The Mujahedin-e Khalq delisting and its consequences

October 1, 2012 in Analysis

On Friday 28 September 2012, The US State Department formally revoked the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designation of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK):

“The Secretary of State has decided, consistent with the law, to revoke the designation of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and its aliases as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) under the Immigration and Nationality Act and to delist the MEK as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224. These actions are effective today. Property and interests in property in the United States or within the possession or control of U.S. persons will no longer be blocked, and U.S. entities may engage in transactions with the MEK without obtaining a license.”

In delisting the MEK, the Obama State Department made it clear that it was not doing so out of warm feelings toward the group, and noted “serious concerns”:

“With today’s actions, the Department does not overlook or forget the MEK’s past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil in 1992. The Department also has serious concerns about the MEK as an organization, particularly with regard to allegations of abuse committed against its own members.”

Whether the Obama administration likes this decision or not, its ripples could have serious consequences for the Iranian opposition in exile, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and potentially US-Iran relations.

The Mujahedin-e Khalq: A short history

The MEK’s history can be divided into a number of distinct phases. The organization was originally founded by a group of university graduates, Mohammad Hanifnejad, Saeed Mohsen, and Ali-Asghar Badizadegan, in 1965. Espousing an ideology which attempted to fuse Marxism with political Islam, the organization (like many during this period) advocated the use of guerrilla warfare to violently overthrow the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979), which it viewed as being a lackey of the United States and highly repressive and corrupt domestically.

The group was soon accused of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of a number of Americans alongside acts of domestic terrorism. Brutally repressed by the Pahlavi regime, in 1975 MEK members in prison soon turned on each other in a bloody schism that resulted in the creation of two distinct groups: One which continued the legacy of the original MEK and another which advocated a turn to Marxism, calling itself Peykar. Both groups emerged from prison during a general amnesty in 1979 to take part in the revolution, although Peykar did not long survive the revolutionary upheaval. The MEK’s successor, retaining the organization’s original name and now under the leadership of Massoud Rajavi , became popular during the revolution because of the way it captured and combined the leftist and Islamist spirit of the times. With the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty, Islamists under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini quickly turned on the opposition. The MEK put up a tenacious and violent resistance but was repressed by 1981.

After moving into exile abroad, the MEK took what would become perhaps its most controversial decision in September 1981: The organization began mustering a military unit, the National Liberation Army (NLA), and sided with the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) against the Islamic Republic. From bases inside Iraq, the NLA is alleged to have cooperated with the Iraqi military on intelligence and conducted its own ill-fated incursion into Iranian territory in Operation Eternal Light. Some maintain that this decision ended any popular support that the organization had left inside Iran. Operation Eternal Light in particular was used by the Islamic Republic as a propaganda tool to justify the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.

In the years immediately following the war, the organization consolidated itself into an armed branch in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, and a political branch based in Paris, France, with smaller political sub-branches across the West. As the Islamic Republic began normalizing relations with the outside world during the 1990s, especially under Reformist president Mohammad Khatami, the MEK increasingly found itself under attack in its diaspora outposts and was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union. This resulted, among other things, in a French police raid in 2003 which arrested but eventually released some of the group’s most senior leadership, including the MEK’s president-elect Maryam Rajavi. Nonetheless, the group sustained its vehement opposition to the Islamic Republic and continued to be linked to attacks and assassinations targeting the regime. It was during this period that the group is accused of aiding Saddam in suppressing Shi’a and Kurdish uprisings as well as using “cult-like” practices to keep its own members in line.

The election of Republican president George W. Bush in 2000 and 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks once again changed the MEK’s fortunes, this time for the better. While the 2002 invasion of Iraq deprived the MEK of its military branch, the Bush administration’s policy of regime change toward Iran meant the group was well placed to receive American government support in its opposition activities. Sy Hersh has alleged that during this period the group’s supporters received training from US special forces to conduct operations inside of Iran, and rumors of strong ties with the Israeli Mossad abound. At the same time, MEK affiliates publicly revealed the existence of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in 2002 and are believed to potentially be involved in the assassination and attempted assassination of at least four Iranian nuclear scientists since 2010.

With its military branch effectively incapacitated, the MEK has spent recent years attempting to get itself off terrorist lists in the US and EU, and was successful in doing so through a well-funded and multi-faceted campaign that resulted in it being delisted in the EU in January 2009 and delisted in the US on 28 September. Its campaign in the US included the bi-partisan support of such Democratic and Republican luminaries as ex-presidential candidate Howard Dean and ex-speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Delisting: Important consequences

The nature of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, and specifically two of its key characteristics, mean that the recent delisting could have important consequences for the Iranian opposition in exile, the Islamic Republic, and perhaps even US-Iran relations.

First, the MEK has been one of the most consistently anti-Islamic Republic opposition groups in exile. While the rise of the Reform movement, including the Second Khordad Movement in 1997 and Green Movement in 2009, led many opposition groups in exile (ranging from monarchists to leftists) to at least consider the possibility of positive change in Iran through gradual political reform and compromise with the regime, the MEK stuck to its regime-change guns. Going forward, this could help give the MEK enormous credibility as a consistently anti-regime force. Already for some time now Neoconservatives and other advocates of regime-change toward Iran have looked to the MEK as an alternative to the current regime.

Second, the MEK is very likely the most well organized Iranian opposition group in exile. Founded and maintained along paramilitary lines, the MEK has a well-established chain of command capable of simultaneously organizing and directing thousands of members across North America and the European Union. Anyone who has been to Iranian political rallies in the West knows the imposing figure they cut: Legion in number, color coordinated, with professional signs and flags, all marching to a single tune. While the group likely has very limited support inside Iran and perhaps not even a plurality among Iranians living abroad, its discipline and high level of organization mean that it is the most potent force among the Iranian opposition in exile.

The recent decision by the State Department may mark the beginning of an interesting new phase for the MEK. As part of the delisting process, the MEK had to agree to the closing of Camp Ashraf and the relocation of the camps over 3,000 MEK members to Camp Liberty, from which they will be resettled across the globe. At the same time, the delisting now allows the group to operate openly in the most powerful country in the world. Mustering its reputation as a consistently anti-Islamic Republic force and its organizational prowess, the MEK is poised to establish itself as one of the most powerful Iranian lobby group in Washington and thereby transform the Iranian opposition space through polarization. Iranian opposition groups may have to make a choice which they were able to put off as long as the Reform movement seemed viable inside Iran and no single opposition group in exile could establish hegemony. They may have to choose between joining the regime-change agenda or reconciling with the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian government for its part, finding a deeply hated enemy in a new position of power to lobby against its interests in Washington, may in turn be induced to reach out to segments of the opposition in exile in order to prevent the large and potentially powerful Iranian diaspora from being monopolized by the MEK’s agenda. This may be especially critical if a future American president decides to once again back a policy of regime change toward the Islamic Republic. In such a scenario the MEK and its allies would be well placed to seize power on the back of US military might. Regardless, this could also be a new source of tension in US-Iran relations.

A less likely scenario is that the MEK would attempt to seize power through a popular movement  inside Iran. While the organization is very well organized and highly disciplined, it is very likely unpopular among both ordinary people inside Iran and the Iranian diaspora. Whether rightly or wrongly, the MEK is seen by many as treasonous because of its association with Saddam Hussein and is regarded antagonistically due to its cult-like and militaristic public image. As such, the group’s attempt to distance itself from its Islamic-Marxist roots and portray itself as an advocate of democracy and human rights has been greeted with suspicion. Given the new circumstances however, this too may change over time. For example, if an Iraq-style US military backed regime change in Iran appears unlikely, the MEK may attempt to transform itself into a popular political party. Granted, this would require a significant public “makeover” as much of the groups cadres, symbols, and its very organizational structure and style appear to be something out of the 1960s and 70s. Is it up to the challenge?

Stranger things have happened in politics. If the MEK has proven anything, it is that it can adapt to even the harshest of circumstances. As the MEK approaches its 50th anniversary and its leaders look back over nearly five decades of guerrilla combat, imprisonment, revolution, war, and exile, such questions are likely to weigh heavily on them.

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