Iranian oppositionists in Iraq face up to a troubled future

As the new Iraqi government slowly forms and assumes limited power in Baghdad, one issue it will have to address is the fate of more than 3,000 formerly armed Iranians in a camp northeast of Baghdad.

The Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), the main exiled opposition to the Iranian government, was one of the casualties of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent downfall of Saddam Hussein. It is increasingly evident that the organisation does not have a future inside Iraq, and sooner or later it will have to relinquish the substantial chunk of Iraqi real estate (in the form of its Ashraf complex northeast of Baghdad) that it has held for the past two decades. However, given the cohesiveness and determination of this group, it would be wrong to assume that expulsion from Iraq will lead to immediate dissolution.

Origins and history

The MEK emerged in the mid-1960s as a splinter faction from the Liberation Movement of Iran, a nationalist/liberal party. When a 1963 uprising against the Shah collapsed, younger and more radical elements of the Liberation Movement formed a splinter movement - the MEK. In the 1970s the MEK gained notoriety by assassinating five US military technicians in Iran. The organisation enthusiastically welcomed the 1979 Islamic Revolution and was even more enthusiastic about the seizure of the US embassy later that year.1 However, the MEK's inability to penetrate the inner sanctums of power, coupled with the misgivings of the revolutionary regime toward the group, eventually propelled it into conflict with Ayatollah Khomeini.

From 1981-83 the MEK prosecuted a serious campaign of violence against the Islamic Republic, in the process eliminating many of its top officials and ideologues. However, this came at a terrible cost to the organisation, which lost more than 8,000 of its members in executions and street battles with Revolutionary Guards. Indeed by late 1983 the MEK network had been completely eliminated inside Iran. The group's leadership and more than 90 per cent of its members took refuge in Paris, where the organisation underwent a series of transformations in the mid-1980s. Always a perplexing group, the MEK promoted an ideology based on Marxism, Maoism and liberation Shia theology. However, in the mid-1980s Massoud Rajavi, keen to consolidate his dominance over the organisation, married the wife of his right-hand man and set in motion an 'ideological revolution' that was theoretically designed to turn the MEK into the antithesis of the Islamic regime. The result was the wholesale 'feminisation' of the organisation and the placement of women in all top positions. Consequently, the MEK banned all relationships within the group. It commanded its members to fully eschew their individualism, and devote all their energies to the cause. Given the extremity of these transformations, even sympathetic observers could not dismiss the notion that the MEK had become an isolated cult. Yet to the MEK these changes were necessary to maintain the unity of the organisation and keep it focused on the anti-regime struggle in the face of the Islamic Republic's relentless security and propaganda onslaughts.

Another controversial feature of the organisation was its decision in 1983 to ally itself with the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Massoud Rajavi moved to Baghdad in 1986 and the following year announced the formation of the National Liberation Army (NLA). The NLA fought alongside Iraqi forces against Iranian troops, an alliance that completely destroyed the organisation's rapidly diminishing credibility inside Iran. Moreover, a number of Iraqi Shia and Kurdish organisations have alleged that MEK forces played a role in the suppression of the so-called Safar Intifada of March 1991 against the former Iraqi regime.

Following the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, coalition forces bombed the organisation's bases and subsequently signed a ceasefire with the MEK. In May 2003, the US Army disarmed the NLA and confined around 3,800 MEK personnel inside the Ashraf complex. The interim Iraqi Governing Council called for their expulsion in December 2003, but the US, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, has failed to enforce this decision. Consequently the MEK remain ensconced inside the Ashraf complex, with the US military shielding them from the wrath of the numerous Iraqi Shia militias that are sympathetic to Tehran.

The MEK has over the years received substantial support in the US Congress and European parliaments. In 2002 - according to full-page advertisements purchased in US newspapers by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI, the political front of the MEK) - around 150 members of the US Congress expressed support for it.2 The MEK regularly holds demonstrations against the Iranian government in European and North American cities. Some of these demonstrations have been attended by up to 5,000 Iranian exiles. While the methods used by the MEK to mobilise people for such demonstrations have been questioned, the important point here is that no other Iranian opposition group has the capability to even begin organising people on this scale.

Ally of the US?

The US Department of State classified the MEK and the NCRI as terrorist organisations in 1997 and 1999 respectively. Moreover, while individual western European governments separately classified the MEK and the NCRI as terrorist organisations throughout the 1990s, the EU as a whole officially classified them as terrorist entities in 2002. Despite the terrorist classifications, a number of right-wing and so-called neo-conservative US politicians and political pundits have expressed strong support for the MEK on the basis that it commands a disciplined organisation and has a consistent record of implacable opposition to the clerical regime in Tehran. Indeed, some of these US personalities have even called on their government to embrace the MEK as its 'terrorist' ally.3

However, despite relentless MEK lobbying, the US government is unlikely to work with the organisation, let alone embrace it as an ally to pressurise Iran. Broadly speaking, there are four factors that make the MEK an undesirable tool of US policy in Iran.

First, the group has a history of anti-US actions; indeed it is the only Iranian organisation that has killed US citizens and claimed responsibility for it. The MEK's ideology has always been virulently anti-US, but this has been downplayed in recent years for the sake of expediency.

Second, the MEK has ideological characteristics that make it difficult for Washington to justify rehabilitating the organisation. Its ideology revolves around 'armed struggle' and it has shown little capacity to engage in conventional politics. Indeed one of the reasons it came into conflict with the Islamic Republic in June 1981 was that it insisted on maintaining its own armed militia in the country. The organisation's cult-like characteristics are simply too pronounced to ignore. Virtually every credible and independent Western journalist that has investigated the MEK has found it difficult not to dismiss it as a cult.4

Third, the MEK has a serious credibility problem among Iranians. Inside Iran, the MEK has been reviled by some people as a treacherous organisation or simply dismissed as irrelevant by others. Given these barriers to the group's popularity, it is difficult to envisage Washington courting an organisation that has very little audience in Iran.

Finally, the MEK is an increasingly ageing body. The majority of its members are now either in their late 40s or early 50s and given that the organisation has been disconnected from the realities of Iranian politics for so long, it lacks the capability to attract fresh recruits. The MEK is basically a product of the 1960s and 1970s (with some eccentricities imposed by Rajavi in the 1980s) and this makes it wholly irrelevant to the younger generations, who clamour for the establishment of a Western-style democracy in Iran, rather than a quixotic Islamic-democratic republic led by Rajavi.

Notwithstanding the organisation's apparent lack of utility, US political and military planners in Iraq and the new Iraqi government still have to find a solution to the MEK 'problem' in Iraq. In recent months more than 300 people from Ashraf have taken advantage of the amnesty declared by the Iranian government and returned to their homeland. While some media in Iran have trumpeted these desertions as a massive setback for the MEK and a sign of their imminent collapse, the organisation has been quick to point out that many of the 'quitters' were peripheral elements or mere sympathisers who had been recently recruited into the organisation. Indeed on closer inspection none of the deserters seem to have been senior members of the MEK and perhaps as many as 60 per cent of the returnees were not even proper members. Nonetheless the Iranian government, alongside the International Committee of the Red Cross and the US military in Iraq, seem to see these desertions as the solution to the Ashraf problem. There are currently several hundred disaffected MEK members held in a separate camp (ironically dubbed 'Camp Freedom') by the US. The residents of 'Camp Freedom' are also expected to return to Iran soon, and all the three aforementioned parties are hoping that their fair treatment in Iran will encourage more MEK members to defect.

It is unlikely that the core membership of the MEK would abandon the organisation, even under today's highly unfavourable circumstances. This means that the US will eventually have to resettle the remaining 3,000 MEK members in Western countries. Losing its Iraqi base will undoubtedly undermine the MEK and probably accelerate its 20-year decline. However, the dissolution of the MEK is a process that is likely to take at least 10 years, meaning that the MEK will continue being a minor nuisance to Iran for some time to come.

Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation,a non-profit organisation specialising in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia.


1 Mojahed Journal, Issue No. 10, 18 April 1979.

2 Newsweek, 26 September 2002.

3 Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson, 'A Terrorist U.S. Ally?', New York Post, 20 May 2003.

4 For an interesting and in-depth analysis of the topic see Elizabeth Rubin 'The Cult of Rajavi', The New York Times Magazine, 13 July 2003.


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