The People’s Mujahedin of Iran: A Most Undesirable Partner

Quite a few Iranian exiles are worried about the pro-MEK stance of some influential people in the Trump camp. The Crown Prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, has reached out to Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory and to commence a dialogue on policy towards Iran that could benefit both countries. There are plenty of solid and patriotic Iranian oppositionists to work with. The Islamist-Marxist Mujahedin are part of the problem, not the solution.

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By Paweł Piotr Styrna | January 18, 2017

MEK logo and MEK leader, Maryam Rajavi, with Rudy Giuliani at a congressional hearing
MEK logo and MEK leader, Maryam Rajavi, with Rudy Giuliani at a congressional hearing

The arrival in the United States of a new administration, and a new president known for thinking “outside the box,” offers the hope of new policy departures on many fronts, including U.S. policy towards Iran. Unfortunately, there is some cause for concern in the fact that several influential figures who have Mr. Trump’s ear have advocated collaborating with the MEK (Mujahedin-e-Khalq or the People’s Mujahedin of Iran). Here are a few important reasons why that is a bad idea.

The People’s Mujahedin are Islamist-Marxists

The MEK was originally founded by a group of radical, anti-Shah university students in Iran in 1965. It was a clandestine organization dedicated to revolution and a violent, terroristic overthrow of the Pahlavi regime. Ideologically, the Mujahedin sought to combine certain elements of Marxism — especially anti-capitalism, anti-“imperialism,” and anti-“colonialism” — with political, militant Islam. They were anti-American and anti-Western, supporting a plethora of revolutionary communist movements throughout the Third World — from Vietnam to Cuba.

They contributed to the Islamic Revolution of 1979

Although the Mujahedin were an underground organization, they nevertheless played a big role (through violence, protests, and agitation) in the Islamic revolution which ousted the Shah and brought Khomeini to power.

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Participation of the MEK, Mujahedin-e-Khalq or the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, in a Tehran demonstration during the revolution

Unfortunately for the MEK and Khomeini’s other allies who were naïve enough to believe in his promises of democracy and political pluralism, the Ayatollah strove for a clerical Islamist dictatorship and had no desire to share power. There is no honor among revolutionaries and radicals, for the ends always justify the means. Thus, the Mujahedin and Khomeini’s other critics were either forced into exile or imprisoned. A few were killed in gunfights battling the new regime. In 1988, Khomeini thanked them, and other leftists and radicals, for helping him seize power by ordering the executions of thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000) in prisons throughout Iran.

The MEK is a cult-like organization

The exiled Mujahedin established their headquarters in Paris and subordinate local chapters throughout the world from the United States to Pakistan.

Once in the West, they suddenly reinvented themselves as defenders of liberal democracy and political freedoms in Iran. The MEK founded an umbrella organization — the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) — which was joined by several other exiled leftist Iranian groups. Most of them abandoned the NCRI soon thereafter, complaining of the MEK’s authoritarian tendencies, political intolerance, and bullying tactics. It seemed that, had the Mujahedin taken control of power in Tehran, rather than Khomeini, their rule would have likely been as oppressive and dictatorial as the Ayatollah’s. The internal politics of the organization and its communes pointed to a similar conclusion. The MEK-in-exile functioned like a cult: its members were kept isolated from the outside world and were under constant supervision (they were forced to report their daily activities, hour-by-hour, to their superiors); and the leader, Massoud Rajavi, cultivated a cult of personality and demanded absolute obedience (during meetings, members chanted the slogan “Rajavi is Iran, Iran is Rajavi!”).

The Mojahedin currently have next-to-zero popular support within Iran, and supporting them is a kiss of death for the United States

Expelled from Paris by the French government in 1986, the MEK relocated its headquarters to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Since Iraq had invaded Iran in 1980 and had been waging a destructive and costly war against their homeland, this was essentially the final nail in the coffin of the People’s Mujahedin. Many Iranians — including those who hate and oppose the Islamist regime — have since viewed the MEK as traitors and sell-outs collaborating with Arab invaders against their native land.

Once again, the Mujahedin have learned nothing from this, for they invited Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal to speak at their Paris rally this summer and accepted his support. It is therefore little surprise that there have been no indications of popular support for the MEK in Iran. Cooperating with the Mujahedin can only make it easier for Tehran to brand America as the facilitators of anti-Iranian traitors.

There are plenty of other Iranian oppositionist groups to work with

Patriotic and nationalist Iranians — both in exile and at home — have been unhappy with Barack Obama’s policies vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. Many have breathed a sigh of relief that Obama is finally on his way out, hoping that Trump will follow through on his promises to take a tough stance against the Islamist regime occupying Iran. At the same time, quite a few Iranian exiles are worried about the pro-MEK stance of some influential people in the Trump camp. The Crown Prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, has reached out to Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory and to commence a dialogue on policy towards Iran that could benefit both countries. There are plenty of solid and patriotic Iranian oppositionists to work with. The Islamist-Marxist Mujahedin are part of the problem, not the solution.


Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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