As tensions between the United States and Iran continue to escalate, many in President Donald Trump’s inner circle have called for swift regime change in Tehran — pledging support for a dissident Iranian opposition group currently headquartered in, of all places, rural Albania.
Despite its checkered history and only recent delisting as a terrorist organization, Mujahedeen Khalq — known as MEK — has garnered glowing endorsements from international policymakers who have described the group as a viable and democratic alternative to the “ayatollah regime.”
The MEK is not the only source of Iranian opposition to the Islamic Republic, of course. In recent years, Reza Pahlavi — the exiled crown prince of Iran’s final monarch — has also emerged as a leading secular and democratic opponent to the regime in Tehran. Pahlavi has called for nonviolent resistance and, in February 2019, launched an initiative called the Phoenix Project of Iran. According to the National Interest, this is “designed to bring the various strains of the opposition closer to a common vision for a post-clerical Iran.”
However, Pahlavi enjoys nowhere near as much U.S. support as the MEK. Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, argues that this could be because while there are many opposition elements critical of the regime, the MEK is the only one to view itself as a viable alternative.
Last month, as the United States and Iran seemed to be edging closer to a full-on conflict, the MEK hosted a five-day conference at its Albanian base, which is known as Ashraf 3.
Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was the keynote speaker and was joined by other high-ranking luminaries, including former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and British Conservative lawmaker Matthew Offord.
In a rousing speech, Giuliani lauded the MEK as a “government in exile” and a “group that we can support. It’s a group we should stop maligning and it’s a group that should make us comfortable having regime change.”
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But Giuliani is not the only member of Trump’s coterie to be paid to speak at pro-MEK events: In June 2017, John Bolton headlined an MEK rally in Paris, shortly before joining Trump’s administration as national security adviser. (MEK expert and investigative journalist Joanne Stocker estimates that both men have been paid tens of thousands of dollars for their efforts.)
“I have said for over 10 years since coming to these events that the declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Iran,” Bolton told a rapturous crowd in 2017, adding that they would all be celebrating the collapse of the government before the end of the decade.
And since joining the Trump administration in April 2018, Bolton’s hawkish attitude toward the Iranian government hasn’t wavered. When Trump authorized, then canceled, a military strike on Iran in mid-June following the shooting down of a $130 million U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf, The New York Times reported that Bolton was one of the most vocal proponents of military action.
The MEK’s deep pockets have long been a source of intrigue in Washington. In addition to Bolton and Giuliani, other prominent politicians paid to speak in favor of the MEK at rallies and conferences include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and several former heads of the CIA and FBI.
Active U.S. politicians, barred from accepting money directly from foreign entities while in office, have nevertheless allegedly received generous campaign donations. Joanne Stocker, an editor at media outlet The Defense Post who has been investigating the MEK for a decade, tells Haaretz that Rep. Brad Sherman (Democrat of California) received at least $5,200 in campaign donations between 2004 and 2013, and that Rep. Judy Chu (Democrat of California), who was a vocal proponent of the MEK’s delisting as a terrorist entity in 2012, pocketed at least $27,500 between 2010 and 2013 in campaign contributions.
Stocker tells Haaretz that pro-MEK groups like the Organization of Iranian American Communities have played a crucial role in securing broad, bipartisan support in the United States for the opposition group by successfully portraying the group as a democratic, human rights-supporting alternative to the current regime. Stocker, whose findings are based on extensive interviews, public records and court filings, believes the money the MEK uses to pay its international supporters is coming from the Saudi government, which may see the dissident group as a strategic and ideological ally with a similarly antagonistic view toward the Tehran government.
This may be highlighted by the fact that Saudi officials and advocates regularly address MEK rallies. For instance, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who is also a diplomat and politician, addressed several pro-MEK rallies in France in 2016 and 2017. More recently, Salman al-Ansari, the founder and president of D.C.-based, pro-Saudi lobbying group SAPRAC, spoke at last month’s MEK conference in Albania, declaring his commitment to the Iranian opposition in both Arabic and Farsi.
“I’m proud to be here with you and to fight against [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei,” Ansari said. “At the end of the day, the ruling mullahs in Iran will be overthrown.”
The MEK has been able to sustain remarkably broad support from both Democrats and Republicans over the years — something I have spent the past six months probing. My investigation centered on the OIAC, an MEK-linked, all-volunteer advocacy group based in Washington that has allied with administration officials and congressional leaders of all political stripes in clamoring for regime change in Iran.
Former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, who was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission and once publicly condemned the MEK in Congress, is now a firm supporter. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi have also made cameo appearances at the OIAC’s annual Nowruz (New Year) celebrations on Capitol Hill, reaffirming their party’s support for the organization’s agenda of securing a secular, democratic and nonnuclear Iran.
Dr. Majid Sadeghpour, who lives in Falls Church, Virginia, has been OIAC’s political director since 2012. He tells me that his heart remains in the Iran he grew up in under the shah, but that he now despises the Islamic regime that recently celebrated its 40th birthday. “America’s vibrant institutions embody democracy,” he says, “which, unlike Iran’s ayatollahs, strive for human rights and liberty for all.”
By day, the 63-year-old Sadeghpour — thin as a rail, clean-shaven, bespectacled and with gray hair — administers medicines and health supplements behind the counter at his local pharmacy. Away from his day job, he is preparing for a revolution. For a new Iran.
For him, the future of Iran is in the tiny town of Manëz, western Albania, where the MEK is drawing up plans for the day the ayatollahs no longer rule Iran.
According to Sadeghpour, thousands of Iranian Americans living in more than 40 U.S. states, from Hawaii to Connecticut, share this vision. And, as Bolton and Giuliani have shown, so do some prominent American statesmen.
The MEK’s origins can be traced back to the mid-1960s when a group of leftist, Marxist and Islamist graduate students from Tehran University joined together to oppose the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Headed by a charismatic revolutionary named Massoud Rajavi, the group briefly joined forces with the Islamists who would eventually oust the shah and bring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
However, the MEK’s alliance with Khomeini was short-lived. When MEK members, including Rajavi, were banned from running for office in the new theocracy, the group resorted to violence — including a bombing attack on Khomeini’s party headquarters in Tehran that killed more than 70 leading Islamist officials.
Some of the MEK’s leadership then fled to Europe, but most of the group’s rank and file crossed the border into Iraq in 1986, midway through the Iran-Iraq War. Iraq’s then-president, Saddam Hussein, who had recently invaded Iran to claim territorial sovereignty over strategic areas of the Euphrates River, offered them protection, funding, equipment and military training. The MEK pledged loyalty to Saddam in return, and its members were sent on martyrdom missions to capture strategic Iranian territory.
One such mission — known as Operation Eternal Light — was botched in July 1988, resulting in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard detaining and executing more than 2,000 MEK members. Today, many Iranians still refer to the MEK as monafeghan, or hypocrites, for fighting alongside Saddam and taking up arms against fellow Iranians.
In 1997, the Clinton administration designated the MEK a foreign terrorist organization for its violent activities, including a wave of attacks on Iranian embassies worldwide in the early ’90s and the assassination of U.S. colonels and officers who had been stationed in Iran in the ’70s. Canada and the European Union followed suit in the early 2000s.
In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, Massoud Rajavi vanished, leading most analysts to assume he had been killed. The MEK never confirmed his death but his wife, Maryam Rajavi, has since assumed leadership of the movement.
Saddam’s overthrow in 2003 spelled the end of the MEK’s welcome in Iraq; the group could no longer rely on Iraqi protection and funding. Later that year, the Iraqi Governing Council passed a resolution that called for the total expulsion of all elements of the MEK from the country.
The U.S. military disarmed and rounded up more than 3,500 MEK fighters into the group’s then-base, Camp Ashraf, to protect members from attacks by Iraqi security forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, while exploring resettlement options for the group outside of Iraq.
A decade later, in September 2012, the Americans delisted the group as a foreign terrorist organization, allowing the Obama administration to more easily negotiate the MEK’s resettlement to Albania a year later.
Overwhelming pressure had come from an elite group of former CIA and FBI directors, including Porter Goss and James Woolsey, and Gen. James Jones (President Barack Obama’s first national security adviser), while even renowned journalists like Carl Bernstein argued that the MEK had positively refashioned itself, and that its terrorist designation might be interpreted as an invitation for Iraqi and Iranian agents to attack MEK members who had not committed acts of violence for decades.
“The United States has a duty to 3,500 people whose fate they simply left behind with the departure of the American military forces” from Iraq, said Bernstein in a 2012 speech at a pro-MEK symposium in Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria. Bernstein later disclosed to Pro Publica that he was paid $12,000 for his appearance, but was not there “as an advocate” but as someone “who believes in basic human rights and their inalienable status.”
Since the MEK’s move to Albania, Iranian historian Ervand Abrahamian tells Haaretz in a telephone interview, the group has focused less on combat training and more on bolstering its public image on social media, and also carrying out cyberattacks on critics and defectors. An investigation by The Intercept in June found that “Heshmat Alavi” — a supposed anti-regime Iranian activist who had written for Forbes, The Hill and other outlets — was in fact a persona invented by the MEK, resurfacing concerns over the group’s antidemocratic and anti-liberal tendencies. The group’s sophisticated cyber operations and social media presence have also provoked discussions over the true extent and breadth of the MEK’s support, both abroad and in Iran.
The controversies didn’t end there. The reaction by Albanians to having the MEK in their midst did not seem favorable after an Albanian police “threat assessment” from early 2018 — obtained by Britain’s Channel 4 later that year — concluded that MEK members had been “deeply indoctrinated, been part of military structures and had participated in acts of war and terror.”
The MEK’s move from Iraq to Albania in 2013 also led to a rapid increase in defections, with former members going public about the realities of life under the MEK in Iraq and Albania.
A former MEK intelligence officer, Massoud Khodabandeh, tells Haaretz in an email interview that the group was no longer the highly organized and influential student-led movement of the ’70s that opposed the shah. By the ’80s, Khodabandeh says, the MEK had evolved almost unrecognizably into a violent, anti-ayatollah and pro-Saddam guerrilla organization that had no clear objectives other than pledging unwavering loyalty to the Rajavis.
Another defector, Masoud Banisadr, spoke about gender segregation and how families were torn apart at MEK camps. Children were forcibly separated from their parents, celibacy was enforced and love was criminalized, he alleged — unless that love was directed toward the Rajavis. Members had to divorce their spouses because “we were ordered to surrender our soul, heart and mind to [Massoud] Rajavi,” Banisadr told Vice News in 2014. “The idea was that we were in a war to take back Iran, so you cannot have a family until the war is won,” he said. In 1990, as couples under MEK control in Iraq were forced to divorce, wedding rings were allegedly replaced with pendant necklaces adorned with Massoud Rajavi’s face. Operatives were also required to attend weekly “cleansing” sessions where they would confess their sexual thoughts.
The MEK did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent to its European-based affiliate, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
I first met Majid Sadeghpour last September, at the Sheraton Hotel near New York’s Times Square. We were there for the OIAC’s flagship “Iran Uprising” summit. Security was extra tight that day, Sadeghpour later told me, not only because 25 Iranians had been killed at a military parade in southwest Iran earlier that morning, but because the OIAC believes regime spies have infiltrated past summits, monitoring the activities of Stateside dissidents. In July 2018, Reuters reported that an Iranian diplomat was arrested on suspicion of plotting a bomb attack on a “Free Iran” rally attended by OIAC members in Paris.
The only difference Sadeghpour sees between Iran’s pro-government agents and groups like ISIS is that “in Iran, they’re hiding behind a diplomatic veil.”
More than 1,500 Iranian-American delegates attended the New York summit, cheering on Giuliani (who made an in-person appearance) and a tribute video that marked the passing of Sen. John McCain.
Many Iranian Americans — even those with family still in Iran who were impacted by Trump’s January 2017 travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries — told me they never felt ideologically closer to the White House. “Both Iranians and the U.S. administration see that a prosperous future is one where the current regime in Iran is no longer in power,” says Ideen Saiedian, 25, a slim, blond-haired account executive at Oracle and self-described human rights advocate for the OIAC.
Another delegate, Navid Tavana, also in his mid-twenties, was similarly enthusiastic about this newfound partnership between Iranians and U.S. officials. “I can’t recall ever seeing executives who are working so closely with the president and being so vocal about their support for a change in the Iranian regime,” Tavana says.
But the biggest star of the summit was neither a Republican nor Democrat — nor even, for that matter, an American. It was the MEK’s exiled leader, Maryam Rajavi, who spoke to the delegates via satellite from Albania.
When she appeared on the large screen, the room fell silent. Most of the delegates stood up in deference, their heads looking upward at the screen. “You have organized a gathering that glows with unyielding resolve to secure a free Iran,” Rajavi told the delegates in Farsi.
For them, 65-year-old Rajavi is not just the leader of the most organized resistance group against the Tehran regime; she is president-elect of a post-theocratic Iran. When hawkish U.S. politicians talk about the future of Iran and a post-ayatollahs government, many are talking about her.
“Maryam is the only one with a plan to ensure a free and democratic Iran,” Sadeghpour tells me, referring to her 10-point plan that promises a future Iran with free and fair elections, a separation of church and state, no capital punishment and gender equality.
But when Sadeghpour speaks of regime change, he does not favor foreign intervention. “The Europeans and the U.S. should help weaken the aggression of the Iranian military machinery through sanctions and economic pressure,” he says, “but the people of Iran will bring about a new government.”