The Mujahedeen-e Khalq Controversy

Omid Memarian

  • What is the Mujahedeen-e Khalq organization?
The Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK), or the People’s Mujahedeen Organization, was founded in 1965 as an urban guerilla group opposed to the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It participated in the 1979 Revolution but later broke with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini over ideology and direction. In 1981, it went underground.
Now based in Iraq and Europe, the MEK is a Marxist-Islamist opposition group that seeks the overthrow of Iran’s theocratic government. The MEK has been tied to several terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. It has also been linked to the deaths of at least six U.S. personnel stationed in Iran in the 1970s.
Until the U.S. invasion in 2003, the MEK ran many of its operations out of a camp in Iraq along the eastern border with Iran. The largest opposition group outside of Iran, the Mujahedeen is now lobbying to be taken off the U.S. terrorist list. The group contends it stopped using terror tactics in 2003 and should now be recognized as a legitimate Iranian opposition group.
Iran counters that the MEK is still involved in armed activities against the government.  The annual State Department report on terrorism in 2007 said the MEK still had “the capacity and will” to attack “Europe, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, and beyond.”
The State Department and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have both identified the MEK as having cult-like characteristics, including a personality cult centered around MEK leader Maryam Rajavi; a mandatory vow of eternal divorce; and the separation of children from their parents.
  • How has the MEK’s relationship with Iran evolved?
The bitter relationship has a long history. In 1981, the group was held responsible for bombing the offices of the ruling Islamic Republic Party. The attack killed 70 high-ranking officials, including President Mohammad Ali Rajaei, Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, and judiciary chief Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti. Since 1981, Iran has prosecuted many Mujahedeen-e Khalq supporters; it has also used that designation to arrest other political dissidents. Alleged MEK members have often been charged with moharebeh, or enmity against God, which can carry a death sentence. 
The Mujahedeen also backed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. State Department reported that, between 1999 and 2003, Iraq gave the MEK millions of dollars to purchase weapons and fund attacks against Iranian embassies, high-ranking officials, and military targets.
In 2002, the National Council of Resistance, the MEK’s political wing, dealt a major blow to Iran by publicly identifying Iran’s secret uranium enrichment site at Natanz. (Uranium enrichment can be used both for peaceful nuclear energy and to develop a bomb.) The revelation led the United States to push for a U.N. investigation and subsequent sanctions against Iran.
The MEK is now largely discredited in Iran, both with the regime and among the opposition. Leaders of the opposition Green Movement have denounced its goals and leadership. “The MEK can't be part of the Green Movement,” said Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent opposition figure and wife of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi. “This bankrupt political group now makes some laughable claims, but the Green Movement and the MEK have a wall between them and all of us”—including former President Mohammad Khatami and presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi.
  • Where is the MEK based and who are its leaders?
The Mujahedeen-e Khalq organization has somewhere between 5,000-10,000 members worldwide, according to the U.S. State Department. Its main compound—housing some 3,000 members—is currently at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
The group’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is headquartered in Paris; it has other offices in major European capitals. It closed its office in Washington D.C. under U.S. pressure in 2003.
The group’s main leaders are husband and wife Maryam and Massoud Rajavi. Maryam Rajavi claims she wants to become the president of Iran.
  • Why is there movement now to get the MEK taken off the terrorism list?
In 2009, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq succeeded in getting its name removed from the European Union’s list of terrorist organizations. It has made a major push recently to get the United States to do the same. The effort has won support from dozens of members of congress and some former U.S. officials.
In a congressional resolution this year, MEK’s supporters on the Hill claimed that the group “seeks freedom, democracy, and human rights for the people of Iran.” They contend that taking the MEK off the terrorism list will further pressure the Iranian regime.
 Iran views the campaign to remove the Mujahedeen-e Khalq from the terrorism list as part of a broader domestic battle over U.S. policy on Iran.  The status of the Mujahedeen symbolizes the split between advocates of regime change and advocates of a combined policy of dialogue and pressure through sanctions. The Obama administration has so far opted to keep the MEK on the terrorism list.
  • What has been the position of past U.S. administrations?
In the 1990s, the Clinton administration added the Mujahedeen-e Khalq to the list of foreign terrorist organizations. After the MEK’s revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear site at Natanz in 2002, the Bush administration pushed for a U.N. investigation of Iran’s program and eventually sanctions against the regime. But the administration continued to view the group as a foreign terrorist organization and kept it on the U.S. list.  
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military assumed control of the camp and the MEK surrendered its heavy arms. The United States turned over jurisdiction to Iraq in 2009. Residents of Camp Ashraf have been declared "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention and are currently supervised by Iraqi security forces.

Read Omid Memarian's chapter on Iran's youth in “The Iran Primer” 

Omid Memarian is a columnist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007-2009 and the 2005 recipient of the "Human Rights Defender Award," the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch.