Strange road to Albania
Yassamine Mather looks at the Mojahedin-e Khalq cult backed by Trump’s national security advisor
As Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, took office on April 9, the world press, including sections of US media, have been speculating on his relationship with Iran’s Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation. As always, some of the information about this group is inaccurate or out of date. I will attempt to give a chronological record of their history and more recent activities.
When the MEK was set up in 1965 in opposition to the Shah’s pro-Western dictatorship, the group’s initial ideas were firmly based on Islamic-liberation ideology. In the following 10 years, they were involved in a number of armed operations that killed, or was aimed at killing, American military personnel in Iran. Nowadays MEK deny that history and blame all military operations on a ‘breakaway’ organisation, MEK (Marxist- Leninist)/Peykar, that actually only came into existence in 1975.
MEK (ML), later Peykar, was founded in October 1975 when a number of MEK leaders who had not been imprisoned voted to accept Marxism and declared the organisation Marxist-Leninist. A pamphlet entitled Manifesto on ideological issues described the new position: “After 10 years of secret existence, four years of armed struggle, and two years of intense ideological rethinking, we reached the conclusion that Marxism, not Islam, was the true revolutionary philosophy.”1
The Islamic faction became increasingly conservative and looked for alliances with the Shia clergy, including ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile at the time.
Mujtabi Taleqani, son of senior ayatollah Taleqani, was one of the MEK who “converted” to Marxism. Hossein Ruhani was another prominent Peykar member. He became a candidate for the Islamic parliament after the revolution and exposed for the first time that MEK negotiated with Khomeini. At the time his claim caused a lot of controversy for both the Islamic government and the MEK. Peykar was one of the first groups of the radical left who had opposed Khomeini, calling him a “mediaeval obscurantist” and his regime “fascistic and reactionary”.
Religious MEK supported Khomeini and the Islamic government after the uprising of February 1979. Their policies included support for the Islamic Republic’s military intervention in Kurdistan, and the takeover of the US embassy. However the organisation’s leader, Massoud Rajavi, was barred from standing in the country’s first presidential election and this was a turning point.
According to historian Ervand Abrahamian: “By late 1980, the Mojahedin was brazenly accusing Khomeini’s entourage, especially the IRP, of “monopolizing power”, “hijacking” the revolution, trampling over “democratic rights”, and plotting to set up a “fascistic” one-party dictatorship. By early 1981, the authorities had closed down Mojahedin offices, outlawed their newspapers, banned their demonstrations, and issued arrest warrants for some of their leaders; in short they had forced the organization underground...”2
In the summer of 1981 Islamic authorities in Tehran attacked supporters of the MEK after anti-government demonstrations in major Iranian cities, and the leadership of the organisation fled to Baghdad and Paris, where they set up the National Council of Resistance, with the Islamic Republic’s deposed president Bani Sadr.
They were also welcomed in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who, in the middle of a war with Iran, was seeking new alliances with the Iranian opposition. From Iraq MEK launched an armed struggle to topple the Islamic Republic, claiming responsibility for the assassination of several high-profile figures.
During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), they carried out a number of military operations in western Iran, acts that were coordinated with the Ba’athists in Baghdad. These operations were considered treachery by Iranians, including those opposed to the Islamic Republic. MEK lost a lot of support after the last of these military incursions. Operation Eternal Light took place in July 1988 at the end of the war, with air support provided by Iraq.
They subsequently supported Saddam Hussein up to and during the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.
So far MEK’s story is not different from that of other exiled military groups seeking an alliance with the enemies of their country’s rulers. What distinguishes MEK, and what has led to them being called a ‘cult’, were the series of events that started in 1985. The group’s leader Massoud Rajavi decided to marry Maryam Azdanlou, who was already married to one of his close associates, Mehdi Abrishamchi. She divorced her husband in order to marry Rajavi. In an organisation that had strong Shia views, many MEK members in Iraq expressed anger and rebelled. The leadership’s response was to claim that the marriage was a ‘cultural revolution’ - Massoud Rajavi claimed he and Maryam would be equal leaders. Again. according to historian Ervand Abrahamian:
Rajavi said he was emulating the prophet - Muhammad - who had married his adopted son’s wife to show he could overcome conventional morality. It smacked of blasphemy. Rajavi liked having women around him and overhauled the command structure to replace the men with women - this time calling it a ‘constitutional revolution’. It was also politically astute and added alluring spice for their public-relations campaign in the West.3
Discontent continued in the ranks, and that is when the leadership organised ‘mass divorce ceremonies’, culminating in 1990 when, according to former high ranking MEK member Massoud Bani Sadr, Rajavi declared: “All members must divorce their spouses”. Bani Sadr added: "My own wife had already left the group by then. All members accepted these terms, and it [applied to] everyone except the leader and his (third) wife Maryam. In a single day, everyone became celibate.”4
Other reports suggest some members were encouraged to marry new partners while others were told they should “forget about personal relationships and dedicate their life to the cause”.
In the 1990s there were other accounts of cult-like behaviour from members who managed to escape the group’s bases in Iraq. According to Nadereh Ashrafi, a former member of MEK: “Every morning and night, the kids, beginning as young as one and two, had to stand before a poster of Massoud and Maryam, salute them and shout praises to them.”5
Many were held in the camp’s prisons for disobeying the leadership. Others escaped, writing and speaking of the dreadful situation inside the camps. After the collapse of Saddam, the group was disarmed by the US army and eventually relocated to camp Liberty, a former US military base near Baghdad. Initially they had to be surrounded by US troops, partly for their own protection. MEK members were rightly fearful for their lives, as successive Iraqi governments close to Iran’s Shia leadership were threatening to deport members of the group to Tehran.
That is when the group started its lobbying activities, some say funded by Saudi money, first to reverse US classification of their organisation as a ‘terrorist’ group and later to present themselves as a serious opposition group.
Between 2003 and 2011 they won the support of former CIA directors, R James Woolsey and Porter J Goss; a former FBI director, Louis J Freeh; a former attorney general, Michael B Mukasey; president George W Bush’s first homeland security chief, Tom Ridge; president Obama’s first national security adviser, general James L Jones; big-name Republicans like the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Democrats like the former Vermont governor Howard Dean; and former top counter-terrorism official of the state department, Dell L Dailey - not to forget John Bolton.
American ‘supporters’ of MEK are well rewarded. They are recruited through agencies and they get paid at least $10,000 to $50,000 for speeches delivered at the organisation’s gatherings in Paris.
Eventually, in 2012, after extensive lobbying, the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton removed the group from the list of designated terrorist organisations. A year later an agreement was signed between the Albanian government and the Obama administration, paving the way for the transfer of the few hundred remaining MEK members from Iraq to Albania. By the summer of 2016 all MEK members had been moved out of Iraq.
In Albania, where it occupies a block near the town of Manez previously owned by a private university, the group has kept a low profile, partly because their presence is not welcomed by local residents.
Now that Bolton has taken up his post as national security adviser, his connection and association with MEK has once again drawn attention to what most Iranians consider to be a ‘loony cult’. The US press warns that Bolton might use his position to funnel misinformation from the MEK regarding Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missiles. The group is well known for exaggerating the Islamic Republic’s military capabilities. Others worry that Bolton will use his position to give more prominence to MEK in Washington’s corridors of power.
However the reality is that MEK is not taken seriously by most Iranians inside and outside the country. Sections of the US press warn of similarities between MEK, in proposed regime change plans, and Chalabi, who was Dick Cheney’s choice as a replacement for Saddam, immediately before the occupation of Iraq, in 2003. But surely even Bolton cannot seriously imgine that MEK is fit to govern a post-regime change Iran.