TEHRAN, Iran — Tall and handsome, Arash Sametipour could be living a very different life in Northern Virginia if he hadn’t joined the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
As U.S. troops watch, an MEK member, right, guards a road to the group’s training camp in Iraq.
By Brennan Linsley, AP
Sametipour, 29, of Burke, Va., says he became involved in the Iranian opposition group in the late 1990s when he developed a crush on one of its members. In love and convinced that the group was working for the good of Iran, he agreed to go to an MEK base in Iraq for military training. In 2000, he says, he was selected to go to Iran to assassinate a former police chief.
The murder attempt failed and Sametipour tried to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide. But the poison had lost its potency so he detonated a grenade, blowing off his right hand. Iranian authorities jailed him for four years. One of six former MEK members produced by the Iranian government to talk to a reporter here, he acknowledges that his criticism of the MEK serves the Islamic government but says his main motivation is to stop others from joining the group.
“I had a green card, and in a few years I could have had my U.S. citizenship,” he says. “I ruined my life, but I don’t want others to do so.” Sametipour’s American brother, Asef, backed up the description of how he joined the MEK.
Mujahedin-e Khalq’s roots
Name: Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK. (The name means “the people’s freedom fighters” in Farzi.)
Other names/affiliates: National Liberation Army of Iran ; People’s Mujahedin of Iran; National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Mission: Advocates the overthrow of the clerical government of Iran, installing Maryam Rajavi, wife of the MEK leader, as president and holding elections six months later.
Members: About 3,800 MEK members are confined by U.S. and Iraqi forces to Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Various leaders live in a Paris suburb. The group claims an unknown number of sympathizers inside Iran, and in Europe and the United States.
History: Founded in the 1960s with an ideology that mixed Marxism and Islam, the group sought to depose the shah of Iran, killed U.S. military personnel and civilians in Iran and backed the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy. In the early 1980s, the MEK clashed violently with the Islamic government and thousands were killed. Others fled, eventually finding sanctuary in Iraq. From the early 1990s through at least 2001, MEK members attacked Iranian embassies and other facilities in several countries, killed Iranian officials and carried out attacks near the Iraq-Iran border. U.S.-led forces bombed MEK bases during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The MEK surrendered in May 2003.
Status: Uncertain. Declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department but also apparently helpful to intelligence authorities seeking to gauge the extent of Iran’s nuclear program.
Sources: U.S. State Department, USA TODAY research
Iran’s government produced Sametipour to underscore its intense frustration with a group that has long been a major source of friction between the Bush administration and the ruling clerics here. The MEK is the largest known organization working to overthrow Iran’s theocratic regime, and Iranian officials have demanded the United States rein it in.
The U.S. posture has been ambiguous. The MEK’s violent habits — it has a history of bombings and assassinations, including the murder of six Americans — earned it a spot on the State Department list of terrorist groups in 1997. But the group gained publicity three years ago by exposing a secret Iranian nuclear program, alerting the public to the extent of Iran’s apparent efforts to build a bomb. President Bush alluded to this in a March 16 news conference, when he said that the nuclear program had been revealed by a “dissident” group.
Meanwhile, nearly 4,000 members of the group are in a military camp in Iraq, Camp Ashraf, 60 miles north of Baghdad. The regime of Saddam Hussein gave them refuge before the war. Since Saddam’s ouster, U.S. forces have prevented MEK members from attacking Iran but do not know what to do with them.
Iranian officials, including former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, want Camp Ashraf dismantled, the inhabitants sent to Iran and MEK leaders, some of whom are in Europe, tried there or in Iran. Nearly 300 MEK members have already returned to Iran from Iraq.
“I would expect that you forward a question to President Bush,” Rafsanjani said in an interview earlier this year. “Why terrorists who have committed crimes in Iran are not returned here? Worse yet, they are permitted to enter your Congress, the U.N., and have lobbying and political activities.”
Supporters in the U.S.
The MEK wants its people in Iraq to regain their freedom of movement. “The Iranian regime is more afraid of the Mujahedin than before because the Iranian regime is in a very shaky situation,” says Mohammed Mohadessin, a senior official with the MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance, based outside Paris.
Beyond Iraq, the group has an unknown number of adherents in Europe and the United States, and supporters on Capitol Hill and in Washington foreign policy circles. Several hundred sympathizers attended a convention in Washington on Thursday.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said terrorism expert Neil Livingstone at a news conference in Washington in February where he and several retired U.S. diplomats and military men unveiled a new organization, the Iran Policy Committee, whose goal is to overthrow the Iranian government by supporting Iranian opposition groups.
Another committee member, Ray Tanter, a Middle East expert on the National Security Council under President Reagan, said the United States should use the MEK to try to destabilize Iran’s government before it acquires nuclear weapons.
It seems highly unlikely that the group has the capability to bring down the Iranian government. The main indication that it still poses any threat is the amount of attention Iranian officials give to it.
Army Maj. Kreg Schnell, an intelligence officer in the Iraqi province that includes Camp Ashraf, said the CIA last year detained and questioned a man who appeared to be working for the Iranians and trying to apprehend MEK members. He was looking to see if it was possible “to snatch some of them (MEK) back as an example” to others, Schnell said. Last August, Schnell said, an Iraqi army patrol was approached by two Iraqis who said they were bounty hunting for members, offering $400 a head.
Founded in 1965, the MEK blended nationalism, Marxism and Islam in a potent mix that attracted thousands of students from traditional Shiite Muslim families. Aided by training from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the group began attacks on officials of the U.S.-backed shah. The group also killed six Americans in Iran during the 1970s — three military officers and three contractors involved in selling weapons to the shah.
The MEK took part in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah and supported the seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages. But it broke with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1980 when he barred the MEK’s leader, Massoud Rajavi, from participating in presidential elections.
Rajavi escaped, first to Paris and later to Iraq. The group once had strong support in Iran, but lost much of it by siding with Iraq during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, which killed or injured 750,000 Iranians. Of more than 50 people interviewed about the MEK during a recent visit to Iran, only one had anything positive to say about it.
Aspects of a cult
Former members and friends of members of the group describe the organization, which insists its members be celibate, as a cult. “They take your individuality and beliefs and tell you that all the love you have must go to the leadership,” Sametipour says. “That’s how they make terrorists.”
Ronak Dashti, 20, who was also introduced to a reporter by the Iranian government, said she was abducted in Turkey by MEK members who took her to Iraq. There, she says, she had to sign documents saying she had no right to contact her family and should not think about marriage. She and three other defectors described communal living, hours of menial work and nightly self-criticism sessions.
Mohadessin denies that anyone is forced to join or remain in the MEK. He points to the group’s success in revealing Iranian nuclear installations as evidence that it still has a large network of supporters within the country.
“The message you (the United States) give is that you prefer the current (Iranian) regime” when you keep the MEK on the terrorism list, Mohadessin says.
Contributing: John Diamond in Baghdad