The Cult of MEK

The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is in the news again. Images of Newt Gingrich bowing to the Iranian dissident group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, after speaking to MEK members at a Paris rally, and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page’s unauthorized, paid speech at the same event have brought renewed attention to the MEK’s expensive (and possibly illegal) lobbying operation in Washington. 

Gingrich and Page aren’t the only high-profile figures the MEK has enlisted in its bid to get off the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. The group has persuaded a number of onetime officials, including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security Adviser Francis Fragos Townsend, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, to argue its case.  These public figures have taken money, in some cases more than $30,000 per speech, to speak on the group’s behalf. As a result, the U.S. Treasury Department has begun to look into the fees, because, according to the Supreme Court, “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization” constitutes the federal crime of “material support of terrorism.” The speakers have also failed to register as lobbyists under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and there is an increasing push for criminal investigations. 

As it turns out, however, many of the public figures openly admit that they did not know much about the MEK when they agreed to attend the events. Many were invited by suspected MEK front groups with names such as the Organizing Committee for Convention for Democracy in Iran and the Iranian American Community of North Texas, and they approached the ex-officials through their agents. Former chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton, who also spoke in support of the MEK, told The New York Times, “I don’t know a lot about the group.” Clarence Page told ProPublica that he thought he was giving a talk on promoting democracy and regime change in Iran.  

Accidentally or not, though, the speakers were helping to raise the profile and legitimize the aims of a cult group that will not bring democracy to Iran and has no popular support in the country. And while the latest news stories on the MEK highlight its immediate goal of getting off the terrorist list, they miss the group’s real aim: to have the United States install the MEK as Iran’s new government. That would mean war. The MEK may deny wanting violent regime change, but the only conceivable way it could become the next government in Tehran would be at the head of a U.S. invasion force.

Once upon a time, the MEK did enjoy some measure of popular support in Iran. But after getting shoved aside by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s party after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the MEK spent the next two decades launching terrorist attacks against the new regime and its military, harming bystanders in several instances. The MEK joined sides with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), moving to camps in Iraq in 1986 and fighting against Iranian conscripts. Frustrated that Saddam failed to install it in power in Tehran by the end of the war, the MEK attempted its own invasion of Iran (using more of Saddam Hussein’s military munificence), resulting in the death of thousands of its members. These acts destroyed the MEK’s credibility among Iranians.  Trapped in the Iraqi desert, the group’s leaders transformed the MEK into a cult after the failed invasion—engaging in such practices as mandated divorce and celibacy, sleep deprivation, public shaming, separation of families, and information control—and continued its terrorist attacks in Iran. 

Now the MEK, through its Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, has ramped up its public-relations campaign to convince the outside world that it is the biggest Iranian opposition group, one dedicated to the values of Western liberal democracy. (It just happens to have a parliament-in-waiting and a president-elect—Rajavi, of course.) To bolster its case, the MEK inflames fears of a nuclear Iran, consistently claiming that the country has an ongoing nuclear-weapons program, notwithstanding the opposite, unanimous opinion of U.S., European, and Israeli officials and the Iranian supreme leader’s fatwa against building one. 

It remains to be seen if the MEK’s costly lobbying campaign will pay off. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has until October 1 to decide whether to keep the MEK on the foreign terrorist organization list; otherwise, a federal court will automatically delist it. That’s just a few short weeks before the presidential election. Republican candidate Mitt Romney claimed in December that he had never heard of the MEK.  Nevertheless, he is using the question of Iranian nukes—kept in the public eye by the MEK and its shills—in a desperate effort to make President Barack Obama look weak on national-security issues. Romney has also surrounded himself with a hawkish national-security team that includes several MEK supporters, such as Bush administration veterans like former U.N. Representative John Bolton, who believes that engagement with Tehran is “delusional” and that “the only real alternative to a nuclear Iran is pre-emptive military force”—the sooner the better.  Bolton’s writings suggest that he hopes that the so-called P5+1 talks over Iran’s nuclear program will fail. (The next round of negotiations is next week.)

But the MEK’s supporters and other hawks who insist on wanting regime change in Iran need to understand that, in this case, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. The MEK is a bad ally. It has been a bad ally in peace, and it would be a bad ally in war and reconstruction. Aligning ourselves with the MEK would undermine any attempt at credibility among Iranians because it would make us look like dupes. The public figures who have spoken in support of the MEK are dangerously mistaken when they describe the group as “a force for good, and the best hope we have” (Rendell) and “a massive worldwide movement for liberty in Iran” (Gingrich). On the contrary, this deceptive foreign cult is pouring millions of dollars into an effort to steer the United States toward war.

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