It’s no secret that most American politicians want political change in Iran. Whether it be President Donald Trump, Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, regime change (or a significant change in the regime’s behavior) has been a goal of U.S. administrations since the dawn of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Nor have U.S. politicians attempted to hide this: Congressmen across the aisle, for example, have met with Reza Pahlavi, the former Iranian prince whose father was ousted from power during the Islamic Revolution, to discuss regime change. Pahlavi, among many others in the Iranian diaspora, has called on all American politicians to support a democratic, liberal Iran.
American calls for regime change have certainly focused on this idea of a democratic, liberal Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Ted Cruz, and National Security Advisor John Bolton (among many others) have openly advocated for such change. But it’s not just Republicans: both House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have also called for Iranians to be freed from the chains of the Islamic Republic. These politicians have decried the lack of human rights in Iran, the lack of democracy, and the suffering of the Iranian people.
Given this context, the relationship between some American politicians and the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, is baffling. The MEK, guided by an undemocratic fusion of Marxism and Islamism, has conducted terrorist attacks against Americans and Iranians alike yet has support from a plethora of U.S. conservative and liberal politicians (including many who advocate for the democratization of Iran), such as Rudy Giuliani, Bolton, Pompeo, Pelosi, and Edward Rendell. Given the MEK’s inability to meaningfully change Iran, the support of U.S. politicians for the Mujahedin will only have negative effects for the United States, namely that it will alienate the Iranian people and give hardliners in the Islamic Republic a chance to capitalize on this support.
What is the MEK?
The MEK was established in 1965 as a leftist organization staunchly opposed to the American-backed Shah of Iran. Until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the MEK, originally founded upon the ideals of Marxism and Islamism, engaged in a plethora of terrorist attacks, targeting Americans civilians and government workers. Many of its members were either imprisoned or executed while the Shah was in power.
During the Revolution, the MEK helped supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini overthrow the Shah. Yet after a few years of rule by the Islamic Republic, Khomeini saw that the MEK’s ideology was at odds with his vision for the country, and he ordered his forces to arrest and execute Mujahedin members. The Mujahedin responded by assassinating members of the Islamic government, including the Prime Minister in a 1981 bombing.
In 1980, Saddam Hussein, sensing instability in Iran, decided to invade. The MEK, seeing an opportunity to destabilize the Islamic government joined him in fighting their own countrymen. Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, and his bombing of Iranian cities, did not deter the MEK in their support of him, which continued throughout the war. Saddam even helped arm the MEK, allowing them to conduct suicide attacks in Iran. The MEK’s support of Saddam, along with the earlier attacks against American officials, led the U.S. government to designate it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
After the war, the MEK largely focused on assassinations: the Mujahedin have targeted senior officials of the Revolutionary Guard, clerics, and even former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Further, they continue to call for regime change in Iran, hosting an annual “Free Iran” rally, at which many Western politicians speak. In the most recent years, however, the MEK, which now calls itself the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has shifted its focus from bombing campaigns to lobbying Western politicians for support.
In spite of the MEK’s recent history of terrorism, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 removed the organization from of the FTO list, unfreezing its assets and allowing it to engage in financial interactions with those in the United States. The organization, however, in spite of its claim to want democracy in Iran, remains internally undemocratic and is monumentally unpopular among those living in Iran. One can go so far as to say that it is a personality-based cult: Iran scholar Ervand Abrahamian stated that if “[MEK leader] Massoud Rajavi got up tomorrow and said the world was flat, his members would accept it.”
That hasn’t stopped American politicians—the same ones who claim to support a liberal, democratic Iran—from backing the MEK. And while this is not to say that supporting the MEK is enshrined in U.S. policy, the high level of support that it maintains among many American politicians is alarming. Rudy Giuliani is a regular at the MEK’s Free Iran conference. John Bolton gave a jarring speech at last year’s conference, claiming that the group would be celebrating the downfall of the Islamic Republic in Tehran the next year (which didn’t happen). Even Pelosi, a Democrat who supported the Nuclear Deal, put out a statement in support of the group. This does not seem to be a partisan issue: influential American politicians, whether in Congress or in the administration, have supported a group that has conducted terrorist attacks, not only against Iranian government officials but also against American civilians.
There seems to be one of two implications for this support: either the politicians supporting the MEK do not understand that it remains a domestically unpopular and undemocratic terrorist organization, or they acknowledge this but believe that regime change in Iran should be encouraged at any cost.
Though it is true that there has been a change in the MEK’s behavior since the early 2000s, the first possibility is nonetheless laughable. There have been no significant leadership changes since the MEK’s support of Saddam Hussein: Maryam Rajavi is still the leader of the organization and has been (along with her husband who disappeared in 2003) since 1985. Further, there have been no ideological changes in the group since Rajavi took leadership.
Their change in behavior is not due to a change in ideology; rather, it is due to circumstances. During the American invasion of Iraq, the MEK was forcibly disarmed, and its camps were destroyed. Since then, the MEK has simply not had the ability to conduct bombing campaigns in Iran as it did during the Shah’s reign, the Islamic Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war. Thus, they have shifted their focus to lobbying western politicians for change in Iran, which seems thus far to be working: speakers at this year’s conference, who have given rousing addresses in support of the MEK’s mission, include Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kushner. As a result of this lobbying, they’ve probably also realized that bombing campaigns will not help their case with the West.
It would thus be irresponsible to suggest that the MEK has changed. It remains an undemocratic organization under the leadership of the same people who ordered terrorist attacks against Iranians and Iraqis alike: there is a reason that Massoud Rajavi has been wanted in Iraq since 2010 for Crimes Against Humanity. The only change is the method that they use to gain power—they’ve shifted from violence to intense lobbying.
Thus, even if regime change is the ultimate goal, given that the MEK has not undergone significant ideological changes, why would U.S. politicians support a group that has conducted terrorist attacks against its own government officials and civilians?
The first reason is money. The Mujahedin pays a lot of money to secure Western politicians’ attendance at their annual conference. Giuliani, for example, has received tens of thousands of dollars from the group to speak and advocate for the group.
Secondly, it’s entirely possible that these politicians support the MEK, not with the ultimate goal of seeing them take over Iran, but rather, with the goal of instigating instability. Domestic instability and upheaval in Iran would force the government to address its own internal problems at the expense of other concerns, such as maintaining a strong presence in Syria or arming proxies in the region (e.g. Hizbollah, Houthi rebels). This would allow the United States, and its Middle Eastern allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel, to lessen the Islamic Republic’s influence in the region. Perhaps they view the Mujahedin as the group most able to and most willing to sow these seeds of unrest.
Implications of American Support
Despite its talk of freeing Iran and the friends that it has made in the West, the Mujahedin is hated among the Iranian people. For many Iranians, the MEK’s decision to fight alongside Saddam, and its indiscriminate attacks on Iranian civilians, destroyed any possible sympathetic feelings. Further, according to a poll taken by George Mason University, less than one percent of Iranian-Americans—the largest group in the Iranian diaspora—support the MEK.
Thus, wide American support comes at an extremely high cost. Firstly, the MEK does not have nearly enough support to foment a revolution in Iran. As of 2011, the State Department estimated that the MEK has between five thousand and 13,500 members, scattered across Iraq, Europe, and the United States—hardly a group numerous or unified enough to stand up to the Islamic Republic of Iran or meaningfully change the country in any way. To put this in perspective, the Islamic Republic squashed the 2009 Green Movement, which brought out millions of concentrated protesters.
Perhaps more importantly, however, U.S. support of the MEK will only alienate the people of Iran, the very people to whom Western politicians, from Trump to Pelosi to the conference’s speakers, have tried to appeal. Any American call for freedom in Iran—any message in support of the Iranian people—will be marred by this widespread support of a terrorist organization. The only people who will be strengthened by this support are Iranian hardliners, whose ultimate message is that the United States despises Iran, wants the country to fail, and is not a reliable partner. Supporting the MEK will only strengthen that narrative.
Although supporting the MEK provides a way for American politicians to ostensibly advocate for a democratic revolution in Iran, the costs of supporting a terrorist group far outweigh any benefits. To weaken the Iranian government and gain the support of the Iranian people, the United States should attempt to act as a friend to the Iranian people, instead of supporting a terrorist organization, banning Iranians from entering the country, and putting crippling sanctions on Iran, which hurt civilians more than the government. But given the immense amount of lobbying from anti-Iran groups—from America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD)—it is highly unlikely that such a change in the mindset of American politicians will occur.
Ashton Hashemipour is a second-year Political Science major interested in international relations and foreign policy. This summer, he interned at Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s district office here in Chicago. On campus, he’s the Director of Publication at EUChicago, a Chair for the Model UN Conference the university hosts, and on the International Policy Program at the Institute of Politics.