Iran: who are the Mojaheddin-e Khalq, the radicals supported by the US hawks
The definitive abandonment of the nuclear deal is part of a broader strategy that the Trump administration is putting in place against Iran. This strategy, called by the US administration itself “of maximum pressure”, seems to be aimed at putting in difficulty the current Iranian regime, in such a way as to provoke a change in policies or the same regime. In particular, this change would be achieved through the renewed economic isolation of the country – with the return to effect from the forthcoming August 7 of previously suspended sanctions – and through the incitement of popular rebellion, with ostentatious declarations of “empathy” in comparisons of the Iranians.
In other words, what the Trump administration is putting in place towards Iran seems to be an attempt to destabilize, also confirmed by the appointment of senior US administration officials who openly open the regime change in Teheran, such as Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. This strategy also includes the gradual accreditation of the Mojaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) group in Washington, which we would like to highlight as the desirable and legitimate opposition to the current Iranian regime. But this idea is deeply dangerous.
The MEKs were born in Iran in the ’60s by a group of radical students who united Marxism and Islamism, among the first to lead the armed struggle against the shah and against the many Americans then present in the country. After the 1979 revolution, their leader Masoud Rajavi rebels against the seizure of power by Khomeini and begins a new armed struggle, this time against the newly formed Islamic Republic. Between 1980 and 1981, Iran experienced a political season of real terror, marked both by the purges of the new regime and by targeted attacks and murders committed by the Mojaheddin. In 1981, an attack by the MEK eliminated the summits of the Islamic Republic: 70 officers were killed, including the then President of the Republic Mohammad-Ali Rajai and the then Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar. The current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, will remain seriously injured and will lose the use of his right arm.
After that episode, the leaders of the Mojaheddin, including the leader Masoud Rajavi, took refuge in Paris, where they found the National Council of the Iranian Resistance (CNRI), the political umbrella behind which the MEK are hidden. In 1986, however, the France of President Mitterrand and Prime Minister Chirac initiated a dialogue with Iran of Khomeini aimed at releasing the French hostages detained in Beirut by radical groups close to Iran. In exchange for the good Iranian offices in Beirut, France expels Rajavi and the MEK, who then take refuge in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, then at war with Iran. From there the Mojaheddin will participate in the war on the side of Saddam, helping the Iraqi regime to identify the Iranian targets to be hit and organizing real attacks across the border. In one of the most famous, the “Eternal Light” operation ordered by Rajavi after the 1988 ceasefire, the Iranian Pasdarans kill more than 2,000 mujaheddin. Among other events, the MEK remain in Iraq – guests of Saddam, who gives them money, weapons and military assets – until 2003, the year of the fall of the regime. It was in 2003 that the debate about the Mojaheddin was rekindled in Washington, in turn linked to the debate about the strategy to be adopted towards Iran. After the change regime in Baghdad, there are many neoconservatives of the Bush administration who call for the same treatment for the schemes in Teheran and Damascus. At the political level, voices are multiplying in favor of the removal of the MEK from the US list of terrorist organizations – where they were put in 1997 by the then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a gesture of openness towards the reformist Iranian president Khatami. An objective, that of the removal from the list of terrorist organizations, that the MEK manage to reach only in 2012 following an intense lobbying effort by Maryam Rajavi, wife of Masoud and leader of the MEK since 2003, the year of the mysterious disappearance in Iraq of the latter.
In fact, even after 2003, the Mojaheddin headquarters remain in Iraq, in Camp Ashraf and then in 2011 in Camp Hurriyah, while their leader Maryam Rajavi is arrested in Auvers-sur-Oise – the French headquarters of the MEK – together with 150 members of the group, on charges of preparing and financing terrorist acts. In fact, however, the investigation loses its vigor and in the following years Rajavi continues to be hosted in Paris – in French ambiguity – and to receive an audience in numerous European chancelleries.
Elizabeth Rubin, a New York Times journalist who enters Camp Ashraf in 2003, says she was faced with “an artificial world of worker bees” – about half of the Mojaheddin is a woman – with women dressed in a khaki-colored uniform and scarlet veil they drove pick-ups and military vehicles and practiced the use of weapons. Rubin then collects the testimony of Nedareh, an Iranian-Canadian who has left behind the golden life of Toronto, has left her boyfriend and has abandoned his studies to join the MEK, swearing eternal loyalty to Maryam Rajavi: since the 80s the Mojaheddin must make a vow of eternal celibacy, those who are married must divorce, those who are not must swear never to do so, nor can they have children. In fact, says Rubin and with her many other observers, the MEK have assumed over the years more and more the characters of a cult centered on the personality of the leader Rajavi and strongly centered on female empowerment: girls are taught that joining the Mojaheddin is “A journey towards self-empowerment and the illumination of martyrdom inspired by the light and wisdom of Maryam and Masoud Rajavi”.
According to a 2012 New Yorker article, in 2005 the MEK – while still on the US list of terrorist organizations – would receive training from the American Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Nevada desert, a similar environment from the point of view landscaping in north-western Iran. The training would have been completed before the inauguration of Obama, and would consist mainly in communication techniques, cryptography, assault and guerrilla techniques. Also in 2012, the NBC reports the testimony of two officials of the Obama administration according to which the killings of the five Iranian nuclear scientists in 2007 were committed by the MEK in collaboration with the Mossad, with the support of US intelligence.
Although born with a Marxist-Islamist ideology, and although they remain a movement in the facts much more like a sect, halfway between a Leninist political formation and the ancient Ismaili sect of the Assassins, today the MEK have a public face that praises the values of secularism and democracy. Their intention, after the overthrow of the Iranian regime, is the creation of an interim government led by Maryam Rajavi – already nominated future president of Iran – followed by free elections. Beyond rhetoric, however, the modus operandi remains deeply authoritarian: in addition to forced celibacy, the group members do not have access to newspapers, radio or television, nobody can criticize Rajavi. Members are periodically subjected to self-criticism sessions in which they are filmed while admitting that they have behaved in a manner contrary to the laws of the group; movies that can then be used against them later. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have extensively documented human rights abuses within the group.
On the basis of these elements, it is possible to state that the MEKs do not represent a credible or desirable alternative to the current Iranian regime. The Iranian population itself does not recognize its legitimacy; on the contrary, there is a deep hostility towards them due to the wide use of terrorist methods and the support provided to Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war, as well as the fear that, once they arrive at the government, adopt methods not unlike those used by current regime. Despite the apparent moderation of recent years, the MEK also remain a deeply anti-American movement: in addition to being responsible for political violence against US citizens residing in Iran at the time of the shah, the MEK have largely supported the assault on the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, and would have opposed in 1981 the decision to release the hostages.
The risk is that US politicians like Europeans in good or bad faith let themselves be charmed by the moral offensive of this group that in its public image preaches the feminine emancipation and democracy and secularism in Iran, but that hides inside it a very different truth. The American political figures who seem to have already been conquered in the cause in exchange for high sums are different: the personal lawyer of Trump and former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, during the last MEK annual conference in Paris in June this year he openly invoked the change regime in Teheran; John Bolton, national security adviser, has been participating in their conventions for years and on several occasions has expressed support for the overthrow of the regime; the current Transport secretary Elaine Chao participated in a MEK conference in 2015, receiving a payment of $ 50,000. If lobbying efforts are on the agenda in US policy, in any area, and if nothing prevents a politician from receiving a fee for attending a conference, numerous questions arise, however, when these lobbying efforts come to affect the political action at the highest levels and in a way contrary to the national interest. Supporting the cause of the Mojaheddin means in fact risking to repeat an error already committed in the past, namely to focus on groups that present themselves as opposition to an enemy regime and provide them with tools and action space only to find themselves with a destabilized country and a new regime not better than the previous one. Ultimately, the error of interference in the internal affairs of a country in order to change its ideological orientation, voluntarily ignoring the fact that the groups on which it is betting to do so are not considered legitimate by the population of that country, and that any change should derive from an internal political process, not by imposition or destabilization coming from outside.