minimum, the military capacity of the organisation, because as we can see the capacity to finance and recruit new members is increasing, to which we can add the tolerance with which some western countries treat the MEK, especially the US. For the US, even more so at this time, when the confrontation with Iran is a matter of the first order, supporting, or at least not bothering too much an organisation like the MKO, may be a reasonable option in order to destabilise the government of Tehran.
Before taking office in the Trump administration, John Bolton testified at the MEK Congress in France in 2017:
“There is a viable opposition to the leadership of the ayatollahs and that opposition is meeting in this room today”.
Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO
Lets create another Vietnam for America(pdf).
( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO English language paper April 1980)
Letter to Imam (Khomeini) (pdf).
( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO English Language paper April 1980)
Some questions unanswered regarding the US military invasion of Iran (pdf).
( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO English Language paper June 1980)
link to one of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO songs
advocating terror and killing Americans
(In Persian written and distributed after the Iranian Revolution)
Terrorists, cultists – or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the MEK
Arron Merat, The Guardian, London, 09 november 2018:… When we spoke recently, Soltani accused Maryam Rajavi of helping Massoud to abuse female MEK members over the years. “[Massoud] Rajavi thought that the only achilles heel [for female fighters] was the opposite sex,” Soltani told me. “He would say that the only reason you women would leave me is a man. So, I want all of your hearts.” Soltani, who was one of three women to speak …
Sir David Amess MP, paid head lobby for Mojahedin khalq terrorists
(aka Maryam Rajavi cult, MKO, MEK, Saddam’s private army)
in British Parliament
Terrorists, cultists – or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the MEK
They fought for the Iranian revolution – and then for Saddam Hussein. The US and UK once condemned them. But now their opposition to Tehran has made them favourites of Trump White House hardliners.
By Arron Merat
Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi came to Albania to rescue their daughter. But in Tirana, the capital, the middle-aged couple have been followed everywhere by two Albanian intelligence agents. Men in sunglasses trailed them from their hotel on George W Bush Road to their lawyer’s office; from the lawyer’s office to the ministry of internal affairs; and from the ministry back to the hotel.
The Mohammadis say their daughter, Somayeh, is being held against her will by a fringe Iranian revolutionary group that has been exiled to Albania, known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). Widely regarded as a cult, the MEK was once designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and UK, but its opposition to the Iranian government has now earned it the support of powerful hawks in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Somayeh Mohammadi is one of about 2,300 members of the MEK living inside a heavily fortified base that has been built on 34 hectares of farmland in north-west Albania. Her parents, who were once supporters of the group, say that 21 years ago, Somayeh flew to Iraq to attend a summer camp and to visit her maternal aunt’s grave. She never came back.
The couple have spent the past two decades trying to get their daughter out of the MEK ( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO ) , travelling from their home in Canada to Paris, Jordan, Iraq and now Albania. “We are not against any group or any country,” Mostafa said, sitting outside a meatball restaurant in central Tirana. “We just want to see our daughter outside the camp and without her commanders. She can choose to stay or she can choose to come home with us.” The MEK insists Somayeh does not wish to leave the camp, and has released a letter in which she accuses her father of working for Iranian intelligence.
“Somayeh is a shy girl,” her mother said. “They threaten people like her. She wants to leave but she is scared that they will kill her.”
Since its exile from Iran in the early 1980s, the MEK has been committed to the overthrow of the Islamic republic. But it began in the 1960s as an Islamist-Marxist student militia, which played a decisive role in helping to topple the Shah during the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-American, MEK fighters killed scores of the Shah’s police in often suicidal street battles during the 1970s. The group targeted US-owned hotels, airlines and oil companies, and was responsible for the deaths of six Americans in Iran. “Death to America by blood and bonfire on the lips of every Muslim is the cry of the Iranian people,” went one of its most famous songs. “May America be annihilated.”
Such attacks helped pave the way for the return of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who quickly identified the MEK as a serious threat to his plan to turn Iran into an Islamic republic under the control of the clergy. The well-armed middle-class guerrillas, although popular among religious students and intellectuals, would prove to be no match for Khomeini’s organisation and ruthlessness.
Following the revolution, Khomeini used the security services, the courts and the media to choke off the MEK’s political support and then crush it entirely. After it fought back, killing more than 70 senior leaders of the Islamic republic – including the president and Iran’s chief justice – in audacious bomb attacks, Khomeini ordered a violent crackdown on MEK members and sympathisers. The survivors fled the country.
Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a bloody war against Iran with the backing of the UK and the US, saw an opportunity to deploy the exiled MEK fighters against the Islamic republic. In 1986, he offered the group weapons, cash and a vast military base named Camp Ashraf, only 50 miles from the border with Iran.
For almost two decades, under their embittered leader Massoud Rajavi, the MEK staged attacks against civilian and military targets across the border in Iran and helped Saddam suppress his own domestic enemies. But after siding with Saddam – who indiscriminately bombed Iranian cities and routinely used chemical weapons in a war that cost a million lives – the MEK lost nearly all the support it had retained inside Iran. Members were now widely regarded as traitors.
Isolated inside its Iraqi base, under Rajavi’s tightening grip, the MEK became cult-like. A report commissioned by the US government, based on interviews within Camp Ashraf, later concluded that the MEK had “many of the typical characteristics of a cult, such as authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labour, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options”.
After the US invasion of Iraq, the MEK launched a lavish lobbying campaignto reverse its designation as a terrorist organisation – despite reports implicating the group in assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists as recently as 2012. Rajavi has not been seen since 2003 – most analysts assume he is dead – but under the leadership of his wife, Maryam Rajavi, the MEK has won considerable support from sections of the US and European right, eager for allies in the fight against Tehran.
In 2009, the UK delisted the MEK as a terror group. The Obama administration removed the group from the US terror list in 2012, and later helped negotiate its relocation to Albania.
At the annual “Free Iran” conference that the group stages in Paris each summer, dozens of elected US and UK representatives – along with retired politicians and military officials – openly call for the overthrow of the Islamic republic and the installation of Maryam Rajavi as the leader of Iran. At last year’s Paris rally, the Conservative MP David Amess announced that “regime change … is at long last within our grasp”. At the same event, Bolton – who championed war with Iran long before he joined the Trump administration – announced that he expected the MEK to be in power in Tehran before 2019. “The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself,” he declared.
The main attraction at this year’s Paris conference was another longtime MEK supporter, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now Donald Trump’s lawyer. “The mullahs must go. The ayatollah must go,” he told the crowd. “And they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.” Giuliani also praised the work of MEK “resistance units” inside Iran, that he credited with stoking a recent wave of protests over the struggling economy. “These protests are not happening by accident,” he said. “They’re being coordinated by many of our people in Albania.” (Giuliani, Bolton and the late John McCain are among the US politicians who have travelled to Albania to show support for the MEK.)
Meanwhile, back in Albania, the MEK is struggling to hold on to its own members, who have begun to defect. The group is also facing increased scrutiny from local media and opposition parties, who question the terms of the deal that brought the MEK ( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO ) fighters to Tirana.
It would be hard to find a serious observer who believes the MEK has the capacity or support within Iran to overthrow the Islamic republic. But the US and UK politicians loudly supporting a tiny revolutionary group stranded in Albania are playing a simpler game: backing the MEK is the easiest way to irritate Tehran. And the MEK, in turn, is only one small part of a wider Trump administration strategy for the Middle East, which aims to isolate and economically strangle Iran.
Before the MEK could become a darling of the American and European right, it had to reinvent itself. Democracy, human rights and secularism would become the group’s new mantra – as its leader, Maryam Rajavi, renounced violence and successfully repositioned an anti-western sect as a pro-American democratic government-in-waiting.
The long march to respectability began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The war toppled Saddam Hussein, the MEK’s patron and protector, but it brought the group into direct contact with US officials – who would soon be looking for additional ammunition against Iran.
The US had designated the MEK as a terrorist group in the late 1990s, as a goodwill gesture toward a new reformist government in Tehran. When George W Bush accused Saddam Hussein of “harbouring terrorists” in a 2002 speech that made the case for invading Iraq, he was actually referring to the MEK. But in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, a row erupted inside the White House over what to do with the 5,000 MEK fighters inside their base at Camp Ashraf.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, argued that the MEK ( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO ) was on the list of terrorist organisations and should be treated as such. But Iran hawks, including then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and vice-president Dick Cheney, argued that the MEK should be used as a weapon against the Islamic republic – the next target in the neoconservative roadmap for remaking the Middle East. (“Boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran,” was their half-joking refrain.)
Rumsfeld’s faction won out. Although the group was still listed as a terrorist organisation, the Pentagon unilaterally designated MEK fighters inside Camp Ashraf as “protected persons” under the Geneva conventions – officially disarmed, but with their security effectively guaranteed by US forces in Iraq. The US was protecting a group it also designated as terrorists.
There is no doubt that US hawks regarded the MEK as a weapon in the fight against Iran: as early as May 2003, the same month that Bush famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the New York Times reported that “Pentagon hardliners” were moving to protect the MEK, “and perhaps reconstitute it later as a future opposition organisation in Iran, somewhat along the lines of the US-supported Iraqi opposition under Ahmed Chalabi that preceded the war in Iraq”. In 2003, the Bush administration refused an offer, signed off by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to hand over MEK leaders in Iraq in exchange for members of the military council of al-Qaida and relatives of Osama bin Laden, who had been captured by Iran as they fled Afghanistan after September 11.
As the US occupation of Iraq collapsed into a nightmarish civil war, the American right increasingly blamed Iran for the country’s disintegration. Senior politicians openly called for bombing the Islamic republic, amid growing panic over Iran’s nuclear programme – the existence of which had first been exposed by the MEK in what the BBC called a “propaganda coup” for the group. (Several experts on Israeli intelligence have reported that Mossad passed these documents to the MEK.) By 2007, US news outlets were reporting that Bush had signed a classified directive authorising “covert action” inside Iran.
Between 2007 and 2012, seven Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked with poison or magnetic bombs affixed to moving cars by passing motorcyclists; five were killed. In 2012, NBC news, citing two unnamed US officials, reported that the attacks were planned by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency and executed by MEK agents inside Iran. An MEK spokesperson called this a “false claim … whose main source is the mullahs’ regime”.
It was around this time that the MEK began working to remake its image in the west. Groups associated with the MEK donated to political campaigns, blanketed Washington with advertisements and paid western political influencers fees to pen op-eds and give speeches – and to lobby for its removal from the list of designated terrorist organisations.
A stupendously long list of American politicians from both parties were paid hefty fees to speak at events in favour of the MEK, including Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich and former Democratic party chairs Edward Rendell and Howard Dean – along with multiple former heads of the FBI and CIA. John Bolton, who has made multiple appearances at events supporting the MEK, is estimated to have received upwards of $180,000. According to financial disclosure forms, Bolton was paid $40,000 for a single appearance at the Free Iran rally in Paris in 2017.
A handful of UK politicians have attended two or more of the MEK’s Paris events in the past three years, including the Conservatives Bob Blackman and Matthew Offord, and the Labour MPs Roger Godsiff and Toby Perkins. The Conservative MP and former minister Theresa Villiers has attended the past two annual Paris events. So has David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West – the MEK’s loudest champion in the UK parliament, who has also travelled to the US to speak at a rally in support of the group. (All of the MPs declined to reply to questions about their attendance.)
The other British attendees at this year’s Paris rally included three peers and five former MPs, including Mike Hancock, who resigned from the Liberal Democrats after admitting inappropriate behaviour with a constituent, and Michelle Thomson, who was forced to resign the SNP whip in 2015 in a controversy over property deals. The former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, was also there, carrying a petition in support of the MEK signed by 75 bishops, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
At this year’s event, flanked by union jacks and “#RegimeChange” signs, Villiers spoke of the importance of women’s rights, “paid tribute” to Maryam Rajavi – who is barred from entering the UK – and pledged support for her “just cause” in seeking to create “an Iran which is free from the brutal repression of the mullahs”. In a carefully stage-managed performance, Rajavi laid flowers and wrote a tribute in an enormous yearbook of MEK martyrs. “The time has come for the regime’s overthrow,” she said. “Victory is certain, and Iran will be free.”
One day after the conference, the MEK accused Tehran of plotting a bomb attack against the event, following the arrest of four suspects – including an unnamed Iranian diplomat – in Belgium, Germany and France. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejected claims of Iran’s involvement and described the accusations as a “sinister false flag ploy”.
Even as the MEK successfully amassed political allies in the west, its security in Iraq eroded as US troops departed. Between 2009 and 2013, Iraqi security forces raided the MEK base at least twice, killing about 100 people. Nouri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq – whose ambassador to the US called the group “nothing more than a cult” – insisted it leave the country.
Daniel Benjamin, who was then the head of counter-terrorism at the state department, told me that the US decided to remove the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organisations not because it believed it had abandoned violence, but to “avoid them all getting killed” if it remained in Iraq. After the MEK was no longer designated a terrorist group, the US was able to convince Albania to accept the 2,700 remaining members – who were brought to Tirana on a series of charter flights between 2014 and 2016.
The group bought up land in Albania and built a new base. But the move from Iraq to the relative safety of Albania has precipitated a wave of defections. Those with means have fled the country to the EU and the US, but around 120 recent MEK escapees remain in Tirana with no right to work or emigrate. I spoke to about a dozen defectors, half of whom are still in Albania, who said that MEK commanders systematically abused members to silence dissent and prevent defections – using torture, solitary confinement, the confiscation of assets and the segregation of families to maintain control over members. In response to these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The individuals who are described as ‘former members’ were being used as part of a demonisation campaign against the MEK.”
The testimony of these recent defectors follows earlier reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch, which reported former members witnessed “beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution and torture that in two cases led to death”.
The MEK grew out of Iran’s Liberation Movement, an Islamic-democratic “loyal opposition” established in 1961 by the supporters of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister ousted in a 1953 coup orchestrated by Britain and the US. The movement called for national sovereignty, freedom of political activity and the separation of mosque and state. The MEK cleaved to these traditions, but responded to the growing repression of the Shah throughout the 1960s and 70s by rejecting nonviolence.
At the time, the MEK ( Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO ) , whose members were largely idealistic middle-class students, combined Islamism with Marxist doctrine. They reinterpreted the Qur’anic passages that undergirded their Shia faith as injunctions to socialise the means of production, eliminate the class system and promote the struggles of Iran’s ethnic minorities. Steeped in thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray, they expressed solidarity with national liberation movements in Algeria, Cuba, Palestine and Vietnam. Quoting Lenin’s famous pamphlet, the MEK posed the question: “What Is to Be Done?” “Our answer is straightforward,” the MEK wrote: “Armed struggle.”
Rajavi was among 69 members of the MEK tried in 1972 by a military tribunal for plotting acts of terrorism. “The ruling class is on its deathbed,” he told the tribunal. When the prosecutor interrupted him to ask why he had acquired weapons, Rajavi replied: “To deal with the likes of you.”
Of the 11 members of the MEK central committee tried in 1972, nine were immediately executed and one remained in jail. When Rajavi emerged from prison in 1979, three weeks before the Iranian revolution, he was the undisputed leader of Iran’s most deadly underground rebel group.
The MEK played an important role in the 1979 revolution, seizing the imperial palace and doing much of the fighting to neutralise the police and the army. Two days after the revolution, Massoud Rajavi, who was 30, met the 77-year-old supreme leader. The two did not hit it off. “I met Khomeini,” Rajavi told a journalist in 1981. “He held out his hand for me to kiss, and I refused. Since then, we’ve been enemies.”
Khomeini saw the MEK as a threat to his power, barring Rajavi from running for president and casting his organisation as an enemy of Islam. Armed members of the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) disrupted MEK events, burned its literature and beat up its members. Without political power, the MEK relied on street protests. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians attended its rallies, which the courts soon banned.
In response, the MEK and the president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was also antagonistic to Khomeini, organised two days of protests across 30 cities – forcing Khomeini to go on television to reiterate the ban. The MEK, he said, were “waging war on God”. Other clerics warned that demonstrators would be shot on sight. On 20 June 1981, the MEK organised a mass protest of half a million people in Tehran, with the aim of triggering a second revolution. The clerics were true to their word: 50 demonstrators were killed, with 200 wounded. Banisadr was removed from office and a wave of executions followed.
Over the following months and years, the violence escalated. Khomeini rounded up thousands of MEK supporters – while his loyalists launched waves of mob violence against MEK members and sympathisers.
By December, the regime had executed 2,500 members of the MEK. The group counter-attacked with a spate of assassinations and suicide bombings against Friday-prayer leaders, revolutionary court judges and members of the IRGC. “I am willing to die to help hasten the coming of the classless society; to keep alive our revolutionary tradition; and to avenge our colleagues murdered by this bloodthirsty, reactionary regime,” wrote one MEK fighter, Ebrahimzadeh, who killed 13 IRGC and Ayatollah Sadduqi, a close advisor to Khomeini, by detonating a hand grenade in a suicide attack in July 1982.
By the mid-1980s, thousands of people labelled as MEK had been executed or killed in street battles by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This was the time when Rajavi accepted Saddam’s offer to fight Iran from the safety of Iraq. Over the next few years, Rajavi launched an “ideological revolution”, banning marriage and enforcing mandatory “eternal” divorce on all members, who were required to separate from their husbands or wives. He married one of the new divorcees, Maryam Azodanlu, who became, in effect, his chief lieutenant and took his name.
For Saddam, the MEK was a useful, but disposable, tool in his war against Iran. The MEK, however, was totally dependent on the Iraqi leader. In addition to cash and arms, he sent Iranian prisoners of war to Rajavi as new recruits. “The whole world was Camp Ashraf,” said Edward Tramado, one of these prisoners, remembering his indoctrination. “Nothing else had any meaning for me,” recalled Tramado, who now lives in Germany. “I was living in a delusional world. Even though I knew I had a mother who was waiting for me, my entire world had become what they had constructed for me.”
In July 1988, six days after the ceasefire that officially ended the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK launched a suicidal mission deep into Iranian territory, dubbed Operation Eternal Light. Once again, Rajavi predicted his actions would spark another revolution. “It will be like an avalanche,” Rajavi told the fighters he was about to send to their deaths. “You don’t need to take anything with you. We will be like fish swimming in a sea of people. They will give you whatever you need.”
The mission would end in a massacre: hapless MEK fighters were lured into an ambush by the Iranian army, which crushed them with minimal effort. One Iranian soldier who took part in the operation recently described it to me. Mehrad, who volunteered in 1987 at the age of 15, recalled that his division, which had fought against Iraqi soldiers on the southern front, was redeployed to the north in July 1988 to repel a new assault from Iraq. His division was sent to a location near the city of Kermanshah, about 111 miles (180km) from the border with Iraq. Mehrad and his fellow soldiers were surprised to hear that enemy soldiers had managed to make such a deep incursion into Iran. “We thought our army had given up,” he said.
When he arrived, Mehrad discovered that the enemy was the MEK – which had been led into a trap. “Their military strategy was very stupid,” he told me. “They just drove down the Tehran highway. It was like if the French army wanted to invade England and they just drove down the motorway from Dover to London.”
“We very quickly killed thousands of them,” Mehrad said. “There were piles of bodies on either side of the road. What was interesting to us was that many of them were women.” Some MEK took cyanide rather than be captured alive. The MEK subsequently claimed that 1,304 of its members were martyred, and another 1,100 returned to Iraq injured.
The survivors were tried on the spot and quickly executed; Mehrad watched as hundreds were hanged at gallows erected in the nearby town of Eslamabad. Khomeini then used the failed invasion as a pretext for the mass execution of thousands of MEK and other leftists in Iranian jails. Amnesty estimates that more than 4,500 people were put to death, and some sources say the numbers were even higher.
Eternal Light marked a major turning point for the MEK. Inside the barbed wire of Camp Ashraf, as the reality of indefinite exile sank in, a traumatised and grief-stricken membership turned against itself under the paranoid leadership of Rajavi. Several former members told me that after the bloody defeat, Massoud Rajavi cast himself as the representative of al-Mahdi, the 12th Imam who was “hidden” in the 9th century and who, according to Iranian Shia, will return alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world.
Outside Camp Ashraf, the MEK continued to stage cross-border attacks against Iran, and helped Saddam to crush uprisings against his rule after his defeat by the US in the 1990 Gulf war. In March 1991, Saddam deployed the MEK to help quell the armed Kurdish independence movement in the north. According to the New York Times, Maryam Rajavi told her fighters: “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian revolutionary guards.” The MEK vehemently denies it participated in Saddam’s campaigns to put down the Shia and Kurdish rebellions, but an Iraqi human rights tribunal has indicted MEK leaders for their role in suppressing the uprisings.
Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government’s high representative in London, was a fighter for the Kurdish peshmerga in 1991. He told me that he remembers how the MEK arrived in the town of Kalar, about 93 miles (150km) south-east of Kirkuk, just after Saddam had lost control of the north of Iraq after the first Gulf war. “They came in Saddam’s tanks,” he said. “We thought they were returning peshmerga because the tanks were covered with portraits of Kurdish leaders … but they opened fire on the town … It was a big atrocity.”
In the next decade, the MEK continued to fight against Iran. In 1992, the group launched concurrent attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions in 10 countries, including Iran’s permanent mission to the UN in New York, which was invaded by five men with knives. The MEK also settled more personal scores. In 1998, an assassin killed Asadollah Lajevardi, the former warden of Evin prison who had personally overseen the executions of thousands of MEK members.
Back at Camp Ashraf, commanders would tell wavering members that if they escaped, they would face certain death at the hands of either Saddam or the Iranian authorities. “We were far away from the world,” one member, who only escaped the MEK after the move to Albania, told me. “We had no information. No television, no radio.” Instead, within the camp, they had “Mojahedin television”, which consisted of looped speeches by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, played “all day long”.
Rajavi told his followers that the failure of Eternal Light was not a military blunder, but was instead rooted in the members’ thoughts for their spouses; their love had sapped their will to fight. In 1990, all couples inside the camp were ordered to divorce – and women had their wedding rings replaced by pendants engraved with Massoud’s face. Spouses were separated, and their children were sent to be “adopted” by MEK supporters in Europe.
MEK commanders demanded that all members publicly reveal any errant sexual thoughts. Manouchelur Abdi, a 55-year-old who also left the MEK in Albania, told me that the confession sessions used to take place every morning. Even feelings of love and friendship were outlawed, he says. “I would have to confess that I missed my daughter,” he says. “They would shout at me. They would humiliate me. They would say that my family was the enemy and missing them was strengthening the hand of the mullahs in Tehran.”
Another recent defector, Ali (not his real name) showed me scars on his arms and legs from what he described as weeks of torture after he first joined the group in the early 1990s, including cigarette burns on his arms. When it was over, he said, he was taken to Baghdad to meet the leader. “They took us into a big hall. Massoud Rajavi was sitting there with a group of women,” Ali recalled. “[Rajavi said] ‘If any of you say one word to any one … One word, if any of this is exposed, reaches anyone else’s ears, or if you talk about leaving, you’ll be delivered to [Saddam’s] intelligence service immediately.’”
Batoul Soltani joined the MEK in 1986 with her husband and infant daughter. At first, her family was able to live together, but in 1990, she says she was forced to divorce and give up her five-year-old daughter and newborn son, who were sent abroad to be raised by MEK sympathisers. Soltani alleges that she was forced to have sex with Massoud Rajavi on multiple occasions, beginning in 1999. She says that the last assault was in 2006, the year that she escaped from Camp Ashraf and a time when Rajavi had not been seen in public for three years. When we spoke recently, Soltani accused Maryam Rajavi of helping Massoud to abuse female MEK members over the years. “[Massoud] Rajavi thought that the only achilles heel [for female fighters] was the opposite sex,” Soltani told me. “He would say that the only reason you women would leave me is a man. So, I want all of your hearts.”
Soltani, who was one of three women to speak about sexual abuse inside the MEK in a 2014 documentary aired on Iranian television, alleged that Rajavi had hundreds of “wives” inside the camp.
Another former female member, Zahra Moini, who served as a bodyguard for Maryam Rajavi, told me that women were threatened with punishment if they did not divorce their husbands and “marry” Massoud. “Maryam was involved in this sexual abuse, she used to read the vows to allow for the marriage to be consummated,” Moini said, in a telephone interview from Germany.
“Those who didn’t accept to marry would be disappeared. I was told that if I didn’t divorce [my husband], I would end up in Ramadi prison and I would have to sleep with the Iraqi generals every night.” (In response to questions about these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The mullahs’ propaganda machine has been churning out sexual libels against the resistance and its leader for the past 40 years.”)
Two other female defectors, Zahra Bagheri and Fereshteh Hedayati, have alleged that they were given hysterectomies without their consent in the Camp Ashraf hospital, under the pretext they were being operated on for minor ailments. In the eccentric ideological language of the group, the women say the procedure was retrospectively justified to victims as representing “the peak” of loyalty to their leader.
Hedayati, who survived the massacres of Operation Eternal Light, joined the MEK as a 22-year-old in 1981 with her husband, who is still inside the group. “They said I had a cyst,” she told me. “But they also took out my womb. They told me that it meant that I had an even stronger connection to our ideological leader.” Hedayati, who left the group in Iraq and now lives in Norway, says she was never sexually abused, but was “brainwashed” by the group into divorcing her husband, and alleges that more than 100 other women were sterilised by MEK doctors. “I always ask myself why they did this to us,” Bagheri said. “Of course, to take away our futures.”
Between an escape attempt in 2001 and her exit from the MEK in 2013, Hedayati says she was subject to extraordinarily harsh treatment by her commanders. “They said I was a lesbian,” she says. “They spat on me, they beat me, they locked me up. I was put in jail, in solitary confinement.”
Albania ostensibly accepted the MEK members for humanitarian reasons – but the country’s leaders may have seen an opportunity to curry favour with the US government, which had seen its offers rejected by various other European states. “They were the only ones who would take them,” the former state department official Daniel Benjamin has said.
Olsi Jazexhi, a professor of history at the University of Durres critical of the government’s decision to accept the MEK fighters, says that Albanian politicians hoped the deal would lead the US to turn a blind eye to their own corruption. “The MEK is a card which gives them leverage with the United States,” he said. “They think that by taking the MEK, the Americans will leave their business alone.” (A secret US state department cable from 2009, published by WikiLeaks, said that the country’s three major parties “all have MPs with links to organised crime … Conventional wisdom, backed by other reporting, is that the new parliament has quite a few drug traffickers and money launderers.”)
For the Trump administration, the MEK is a valuable asset in the escalating regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This summer, Trump abruptly pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and announced new sanctions, triggering a currency collapse and four months of sporadic protests across Iran. The US has reimposed tough sanctions this week, targeting Iranian oil exports and banking. But Trump’s Middle East strategy has come under new scrutiny after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul – which has sparked a backlash against the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his allies in the Trump administration.
For most of its life in exile, the MEK was funded by Saddam. After his downfall, the group says it raised money from Iranian diaspora organisations and individual donors. The MEK has always denied it is financed by Saudi Arabia – but the former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, made waves when he attended the group’s 2016 rally in Paris and called for the fall of the Iranian regime.
“The money definitely comes from Saudis,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a professor at the City University of New York and author of the definitive academic work on the group’s history, The Iranian Mojahedin. “There is no one else who could be subsidising them with this level of finance.”
Analysts agree that the MEK lacks the capacity or support to overthrow the Iranian government – as even Bolton and Pompeo would surely concede. “They are probably smart enough to know that this group is not democratic and anyway has no constituency inside Iran,” said Paul Pillar, who served in the CIA for 28 years, including a period as the agency’s senior counter-terrorism analyst. Trump and his Iran hawks, Pillar said, are not concerned with replacing the current regime so much as causing it to crumble. “They are pursuing anything that would disrupt the political order in Iran so they and the president can cite such an outcome as a supposed victory no matter what comes afterwards.”
According to one recent MEK defector, Hassan Heyrani, the group’s main work in Albania involves fighting online in an escalating information war between Iran and its rivals. Heyrani, who left the MEK last summer, says that he worked in a “troll farm” of 1,000 people inside the Albanian camp, posting pro-Rajavi and anti-Iran propaganda in English, Farsi and Arabic on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and newspaper comment sections.
“We worked from morning to night with fake accounts,” he says. “We had orders daily that the commanders would read for us. ‘It is your duty to promote this senator, this politician, or journalist writing against Iran’ and we would say ‘Thank you, the Iranian people support you and Maryam Rajavi is the rightful leader’, but if there was a negative story on the MEK, we would post ‘You are the mercenaries of the Iranian regime, you are not the voice of the Iranian people, you don’t want freedom for Iran’.” An MEK spokesperson called these allegations “another lie” made up to support the Iranian foreign ministry.
According to Marc Owen Jones, an academic who studies political bots on social media, “thousands” of suspicious Twitter accounts emerged in early 2016 with “Iran” as their location and “human rights” in their description or account name, which posted in support of Trump and the MEK. These accounts, says Jones, were created in batches and would promote Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric using the hashtags #IranRegimeChange, #FreeIran and #IstandwithMaryamRajavi.
Albanian journalists say that the MEK, which has close contacts with senior politicians and the security services, operates with impunity within Albania. Ylli Zyla, who served as head of Albanian military intelligence from 2008 to 2012, accused the MEK of violating Albanian law. “Members of this organisation live in Albania as hostages,” he told me. Its camp, he said, was beyond the jurisdiction of Albanian police and “extraordinary psychological violence and threats of murder” took place inside.
Former members accuse the MEK of responsibility for the death in June of Malek Shara’i, a senior commander who was found drowned by police divers at bottom of a reservoir behind the group’s Albanian base. Shara’i’s sister, Zahra Shara’i, said that his family had received news from former members that Malek was about to escape, and says the MEK was responsible for his death. “I am their enemy and I will not rest until I get my revenge,” she told the Guardian from Iran. The MEK said that Shara’i drowned while attempting to save another member from drowning. The Albanian police said the death was not suspicious.
While defectors with private means have been smuggled out of the country into the EU, many former members live hand-to-mouth in Tirana. The Albanian state has not granted refugee rights to the MEK or its defectors, and a UN monthly stipend of 30,000 lek (£215) lapsed on 1 September. “They’re stuck,” says Jazexhi, who has worked to support the defectors. “They don’t know the languages, they don’t know the laws, they don’t know what democracy is. They are used to dictators. We tell them that they shouldn’t be afraid.”
Migena Balla, the lawyer representing Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi, the couple in Tirana fighting for the release of their daughter Somayeh, believes that pressure has been put to bear on both the police and the judiciary to ensure the MEK does not “create political problems”. “Politics is interfering in the judicial system,” she says. “When I went to the police station to register their complaint the police officers actually ran away. They are scared of losing their jobs.”
The MEK has not taken kindly to the presence of the Mohammadis in Albania. They accuse Mostafa – and any former member who has spoken out against the MEK – of being a paid agent of the “mullah regime”. On 27 July, Mostafa was hospitalised following an assault by four senior members of the MEK, which was captured on video by his wife. The attackers, who shouted “Terrorist!” at Mohammadi, were briefly detained by Albanian police. But, after a phalanx of MEK members arrived at the police station, the men were promptly released.
The MEK has published letters, purportedly written by Somayeh, accusing her father of being an Iranian intelligence agent. A nervous-looking Somayeh recently gave a video interview inside the MEK base saying that she wishes to remain a member of the group.
The Mohammadis have responded with open letters to their daughter and to Albanian politicians, calling for an unsupervised meeting with their daughter. “I am your mother Mahboubeh Robabe Hamza and I want to meet with you,” Robabe wrote to Somayeh. “I am the woman who fed you at my breast, I held you in the crook of my arm. You are my flesh and blood … I love you more than my life … I’m getting old, I am getting tired, but life is not worth living without seeing you.”
Arron Merat was a Tehran correspondent for the Economist between 2011 and 2014. He has covered Iran for the Guardian, the Sunday Times and Vice News. He tweets at @a_merat
Mujahedin-e-Khalq MEK MKO