On June 17, when French police arrested 165 reported members of exiled Iranian military group Mujaheddin e-Khalq (MEK), including the wife of its charismatic leader, they further convoluted the group's role in regional politics. Some in US President George W. Bush's administration hope to groom the Iraq-based group as a proxy force against the hard-line Iranian government. Others, citing the group's long alliance with Saddam Hussein, mistrust the group as much as the French do.
In the roughly two months since the United States signed a ceasefire with the group, divisions within the Bush administration over its usefulness have clarified. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. The State Department, which has officially labeled MEK a terrorist organization, has argued that MEK's reputation and tactics run counter to Bush's desired outcomes in Iran and could subvert deals proposed to the Iranian government in January. But many Bush advisors apparently want to use MEK as a pressure point on the regime.
Recent street protests are embattling Iran's ruling clerics, while tensions regarding Iran's purported nuclear arms program figure to make American policy more confrontational. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on June 17 that the United States would support "peaceful demonstrations" by "the young people of Iran." Meanwhile, many MEK fighters are reportedly interned in Iraq's Camp Ashraf, near Khales, under protection of Americans and their allies, with heavy equipment stored near Fallujah. These fighters could tip Iran's political balance.
Formed by Muslim children of clergymen and bazaar merchants in the 1960's, MEK increasingly adopted an ideology mixing radical Islam and Maoism and modeled its activities after the urban guerilla organizations of Latin America. According to Iran-Interlink, a London-based group seeking aid for disaffected former MEK members, the group made its first terror attack in 1971, killing six American civil and military advisors. In the ensuing crackdown, the Shah's secret police caught most members and imposed death sentences on almost the entire central committee. Massoud Rajavi survived the 1979 revolution and rebuilt MEK as a magnet for radical young Muslims.
As the new religious government turned more repressive, MEK became a principal platform for protest. In June 1981, Rajavi decreed a nationwide uprising and assassination campaign, which failed. Many observers call the uprising the moment when undemocratic elements conquered Iran's state machinery. In 1986, Rajavi moved his decimated organization to Iraq, which was fighting a bloody war with Iran. The MEK survived by targeting Iranian leaders for assassination, sharing intelligence with Saddam Hussein's regime, and preparing its 6,000-member army for a return to Iran.
This turbulent history makes the MEK potentially explosive in regional affairs. Already, reformists in Iran's government have signaled strong distaste for MEK. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi reportedly said in April that a rumored deal promising American support for the group would "increase our pessimism and qualm towards America." A few weeks later, the Bush administration reportedly decided to press for MEK's surrender, in light of a reported deal offered in January by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. The deal would have made MEK a focus of American antiterrorist efforts in exchange for Iran's blessing of the Iraq invasion. It never happened.
Most Iranians despise Rajavi for siding with Saddam Hussein during his nine-year war with Iran. The European Union has also labeled the group a terrorist organization. To Bush administration hawks who see little reason to support President Mohammed Khatami, though, the MEK might look like a potent tool against Iran's fundamentalist rulers. The group has formidable fighting and intelligence-gathering credentials proven in Saddam Hussein's service during the first Gulf War. According to a spokesman from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Iraq used the MEK to brutally suppress uprisings in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish north. "These people took their orders from the Mukhabarat [Saddam's feared secret police]," the spokesman told EurasiaNet. "They committed major crimes against our people. They are not welcome in our country."
Beyond its links to Iraq and reported use of terrorist tactics, the MEK may be too unorthodox for the Bush administration to support. A Wall Street Journal reporter who visited MEK bases in 1994 wrote of forced indoctrination, children being held "hostage" from their parents, beatings and total isolation from the outside world. Ervand Abrahamian, professor of history at Baruch College and author of six books on Iran's fundamentalists and mujaheddin, compares the MEK with personality cults like the Moonies. The MEK "combines the excesses of religious cults with those of personality cults," Abrahamian told EurasiaNet. "It would be enough for Rajavi to say that he had an epiphany in which it was revealed to him that the earth was flat or the tenets of Islam were in desperate need of change for his followers to believe him." One former MEK member, who requested anonymity, has written a 1000-page monograph explaining that MEK members decreed Rajavi's wife Maryam "President-Elect of Iran" because only she could presumably interpret Rajavi's divinely-inspired words correctly.
Yet MEK has charmed major politicians in Western countries to a remarkable degree, sometimes powering campaign contributions. In April, US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who chairs the Central Asia and Middle East Subcommittee of the House of Representatives' Foreign Relations Committee, insisted that the group was "assisting us in the war on terrorism" to the Hill, a Capitol Hill newsletter. She also reportedly showed a letter of support for the group signed by 150 colleagues. This attitude may wane, though. Representative Bob Ney (R-Ohio), a strident Iraq hawk, recently attacked MEK in a letter to the same newsletter.
Rajavi may be attempting to seize the chance to posit his group as an American ally. Iran-Interlink publicized a June 12 message from Rajavi that he reportedly couched in pro-democratic language. "We ask most respectfully of whoever wants to support the Iranian people, their demonstrations, their demands and the struggle of the students, to look again at Iran's recent history and the historical place of Rajavi and his cult in the past twenty years," the report on this message read.
Rajavi and two other unidentified leaders are reportedly currently being debriefed by an American-led coalition team somewhere in Iraq. Iran-Interlink head Anne Singleton says there are 300 MEK fighters in Western cities, trying to burnish the group's image. If France sees dangerous signs within its borders, the brewing confrontation between Iran and the United States could touch off broader dangers.
Ardeshir S. Moaveni is the pseudonym for an Iranian journalist.