People's Mujahedin of Iran
|People's Mojahedin Organization
سازمان مجاهدين خلق ايران
|Founded||September 5, 1965|
|Headquarters|| Paris, France
Camp Liberty, Iraq
|Official Website of the MEK|
|Politics of Iran
The People's Mojahedin of Iran or the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK, also PMOI, MKO; Persian: سازمان مجاهدين خلق ايران sāzmān-e mojāhedin-e khalq-e irān) is an Iranian leftist revolutionary organization that participated in the 1979 Revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi Shah. Following the conflict with Ayatollah Khomeini MEK started an open war and most of its members fled abroad. It is now an opposition movement in exile, that advocates the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Founded on September 5, 1965 by a group of left-leaning Muslim Iranian university students as an Islamic and Marxist political mass movement, the MEK was originally devoted to armed struggle against the Shah of Iran and its supporters. In the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the MEK and the Tudeh Party at first chose to side with the clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini against the liberals, nationalists and other moderate forces within the revolution. A power struggle ensued, and by mid-1981, MEK was fighting street battles against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. During the Iran–Iraq War, the group was given refuge by Saddam Hussein and mounted attacks on Iran from within Iraqi territory.
The group renounced violence in 2001 and today it is the main component organization of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an "umbrella coalition" calling itself the "parliament-in-exile dedicated to a democratic, secular and coalition government in Iran." While the MEK's leadership has resided in Paris, France, the group's core members were for many years confined to Camp Ashraf in Iraq, and "were disarmed in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and are said to have adhered to a ceasefire." The group's remaining 3,200 members were recently compelled to move to ex-U.S. military base Camp Liberty. The MEK/NCRI is thought to have provided the United States with intelligence on Iran's nuclear program in 2002 and 2008.
Iraq and Iran designate the MEK as a terrorist organization. The European Union, Canada and the United States formerly listed the MEK as a terrorist organization, but this designation has since been lifted, first by the Council of the European Union in January 26, 2009 (following what the group called a “seven-year-long legal and political battle”), then by a decision by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on September 21, 2012 and lastly by a decision by the Canadian government on December 20, 2012.
- 1 Other names
- 2 Membership
- 3 History
- 3.1 Before the Islamic Revolution
- 3.2 After the Revolution
- 3.3 Ideology
- 3.4 Bombings and armed conflict with the Islamic government
- 3.5 Relations with France in the mid-1980s
- 3.6 In Iraq after the 2003 invasion
- 3.7 2003 French raid
- 3.8 Negotiations between Tehran and Washington
- 3.9 Nuclear issue
- 4 MEK and the US government
- 5 MEK and the Israel/Palestine Controversy
- 6 The 'ideological revolution' and the issue of women's right
- 7 Designation as a terrorist organization
- 8 MEK's human rights record before 2003
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 External links
The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran is known by a variety of names including:
- Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK)
- The National Liberation Army of Iran (the group's armed wing)
- National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) – the MEK is the founding member of a coalition of organizations called the NCRI.
- Monafiqeen – the Iranian government consistently refers to the People's Mujahedin with this derogatory name, meaning "the hypocrites".
Note: The acronyms MEK is used throughout this article, as it is commonly used by the media and national governments around the world to refer to the People's Mujahedin.
The MEK was believed to have a 5,000–7,000-strong armed guerrilla group based in Iraq before the 2003 war, but a membership of between 3,000–5,000 is considered more likely. In 2005 the U.S. think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations believed that the MEK had 10,000 members, one-third to one-half of whom were fighters. According to a 2003 article by the New York Times, the MEK was composed of 5,000 fighters based in Iraq, many of them female. A 2013 article in Foreign Policy claimed that there were some 2,900 members in Iraq.
Before the Islamic Revolution
The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran was founded in September 5, 1965 by six former members of the Liberation or Freedom Movement of Iran, students at Tehran University, including Mohammad Hanifnejad, Saied Mohsen and Ali-Asghar Badizadegan. The MEK opposed the rule of Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, considering him corrupt and oppressive, and considered the Liberation Movement too moderate and ineffective. They were committed to the Ali Shariati's approach to Shiism. However although the MEK are often regarded as devotees of Ali Shariati, in fact their pronouncements preceded Shariati's, and they continued to echo each other throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In its first five years, the group primarily engaged in ideological work. Their thinking aligned with what was a common tendency in Iran at the time – a kind of radical, political Islam based on a Marxist reading of history and politics. The group's main source of inspiration was the Islamic text Nahj al-Balagha (a collection of analyses and aphorisms attributed to Imam Ali). Despite some describing a Marxist influence, the group never used the terms "socialist" or "communist" to describe themselves, and always called themselves Muslims – arguing along with Ali Shariati, that a true Muslim – especially a true Shia Muslim, that is to say a devoted follower of the Imams Ali and Hossein – must also by definition, be a revolutionary. However, they generously adopted elements of Marxism in order to update and modernize their interpretation of radical Islam.
In October 1975, the MEK underwent an ideological split. While the remaining primary members of MEK were imprisoned, some of the original low-level members of MEK formed a new organization that followed Marxist, not Islamic, ideals; these members appropriated the MEK name to establish and enhance their own legitimacy. This was expressed in a book entitled Manifesto on Ideological Issues, in which the central leadership declared "that after ten years of secret existence, four years of armed struggle, and two years of intense ideological rethinking, they had reached the conclusion that Marxism, not Islam, was the true revolutionary philosophy." Mujtaba Taleqani, son of Ayatallah Taleqani, was one of these converts to Marxism. Thus after May 1975 there were two rival Mujahedin, each with its own publication, its own organization, and its own activities. A few months before the Iranian Revolution the majority of the Marxist Mujahedin renamed themselves "Peykar", on December 7, 1978 (16 Azar, 1357); the full name is: Organization of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. This name was after the "League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class", which was a left wing group in Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire. It was founded by Lenin in the autumn of 1895.
In the years between 1973 and 1975, MEK intensified its armed operations. In 1973 they bombed ten major buildings including those of the Plan Organization, Pan-American Airlines, Shell Oil Company, Hotel International, and Radio City Cinema. In addition, they assassinated six Americans:
- The MEK failed in an attempt to kidnap the U.S. Ambassador to Iran, Douglas MacArthur II, on November 30, 1970.
- USAF Brig. Gen. Harold Price was wounded in a May 1972 assassination attempt.
- The first success in the assassination campaign was the murder of Lt. Col. Louis Lee Hawkins, a U.S. Army comptroller. He was shot to death in front of his home in Tehran by two men on a motorcycle on June 2, 1973.
- A car carrying U.S. Air Force officers Col. Paul Shaffer and Lt. Col. Jack Turner was trapped between two cars carrying armed men. They told the Iranian driver to lie down and then shot and killed the Americans. Six hours later a woman called reporters to claim the MEK carried out the attack as retaliation for the recent death of prisoners at the hands of Iranian authorities.
- A car carrying three American employees of Rockwell International was attacked in August 1976. William Cottrell, Donald Smith, and Robert Krongard were killed. They had been working on the Ibex system for gathering intelligence on the neighboring USSR. Leading up to the Islamic Revolution the Marxist wing of the MEK conducted attacks and assassinations against both Iranian and Western targets. According to the U.S. Department of State and the presentation of the MEK by the Foreign Affairs group of the Australian Parliament, the group conducted several assassinations of U.S. military personnel and civilians working in Iran during the 1970s. After the revolution the group actively supported the U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran in 1979, and opposed the release of the diplomats in 1981 by the Iranian regime, and called for their execution instead. As a result they staged a large demonstration.
On September 6, 2011, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) elected Zohreh Akhyani as its new Secretary General for a two-year term. The new Secretary General joined the MEK 32 years ago following the anti-monarchy revolution in Iran in 1979.
After the Revolution
The group was the supporter of the revolution at the initial phase. It participated in the referendum held in March 1979. Its candidate for the head of the newly founded council of experts was Masoud Rajavi in the election of August 1979. However, he lost the election. The group also supported for the occupation the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979. In January 1980, Rajavi announced his candidacy for the presidency, but he was banned, since he was regarded by Ayatollah Khomeini as ineligible. In February 1980, concentrated attacks by hezbollahi toughs began on the meeting places, bookstores, newsstands of Mujahideen and other leftists driving the left underground in Iran. Hundreds of PMOI supporters and members were killed from 1979 to 1981, and some 3,000 were arrested. Ultimately, the organization called for a massive demonstration under the banner of Islam on June 20, 1981 to protest Iran's new leadership which was also attacked.
Before 1979 Iranian Revolution
The MEK's ideology of revolutionary Shiaism is based on an interpretation of Islam so similar to that of Ali Shariati that "many concluded" they were inspired by him. According to historian Ervand Abrahamian, it is clear that "in later years" that Shariati and "his prolific works" had "indirectly helped the Mujahedin."
In the group's "first major ideological work," Nahzat-i Husseini or Hussein's Movement, authored by one of the group's founders, Ahmad Reza'i, it was argued that Nezam-i Towhid (monotheistic order) sought by the prophet Muhammad, was a commonwealth fully united not only in its worship of one God but in a classless society that strives for the common good. "Shiism, particularly Hussein's historic act of martyrdom and resistance, has both a revolutionary message and a special place in our popular culture."
As described by Abrahamian, one Mojahedin ideologist argued “Reza’i further argued that the banner of revolt raised by the Shi’I Imams, especially Ali, Hassan, and Hussein, was aimed against feudal landlords and exploiting merchant capitalists as well as against usurping Caliphs who betrayed the Nezam-i-Towhid. For Reza’i and the Mujahidin it was the duty of all muslims to continue this struggle to create a ‘classless society’ and destroy all forms of capitalism, despotism, and imperialism. The Mujahidin summed up their attitude towards religion in these words: 'After years of extensive study into Islamic history and Shi’I ideology, our organization has reached the firm conclusion that Islam, especially Shi’ism, will play a major role in inspiring the masses to join the revolution. It will do so because Shi’ism, particularly Hussein’s historic act of resistance, has both a revolutionary message and a special place in our popular culture.”
After the revolution
In 1981, the MEK formed the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) with the stated goal of uniting the opposition to the Iranian government under one umbrella organization. The MEK says that in the past 25 years, the NCRI has evolved into a 540-member parliament-in-exile, with a specific platform that emphasizes free elections, gender equality and equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. The MEK claims that it also advocates a free-market economy and supports peace in the Middle East. However, the FBI claims that the NCRI "is not a separate organization, but is instead, and has been, an integral part of the [MEK] at all relevant times" and that the NCRI is "the political branch" of the MEK, rather than vice versa. Although the MEK is today the main organization of the NCRI, the latter previously hosted other organizations, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran.
According to the publicly stated ideology of the MEK, elections and public suffrage are the sole indicators of political legitimacy. Their publications reported that the Word of God and Islam are meaningless without freedom and respect for individual volition and choice. Their interpretation of Islam and the Quran says that the most important characteristic distinguishing man from animals is his free will. It is on this basis that human beings are held accountable. Without freedom, no society can develop or progress. Although its leaders presents themselves as Muslims, the MEK describes itself as a secular organization: "The National Council of Resistance believes in the separation of Church and State."
In more recent years under the guidance of Maryam Rajavi the organization has adopted strong principles in favor of women. Women assumed some senior positions of responsibility within the ranks of the MEK and although women make up only a third of fighters, two-thirds of its commanders are women. Rajavi ultimately believes that women should enjoy equal rights with men.
Bombings and armed conflict with the Islamic government
Following the 1979 revolution, the newly established theocratic government of Ayatollah Khomeini moved to squash dissent. Khomeini attacked the MEK as elteqati (eclectic), contaminated with Gharbzadegi ("the Western plague"), and as monafeqin (hypocrites) and kafer (unbelievers). In February 1980 concentrated attacks by hezbollahi pro-Khomeini militia began on the meeting places, bookstores and newsstands of Mujahideen and other leftists driving the Left underground in Iran. Hundreds of MEK supporters and members were killed from 1979 to 1981, and some 3,000 were arrested.
On August 30, a bomb was detonated killing the popularly elected President Rajai and Premier Mohammad Javad Bahonar. An active member of the Mujahedin, Massoud Kashmiri, was identified as the perpetrator, and according to reports came close to killing the entire government including Khomeini. The reaction to both bombings was intense with many arrests and executions of Mujahedin and other leftist groups, but "assassinations of leading officials and active supporters of the regime by the Mujahedin were to continue for the next year or two."
Eventually, the majority of the MEK leadership and members fled to France, where it operated until 1986, when tension arose between Paris and Tehran over the Eurodif nuclear stake and the French citizens kidnapped in the Lebanon hostage crisis. After Rajavi flew to Baghdad, French hostages were released.
National Liberation Army of Iran
The MEK transferred its headquarters to Iraq after France agreed to expel them in order to release French hostages in Lebanon in 1986, during the Iran–Iraq War. Near the end of the 1980–88 war between Iraq and Iran, a military force of 7000 members of the MEK, armed and equipped by Saddam's Iraq and calling itself the National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA), went into action. On July 26, 1988, six days after the Ayatollah Khomeini had announced his acceptance of the UN brokered ceasefire resolution, the NLA advanced under heavy Iraqi air cover, crossing the Iranian border from Iraq. It seized and razed to the ground the Iranian town of Islamabad-e Gharb. As it advanced further into Iran, Iraq ceased its air support and Iranian forces cut off NLA supply lines and counterattacked under cover of fighter planes and helicopter gunships. On July 29 the NLA announced a voluntary withdrawal back to Iraq. The MEK claims it lost 1400 dead or missing and the Islamic Republic sustained 55,000 casualties (either IRGC, Basij forces, or the army). The Islamic Republic claims to have killed 4500 NLA and Iraqi troops during the operation. The operation was called Foroughe Javidan (Eternal Light) by the MEK and the counterattack Operation Mersad by the Iranian forces.
1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners
A large number of prisoners from the MEK, and a lesser number from other leftist opposition groups (somewhere between 1,400 and 30,000), were executed in 1988, following Operation Eternal Light.[a] Dissident Ayatollah Montazeri has written in his memoirs that this massacre, deemed a crime against humanity, was ordered by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and carried out by several high-ranking members of Iran's current government. Recently The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights violations for Iran, to take action on such actions since 1988.
Relations with France in the mid-1980s
In 1986, after French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac struck a deal with Tehran for the release of French hostages held prisoners by the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the MEK was forced to leave France and relocated in Iraq. Investigative journalist Dominique Lorentz has related the 1986 capture of French hostages to an alleged blackmail of France by Tehran concerning the nuclear program.
According to presentations of the MEK by the U.S. Department of State and the Foreign Affairs group of the Australian Parliament, the MEK assisted the Iraqi Republican Guard in suppressing the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Maryam Rajavi, who assumed the leadership role of the MEK after a series of years as co-leader alongside her husband Massoud Rajavi, has been reported by former members of the MEK as having said: "Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards."
In the following years the MEK conducted several high-profile assassinations of political and military figures inside Iran, including Asadollah Lajevardi, the former warden of the Evin prison, in 1998 and deputy chief of the Iranian Armed Forces General Staff, Brigadier General Ali Sayyad Shirazi, who was assassinated on the doorsteps of his house on April 10, 1999.
In Iraq after the 2003 invasion
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, MEK camps were bombed by coalition forces because of its alliance with Saddam Hussein. On April 15, U.S. Special Forces brokered a ceasefire agreement with the leaders of the MEK and entered into a ceasefire agreement with the coalition after the attack. All compounds surrendered without hostilities. This was a controversial agreement both in the public sphere and privately among the Bush administration due to the MEK's designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
In the operation, the U.S. reportedly captured 6000 MEK soldiers and over 2000 pieces of military equipment, including 19 British-made Chieftain tanks. The MEK compound outside Fallujah became known as Camp Fallujah and sits adjacent to the other major base in Fallujah, Forward Operating Base Dreamland. Captured MEK members were kept at Camp Ashraf, about 100 kilometers west of the Iranian border and 60 kilometers north of Baghdad.
After a four-month investigation by several U.S. agencies, including the State Department, only a handful of charges under U.S. criminal law were brought against MEK members, all American citizens. The MEK remained listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the Department of State until September 28, 2012. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared MEK personnel in Ashraf protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are currently under the guard of U.S. Military. Defectors from this group are housed separately in a refugee camp within Camp Ashraf, and protected by U.S. Army military police (2003–current), U.S. Marines (2005–07), and the Bulgarian Army (2006–current).
On January 1, 2009 the U.S. military transferred control of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government. On the same day, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that the militant group would not be allowed to base its operations from Iraqi soil.
In 2012 MEK moved from Camp Ashraf to Camp Hurriya in Baghdad (a onetime U.S. base formerly known as Camp Liberty). A rocket and mortar attack killed 5 and injured 50 others at Camp Hurriya on February 9, 2013. Iranian residents of the facility and their representatives and lawyers appealed to the UN Secretary-General and U.S. officials to let them return to Ashraf, which they say has concrete buildings and shelters that offer more protection. The United States has been working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on the resettlement project.
Iraqi government's crackdown
On January 23, 2009, and while on a visit to Tehran, Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie reiterated the Iraqi Prime Minister’s earlier announcement that the MEK organisation will no longer be able to base itself on Iraqi soil and stated that the members of the organisation will have to make a choice, either to go back to Iran or to go to a third country, adding that these measures will be implemented over the next two months.
On July 29, 2009, eleven Iranians were killed and over 500 were injured in a raid by Iraqi security on the MEK Camp Ashraf in Diyala province of Iraq. U.S. officials had long opposed a violent takeover of the camp northeast of Baghdad, and the raid is thought to symbolize the declining American influence in Iraq. After the raid, the U.S. Secretary of State stated the issue was "completely within [the Iraqi government's] purview." In the course of attack, 36 Iranian dissidents were arrested and removed from the camp to a prison in a town named Khalis where the arrestees went on hunger strike for 72 days, 7 of which was dry hunger strike. Finally, the dissidents were released when they were in an extremely critical condition and on the verge of death.
2003 French raid
In June 2003 French police raided the MEK's properties, including its base in Auvers-sur-Oise, under the orders of anti-terrorist magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguière, after suspicions that it was trying to shift its base of operations there. 160 suspected MEK members were then arrested. In response, 40 supporters began hunger strikes to protest the arrests, and ten immolated themselves in various European capitals. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (Union for a Popular Movement) declared that the MEK "recently wanted to make France its support base, notably after the intervention in Iraq", while Pierre de Bousquet de Florian (fr), head of France's domestic intelligence service, claimed that the group was "transforming its Val d'Oise centre [near Paris]... into an international terrorist base".
U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on South Asia, then accused the French of doing "the Iranian government's dirty work". Along with other members of Congress, he wrote a letter of protest to President Jacques Chirac, while longtime MEK supporters such as Sheila Jackson-Lee, Democrat of Texas, criticized Maryam Radjavi's arrest. Subsequently, the MEK members were quickly released.
Negotiations between Tehran and Washington
During the Iraq war, U.S. troops disarmed the MEK and posted guards at its bases. The U.S. military also protected and gave logistical support to the MEK as U.S. officials viewed the group as a high value source of intelligence on Iran. The MEK is credited with revealing Iran's nuclear program in 2002 and alerting Americans to Iranian advancements in nuclear technology.
The same year that the French police raided the MEK's properties in France (2003), Tehran attempted to negotiate with Washington. Iranian officials offered to withdraw military backing for Hamas and Hezbollah, and to give open access to their nuclear facilities in return for Western action in disbanding the MEK, which was revealed by Newsnight, a BBC current affairs program, in 2007. The BBC uncovered a letter written after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 where Tehran made this offer The proposition was done in a secret letter to Washington via Switzerland. According to the BBC, the U.S. State Department received the letter from the highest levels of the Iranian government. According to Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff of Secretary of State Colin Powell, interviewed by the BBC, the State Department initially considered the offer, but it was ultimately rejected by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The MEK and the NCRI claim to be the first entities that revealed Iran's nuclear activities in 2002, which has turned to be a major concern for the U.S. and some of its allies today. On February 20, 2008, the NCRI claimed to have revealed another nuclear site of the Islamic Republic.
US officials confirm that MEK was financed, trained, and armed by Israel in killing Iranian nuclear scientists.
MEK and the US government
Before their exile, 'Anti-Imperialism' was preached by MEK both before and after revolution. The Mojahedin Organization praised writers such as Al-e Ahmad, Saedi and Shariati for being 'anti-imperialist'. Rajavi in his presidential campaign after revolution used to warn against what he called the 'imperialist danger'. The matter was so fundamental to MEK that it criticized the Iranian regime on that basis, accusing the Islamic Republic of 'capitualation to imperialism' and being disloyal to democracy that according to Rajavi was the only means to 'safeguard from American imperialism'. However, after exile, Rajavi toned down the issues of imperialism, social revolution, and classless society. Instead he stressed on human rights and respect for 'personal property'.
MEK and the Israel/Palestine Controversy
In the beginning, MEK used to criticize the Pahlavi regime for allying with Israel and South Africa ; even calling them 'racist' states and demanding cancellation of all political and economic agreements with them. The Central Cadre established contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), by sending emissaries to Paris, Dubai, and Qatar to meet PLO officials. In one occasion, seven leading members of MEK spent several months in the PLO camps in Jordan and Lebanon. On August 3, 1972, they bombed the Jordanian embassy as a means to revenge King Hussein's unleashing his troops on the PLO in 1970.
The 'ideological revolution' and the issue of women's right
On 27 January 1985, Rajavi appointed Maryam Azodanlu as his co-equal leader. The announcement, stated that this would give women equal say within the organization and thereby 'would launch a great ideological revolution within Mojahedin, the Iranian public and the whole Muslim World'. At the time Maryam Azodanlu was known as only the younger sister of a veteran member, and the wife of Mehdi Abrishamchi. According to the announcement, Maryam Azodanlu and Mehdi Abrishamchi had recently divorced in order to facilitate this 'great revolution'. As a result, the marriage further isolated the Mojahedin and also upset some members of the organization. This was mainly because, the middle class would look at this marriage as an indecent act which to them resembled wife-swapping. (especially when Abrishamchi declared his own marriage to Musa Khiabani's younger sister). The fact that it involved women with young children and the wives of close friends was considered a taboo in traditional Iranian culture. The effect of this incident on secularists and modern intelligentsia was equally outrageous as it portrayed a private matter onto the public. Many criticized Maryam Azodanlu's giving up her own maiden name (something most Iranian women did not do and she herself had not done in her previous marriage). They would question whether this was in line with her claims of being a staunch feminist.
According to Ervand Abrahamian: "the Mojahedin, despite contrary claims did not give women equal representation within their own hierarchy. The book of martyrs indicates that women formed 15 percent of the organization's rank-and-file, but only 9 percent of its leadershp. To rectify this, the Mojahedin posthumously revealed some of the rank and file women martyrs especially those related to prominent figures, into leadership positions."
Designation as a terrorist organization
The United States put MEK on the U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1997 because of the killing of Americans in the 1970s and the 1992 attempted attack against the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York. However, since 2004 the United States also has considered the group as "noncombatants" and "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions because most members have been located in a refugee camp in Iraq for more than 25 years. In 2002 the European Union, pressured by Washington, added MEK to its terrorist list.
MEK leaders then began a lobbying campaign to be removed from the list by promoting itself as a viable opposition to the mullahs in Tehran. Gary Sick, a Persian Gulf expert at Columbia University's Middle East Institute told Time magazine that "They have been extremely clever and very, very effective in their propaganda and lobbying of members of Congress." He said they were successful in getting congressional representatives to overlook terrorism accusations because the group styled itself a "democratic alternative to the Iranian regime." In 2008 US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied MEK its request to be delisted, despite its lobbying the State Department.
In 2011, several former senior U.S. officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, three former chairmen of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, two former directors of the CIA, former commander of NATO Wesley Clark, two former U.S. Ambassadors to the United Nations, the former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a former White House Chief of Staff, a former commander of the United States Marine Corps, former U.S. National Security Advisor Frances Townsend, and U.S. President Barack Obama's retired National Security Adviser General James L. Jones called for the MEK to be removed from its official State Department foreign terrorist listing on the grounds that they constituted a viable opposition to the Iranian regime. In early 2012, a controversy arose regarding whether Townsend had committed federal felonies by providing material support to the MEK. Many of MEK's American supporters accepted fees of $15,000 to $30,000 to give speeches to the group and took travel expense money to go to Paris for MEK rallies. Former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell was paid over $150,000 and faced a United States Treasury Department investigation.
In April 2012, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command had trained MEK operatives at a secret site in Nevada from 2005 to 2009. According to Hersh, MEK members were trained in intercepting communications, cryptography, weaponry and small unit tactics at the Nevada site up until President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Hersh also reported additional names of former U.S. officials paid to speak in support of MEK, including former CIA directors James Woolsey and Porter Goss; New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Louis Freeh and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.
Removal of the designation
In January 2009 the Council of the European Union removed the terrorist designation. This followed the 2008 Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg censure of France for failing to disclose alleged new evidence of MEK's terrorist threat. Delisting allowed MEK to pursue tens of millions of dollars of frozen assets and lobby in Europe for more funds. It also removed the terrorist label from MEK members at their Iraqi Camp Ashraf.
On September 28, 2012 The U.S. State Department formally removed MEK from its official list of terrorist organizations, beating an October 1 deadline in a MEK lawsuit. 12:45, 27 October 2012 (UTC) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement the decision was made because MEK had renounced violence and had cooperated in closing their Iraqi paramilitary base. The statement said the State 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," and that it also has serious concerns about "allegations of abuse committed against its own members." An official denied that lobbying by well-known figures influenced the decision to remove the designation.
The National Iranian American Council denounced the decision, stating it “opens the door to Congressional funding of the M.E.K. to conduct terrorist attacks in Iran” and “makes war with Iran far more likely.” Iran state television condemned the delisting of the group, saying that the U.S. considers MEK to be "good terrorists because the U.S. is using them against Iran."
MEK's human rights record before 2003
Following the 1988 military defeat by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Rajavi's leadership of MEK became increasingly authoritarian and cultlike, according to the report. One MEK defector's memoir indicated that Rajavi claimed to have a mystical relationship with a prophet known as Imam Zaman, (the Mahdi or Twelfth Imam of Shia Islam). In order to better cement their relationship with their leader, and hence ultimately their Messiah, Rajavi then instructed his followers to divorce their spouses. The group had already established a practice of self criticism, under which members were asked to undergo their own personal "ideological revolution" by confessing personal inadequacies in cultlike confession sessions. Human Rights Watch stated that the testimony of former MEK prisoners paints a grim picture of how the organization treated its members, particularly those who held dissenting opinions or expressed an intent to leave the organization. Other witnesses told Human Rights Watch claimed it was the practice of MEK interrogators to tie thick ropes around prisoners necks and drag them along the ground. One witness told investigators: "Sometimes prisoners returned to the cell with extremely swollen necks — their head and neck as big as a pillow." In a statement accompanying its investigative report, Joe Stork, a Human Rights Watch expert on the Middle East, commented:
The Iranian government has a dreadful record on human rights. But it would be a mistake to promote an opposition group that is responsible for serious human rights abuses.
The report prompted a response by the MEK and a few friendly European MPs, who published a counter-report in September 2005. They stated that HRW had "relied only on 12 hours interviews with 12 suspicious individuals", and stated that "a delegation of MEPs visited Camp Ashraf in Iraq" and "conducted impromptu inspections of the sites of alleged abuses." Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca (PP), one of the Vice-Presidents of the European Parliament, alleged that Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) was the source of the evidence against the MEK.
Prompted by the FOFI document, Human Rights Watch re-interviewed all 12 of the original witnesses, conducting private and personal interviews lasting several hours with each of them in Germany and the Netherlands, where the witnesses now live. All of the witnesses restated their claims about the MEK camps from the 1991–2003 period, saying MEK officials subjected them to various forms of physical and psychological abuses once they made known their wishes to leave the organization.
Countless first-rate analysts, scholars and human rights organizations – including Human Rights Watch – have determined that the MEK is an undemocratic, cultlike organization whose modus operandi vitiates its claim to be a vehicle for democratic change.
In an interview with RFERL escaped MEK leader Abdul Latif Shardouri (aka Abdollatif Shadvari) who said he had been in the MEK for 25 years stated that his family thought he was dead because he had had no contact with them during those 25 years. "Using the telephone, mobile phone, Internet, and even listening to radio is forbidden in the organization."
The issue is, as [MEK leader Massoud] Rajavi has said many times, whoever wants to escape from Ashraf will be punished with death and execution. Not only me, but many of my friends who are now in Ashraf don't have the possibility to leave the camp. Escape is the only way.
The HRW report covered only the period from 1991 to 2003. In a letter of May 2005 to HRW, the senior US military police commander responsible for the Camp Ashraf area, Brigadier General David Phillips, who had been in charge during the year 2004 for the protective custody of the MEK members in the camp, disputed the alleged human rights violations:
- I directed my subordinate units to investigate each allegation. In many cases I personally led inspection teams on unannounced visits to the MEK facilities where the alleged abuses were reported to occur. At no time over the 12 month period did we ever discover any credible evidence supporting the allegations raised in your recent report. (..) Each report of torture, kidnapping and psychological depravation turned out to be unsubstantiated.
According to a database of Terrorism Victims in Iran run by an Iranian organisation opposed to the PMOI, the group is allegedly responsible for the deaths of some 17,000 Iranians and up to 25,000 Iraqis.
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