By Ben Davies
Lately the Syrian opposition, and to an extent some of their foreign supporters, are clearly comfortable with cosying up to the MEK, an Iranian “opposition” group based in Iraq and Paris.
For some background information, the MEK is led by a charismatic couple, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. Massoud Rajavi led the group since 1975, and was nearly sentenced to death by the Shah of Iran in 1979. Upon his release he carried on his work with the Mujahideen E-Khalq organisation, an Iranian opposition movement based around Twelver Shi’ism (a syncretic faith mixing Zoroastrianim and Persian culture) and Marxism, with a longstanding history of opposition to the Shah. Despite supporting the revolution and being a member of the group since he was 20, he quickly fell out with Khomenei’s new regime after the deposition of the shah. At one point his group was the biggest base of opposition to the regime, and one of his rallies in opposition to it was attended by 200,000 people. It was said that the movement was capable of getting 500,000 people onto the streets at short notice.
His organisation was heavily repressed and expelled from Iran. After being expelled from France for various attacks inside and outside Iran, it took up residence in Saddam’s Iraq with his blessing in 1986, fighting against its own people’s forces during the Iran-Iraq war. The group has stayed in Iran ever since, despite also coming under attack from the air by the US in the 2003 invasion. The leaders are based in France, the majority of the members were based in Iraq.
The support given to the MEK (or rather, the approval that some anti-Assad activists show in its general direction) is down to the fact that since the start of Syrian revolution against the Assad regime in 2011, the group has spiced up its usual monotonous, anti-Iranian regime rhetoric with anti-Assad rhetoric too.
Since they have a social media following (one of the few platforms in which they possess anything remotely resembling a tangible following), and since many of those who support what the MEK ostensibly stand for are those who genuinely believe that the organisation supports the freedom of Iran, their constant articles which trumpet the latest success of the freedom fighters in Syria, posts and tributes to the Syrian people in their struggle against the genocidal Assad regime, and claims that the Syrian and Iranian people are brothers in a struggle against the Khomeneist regime in Tehran (currently led by Ali Khamenei, since Khomenei’s death in 1989) strongly resonate with many. Given the abandonment of the Syrian people by the world, and the fact that Iran has been one of the strongest supporters of the Assad regime and its genocide, this is understandable. In February 2012, Maryam Rajavi (her enigmatic husband Massoud has been in hiding since the invasion of Iraq) gave this well-worded performance:
Let us rise for a moment and applaud the Syrian people for their perseverance and glorious struggle. The eleven-month-long struggle of our Syrian sisters and brothers has become an inspirational model for all the peoples of the region. The formation of units of the Syrian liberation army in various parts of the country speaks to their unwavering determination to achieve freedom.
This shining struggle has turned 2012 into a turning point in the contemporary history of the Middle East because it has targeted the coalition of dictators and religious fascists throughout the region. It is a complete nightmare for Khamenei and his allies. That is why they are directly participating in the killing of the arisen people of Syria. The entire nation of Iran resents this despicable act.
The religious fascism ruling Iran officially welcomed the shameful decision by Russia and China to veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Bashar Assad regime. And, it is actively participating in the killing of the Syrian people through its Quds forces.
On behalf of the Iranian people and Resistance, we condemn Khamenei’s participation in crimes against humanity being committed in Syria, and underscore the need for urgent and practical measures by the international community to protect the defenseless people of Syria.
We must once again ask, what has become of the principle of Responsibility to Protect? What has happened to the international responsibility to protect? Where is the United Nations?
Fine words indeed, especially when they all happen to be true. Syria’s population is indeed suffering from a slaughter of disastrous proportions, and is in dire need of rescue. The fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime and its Da’esh allies looks imminent. Assad knows that he can use Da’esh to frighten the world into backing him, seeing as he’s allegedly opposed to them (despite having repeatedly collaborated with them) and the world remains unable to focus on both Israel and Gaza at once. Syria is in dire straits.
The problem is not with the words. The problem is with who is speaking them. Rajavi is able to so fluently describe the horrors that a sadistic dictatorship puts people through because she runs one herself in the MEK’s base.
The ways in which the mujahideen work are almost identical to the very regimes they ostensibly despise. Yes, they claim to be strongly opposed to Khamenei’s regimein Iran. Yes, they have a history of fighting against it (to the point of self sacrifice all too often), and yes, they claim to strongly support the Syrian revolution. Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the MEK, even met with former SNC leader Ahmed Jarba, and regularly condemns the Assad regime.
Maryam and Massoud literally and metaphorically watch over the lives of their followers.
While it is true that the MEK did indeed start out as an idealistic (and it still is, at the ground level, where many genuinely believe in fighting for Iran) organisation which helped to unseat the repressive regime of the Shah, it degenerated into a dystopic cult, ruled by the two-headed tyranny of the Rajavi couple. Members have been forced into self-criticism sessions in which they are forced to humiliate themselves if they get any thoughts about the opposite sex, men and women have been forced to divorce if they are married (although this didn’t stop Maryam and Massoud from getting together of course), members are taught that they must give themselves over utterly to Maryam and Masoud, dissenting members are imprisoned and killed… All manner of horror stories have emerged from their Jonestown-esque hovel of conformity, machines, and enslavement, as journalist Elizabeth Rubin found out when she visited them in 2003:
But despite its rhetoric, the Mujahedeen operates like any other dictatorship. Mujahedeen members have no access to newspapers or radio or television, other than what is fed them. As the historian Abrahamian told me, ”No one can criticize Rajavi.” And everyone must go through routine self-criticism sessions. ”It’s all done on tape, so they have records of what you say. If there’s sign of resistance, you’re considered not revolutionary enough, and you need more ideological training. Either people break away or succumb.”
Salahaddin Mukhtadi, an Iranian historian in exile who still maintains communications with the Mujahedeen because it is the strongest armed opposition to the Iranian regime, told me that Mujahedeen members ”are locked up if they disagree with anything. And sometimes killed.”
Afshari, who fled the group 10 years ago, told me how friendship was forbidden. No two people could sit alone and talk together, especially about their former lives. Informants were planted everywhere. It was Maryam’s idea to kill emotional relationships. ”She called it ‘drying the base,”’ Afshari said. ”They kept telling us every one of your emotions should be channeled toward Massoud, and Massoud equals leadership, and leadership equals Iran.” The segregation of the sexes began almost from toddlerhood. ”Girls were not allowed to speak to boys. If they were caught mingling, they were severely punished.”
Though Maryam and Massoud finagled it so they could be together, they forced everyone else into celibacy. ”They told us, ‘We are at war, and soldiers cannot have wives and husbands,”’ Afshari said. ”You had to report every single day and confess your thoughts and dreams. They made men say they got erections when they smelled the perfume of a woman.” Men and women had to participate in ”weekly ideological cleansings,” in which they would publicly confess their sexual desires. It was not only a form of control but also a means to delete all remnants of individual thought.
Rajavi sheds crocodile tears for oppressed Syrians, whilst oppressing her own fellow Iranian MEK members.
Rajavi sheds crocodile tears for oppressed Syrians, whilst oppressing her own fellow Iranian MEK members.
Towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Massoud Rajavi desperately tried to grab power. The once-popular Iranian opposition leader-turned-turncoat had got a taste for control, and developed a nasty habit of utilising it to the full (at the expense of his members). With the full backing of Saddam’s jets, the Rajavis got their members to launch a suicidal attack on Iranian territory (“Operation Eternal Light”) involving 7000 MEK militants attacking their own territory under the facade of the “National Liberation Army of Iran”. The mujahideen ransacked and destroyed the Iranian towns of Sarpol-e Zahab, Islamabad-e-Gharb, and Qasr-e Shirin, supported by Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks.
Due to either appalling tactical thinking (or because Massoud genuinely believed they could take Tehran) they advanced beyond their air cover. The Iranian counterattack may have resulted in as many as 4000 of them being wiped out, and Khomenei massacred up to 30,000 imprisoned activists in reprisal attacks (many of them MEK members).
During the post-gulf war 1991 uprisings against Saddam’s tyranny, Saddam ordered the MEK to help him to crush Shiites and Kurds. Maryam Rajavi infamously told her followers: “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards”. Most of the group’s members left (“escaped” is the correct term) in disillusion, and the organisation reached new lows in order to raise the numbers in their ranks once again.
It began to pray on vulnerable Iranian dissidents, both those who fled the Khomenei regime, and those who lived abroad. To get them to join, they prayed on their fears and hopes; Masoud Rajavi in particular is said to have an excellent understanding of human psychology, and knew how to play on the hopes and fears of so many destitute souls. The MEK has also imprisoned and tortured many of their own dissidents, and may still continue to do so, for merely expressing any form of dissent.
Do the MEK have any support in the west, you ask? Yes, from an array of enemies of the Iranian regime in the west (mainly in the form of US politicians and lawmakers of the neoconservative inclination) who are willing to be friends with them on the basis that they are the enemy of their enemies, and so must surely be their friends. In the words of Jamal Abdi, this has helped them to “deflect attention away from the MEK’s shadowy practices and human rights abuses in Ashraf”. The Iraqi army, at the behest of Iran, has repeatedly attacked MEK members in Asharaf prior to their resettlement in Camp Hurriya in 2012, brutally murdering tens of MEK members. Yet instead of finding a genuine solution to help their members, Rajavi used their deaths as sob stories in order to gain more support and resources, while actually doing nothing to help her captives whatsoever.
In 1997 the administration of President Bill Clinton had designated the MEK (and rightfully so) as a terrorist organisation in an attempt to appease the Iranian government. Not out of humanity, but out of expediency. A whole array of notable US government figures and personalities from across the spectrum have endorsed the MEK, seemingly either turning a blind eye to their atrocious acts, or not even bothering to do their homework. As Elizabeth Rubin again reported in 2011, they have no shortage of notable individuals singing their undeserved praises:
A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from an acquaintance with the subject line: Have you seen the video everyone is talking about?
I clicked play, and there was Howard Dean, on March 19 in Berlin, at his most impassioned, extolling the virtues of a woman named Maryam Rajavi and insisting that America should recognize her as the president of Iran.
Mr. Dean’s speech stunned me. But then came Rudolph W. Giuliani saying virtually the same thing. At a conference in Paris last December, an emotional Mr. Giuliani told Ms. Rajavi, “These are the most important yearnings of the human soul that you support, and for your organization to be described as a terrorist organization is just simply a disgrace.” I thought I was watching The Onion News Network. Did Mr. Giuliani know whom he was talking about?
Evidently not. In fact, an unlikely chorus of the group’s backers — some of whom have received speaking fees, others of whom are inspired by their conviction that the Iranian government must fall at any cost — have gathered around Mujahedeen Khalq at conferences in capitals across the globe.
This group of luminaries includes two former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, Gens. Hugh H. Shelton and Peter Pace; Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO commander; Gen. James L. Jones, who was President Obama’s national security adviser; Louis J. Freeh, the former F.B.I. director; the former intelligence officials Dennis C. Blair and Michael V. Hayden; the former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson; the former attorney general Michael B. Mukasey, and Lee H. Hamilton, a former congressman who was co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
Indeed, the Rajavis and Mujahedeen Khalq are spending millions in an attempt to persuade the Obama administration, and in particular Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to take them off the national list of terrorist groups, where the group was listed in 1997. Delisting the group would enable it to lobby Congress for support in the same way that the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 allowed the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi to do.
Mrs. Clinton should ignore their P.R. campaign. Mujahedeen Khalq is not only irrelevant to the cause of Iran’s democratic activists, but a totalitarian cult that will come back to haunt us.
Mrs Clinton unfortunately did not ignore it, and the MEK was duly delisted in September 2012. Now more money can flood the coffers of this suffocating cult, and add to the gloom and misery of the members, some 500 of which promptly defected as soon as US troops showed up in Iraq, the fact that they now have greater chances of escape is at least something to be thankful for. Although such was the extent of the brainwashing of the Rajavis, that the defectors had to be protected from reprisals from the other nearby prisoners.
I would personally very much like to know what Ahmed Jarba, then head of the Syrian National Coalition, was thinking when he met with Rajavi in May 2014. What was he hoping to achieve? Did he think that such a meeting would give his unpopular, disorganised, and so far ineffective coalition some sort of clout? Did he imagine that he would gain access to their bottomless pits of pecuniary resources? Was he naively trying to establish some perverse form of solidarity with the Iranian people through this organisation? In short, was he as heartless or thoughtless as the group’s western backers seemingly are?
If he was seeking any of these things, he will be disappointed. Far from bringing him any clout, meeting with the MEK can only earn derision and disdain from the majority of well-informed, sane, non-fraudulent pro-democracy activists, Iranian and otherwise. As one US state department official frankly admitted about the group: “They are the best financed and organized, but they are so despised inside Iran that they have no traction.” Such a meeting only lends ammunition to pro-Khamenei propagandists, which they can use to smear the Syrian opposition by mere association with the Rajavi death cult.
It isn’t like he could gain any form of useful resources or funding from such a meeting either. All the MEK’s money, when it isn’t being used to enable Maryam to live in luxury far from her suffering followers in the baked Iraqi desert, is used for endless lobbying in the west. Running a PR machine for a Middle Eastern 21st century Marxist cell cum Heaven’s Gate Sect takes up a lot of money, after all. He isn’t going to see a penny of it.
If he was seeking to establish solidarity with the Iranian people, then he’d come to the wrong place altogether. Iranians despise the MEK; not only did it fight against their young men in the Iran-Iraq war and kill so many of its fellow Iranians, but it deliberately fed Saddam Hussein’s regime intelligence on Iranian targets to bomb, costing the lives of thousands more. The MEK has also teamed up with Israel to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. I’m as opposed to the Iranian regime as anyone with a sense of humanity, to say nothing of a potentially nuclear Iranian regime, but if you want to forge a sense of solidarity with the oppressed in Tehran… Don’t do it by forging solidarity with the oppressor in Camp Hurriya.
In addition, if the neocons think that they’ll get anywhere in toppling the Iranian regime via this cult (especially since Obama is cosying up to it these days), they’re sadly mistaken. To ask the Iranian people to accept them as their rulers would be like telling Norwegians to forgive Vidkun Quisling and shut up already.
Syrian revolution activists, freedom advocates and opposition members should think carefully when it comes to the MEK. Yes it claims to support you in its finely crafted words and rhetoric, yes it does fill its websites with news of the resistance fighters’ military successes, and yet it has a history of fighting the regime in Tehran… By killing and fighting against its own people.
Asking the MEK help in attaining freedom is like asking Stormfront members to campaign for Jewish civil rights. The only thing the Assad clique does that the Rajavi duo doesn’t is genocide. In fact, GENUINE Iranian pro-democracy activists were already thinking that they would have been the Khmer Rouge of Iran as early as 1986, had Massoud Rajavi been given the chance.
Exactly like Bashar’s regime, it has a history of advocating for freedom for everyone but those it rules over, it is a sworn enemy of free expression and thought in all but name, it murders all those who dare to dissent against it… In addition, just as portraits of the blood soaked eye doctor stare down on you from every street of Damascus, the piercing blue eyes of Maryam and Massoud greet the brow-beaten worker bees in the Iraqi desert every day. Evil should never be parried with evil.