As Iran’s ruling regime sets about viciously crushing the protests on the streets of Tehran, vowing a “revolutionary confrontation” to silence those who dare to oppose what mounting evidence suggests was a stolen election, it’s tempting to search for an opposition that will respond in kind to the government-sponsored terror. For nearly 30 years that role has been filled by the Mujahedeen-e Khalaq (MEK), also known as the “People’s Mujahedeen,” the Marxist-Islamist militant group that has fought the Mullahs since the 1979 revolution that swept them to power.
In that time, the MEK and its political front, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has cultivated a reputation as the “largest opposition movement against the Iranian regime.” Calling for the overthrow of “the mullahs’ inhuman regime,” the MEK advocates civil liberties, political and religious pluralism, free markets and free elections – in short, everything that the Iran’s theocratic regime stands against. This public relations strategy has borne fruit, and the MEK has been able to convince many in the West – from analysts like Daniel Pipes, to politicians like Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo – that it represents the best option for democratic regime change in Iran. Now, with the regime best by a popular uprising, there are calls once again for the United States to increase its support for the MEK, first of all by removing its name from the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations – a designation that Daniel Pipes calls “preposterous” in the case of the MEK.
But the MEK’s appearance on the list is no mistake, and a change of U.S. policy to support the group would constitute not only a strategic error but also a betrayal of the very values that the free world wishes to triumph in Iran. Everything that can be said of the Iranian regime – its support for terrorism, its abuse of human rights, its ruthless silencing of internal dissent, its fanatical revolutionary agenda – is equally true of the MEK. Notwithstanding its pretensions as a democratic opposition movement, the MEK is terrorist group that cheered the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979; that killed American military and civilian contractors in Tehran; that helped Saddam Hussein put down the Kurdish uprising in the 90s; and that has killed hundreds of civilians. As a review of the MEK’s history shows, those who champion its cause confuse terrorists with freedom fighters.
Although the MEK is today best known for its attacks on the Iranian government, its first targets were American. Between 1972 and 1975, the MEK waged a bombing campaign against American companies and diplomatic offices, justifying the attacks on the grounds that “the main goal now is to free Iran of U.S. imperialism.” When President Nixon visited Iran in 1972, the MEK detonated time bombs at over a dozen sites throughout Tehran, hitting the Iran-American Society, the U.S. information office, and the offices of Pepsi Cola and General Motors. American military and civilian personnel also became targets of MEK terror. In May 1975, MEK guerillas stopped the car of U.S. Air Force Col. Paul Schaeffer and U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jack Turner, as they drove to work on a military base near Tehran. The officers, both unarmed, were gunned down in cold blood. At least four other Americans were assassinated by the MEK between 1973 and 1976.
In keeping with its violently anti-American aims, the MEK supported the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran 1979 and the capture of 66 American hostages. In a communiqué to the Ayatollah Khomeini, then the MEK’s hero and not yet its sworn enemy, the MEK praised the cleric for “rooting out the aggressive, American imperialism of the traitorous Shah” and piously expressed its desire for “the definitive command of the Imam (Khomeini) for uprooting all the imperialist and Zionist foundations.” The MEK did more than offer moral support for the hostage taking. After the seizure of the embassy, MEK guerrillas made a point of standing guard to prevent the freeing of the hostages. Unlikely as it would seem in later years, this alliance between Khomeini and the MEK was rooted in a shared hatred for the United States, a passion summed up by the MEK’s proclamation from the time: “After the Shah, it's America's turn.”
It was not until 1981, after years of devoted allegiance, that the MEK turned against Khomeini and the clerical dictatorship. The reasons for the split had less to do with ideology than power politics: Having failed to gain a foothold in the new regime, the MEK found its influence diminished. In retaliation, it set its sights on the government, launching bombing attacks that killed clerics, ministers, and, inevitably, civilians. The government’s response was no less severe. Relentlessly pursued by official security services, the MEK leadership, headed by Massoud Rajavi (then as now the leader of the MEK, along with his wife Maryam), fled the country for exile in France. By 1986, the group was being pressured to leave France as well, and it was then that the MEK turned to the man who would become its greatest patron: Saddam Hussein.
For the Sunni Ba’athist dictator, reaching out to a radical Shiite group was a matter of convenience: the MEK could be usefully deployed against his archenemy Iran. Thanks to Saddam, the MEK was able to set up military camps in Iraq, and received funds and arms that enabled it to launch occasional but deadly incursions into Iranian territory. The MEK repaid the favor. There is evidence that this organization of supposed “freedom fighters” was complicit in helping Saddam suppress Iraq’s oppressed Kurdish opposition. Kurdish leaders have long charged that the MEK helped Saddam’s forces brutally suppress the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war. Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the current president of Iraq, once told reporters that “5,000 Iranian Mujahedeen joined Saddam's forces in the battle for Kirkuk.” Hundreds of Kurds, including women and children, were killed.
The MEK was equally brutal in dealing with its own internal opposition. In 2005, Human Rights (HRW) watch interviewed former MEK members and found that their testimonies revealed “a grim picture of how the organization treated its members, particularly those who held dissenting opinions or expressed an intent to leave the organization.” Some of these dissidents were imprisoned for years in secret MEK prisons; others were tortured and beaten until they confessed to being spies for the Iranian government; still others were killed during confinement. One dissident, beaten to death by MEK enforcers, was hailed by the group as a “martyr” killed by Iranian intelligence agents. Even those who avoided the worst abuses were forced to engage in Maoist-style self-criticism to test their loyalty to the MEK and its vision of “ideological revolution.”
The MEK’s embrace of such Stalinist tactics was no accident. It was consistent with the fanatical devotion to the MEK demanded by the group’s leadership, the dual personality cult of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi. To take only one recent case, when French police arrested Maryam Rajavi in Paris in 2003, ten MEK members set themselves on fire in protest in several European cities. (Two later died.) It’s hard to square the reality of the MEK – violent, repressive, fanatical – with the democratic face that the organization has presented to its supporters outside of Iran.
It is a testament to the MEK’s public relations campaign in the Western media that its appeals for public support and financial aid have garnered an influential following. It is a measure of the West’s hopes for political change in Iran that it has succeeded in marketing itself as a democratic opposition despite its decidedly undemocratic past. But history is a better guide than hope. The cynical axiom that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may be an appropriate standard for the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. But if the United States truly wants to be on the side of democracy and civil rights in Iran, it must find better allies than the terrorists of the MEK.