by Anne and Massoud Khodabandeh
President Trump’s floundering Iran policy was firmed up earlier this month when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new ‘Iran Action Group’. According to Pompeo, “The Iran Action Group will be responsible [for] directing, reviewing, and coordinating all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity, and will report directly to me.”
As the name indicates, action rather than diplomacy now tops the State Department’s agenda toward Iran. Action that will surely include increased sanctions, economic warfare, cyber warfare, inciting protest, and very possibly support for terrorist groups. Not a new repertoire. But Iran has proven remarkably vigilant and resilient in withstanding all these pressures, fending off various terrorist groups on its borders, some cities, and even an attack on the Majlis (parliament). More recently, attempts to subvert economic protests in the country have come to nothing. Other means are called for.
As America pressures the European Union to line up behind its sanctions regime and end trade with Iran, there are indications that this could open another front for confronting Iran. The question for America’s anti-Iran pundits currently is how to engineer distance between Europe and Iran. One way would be if it could be demonstrated that Iranian terrorism has reached Europe itself, a theme that Pompeo himself addresses at virtually every Iran-related opportunity.
While rational observers recognise that any such activity would be political suicide for Iran, we are clearly not living in rational times. There are signs that the groundwork for a covert false-flag operation have been in place for some time that would blame Iran for an atrocity conducted outside its borders.
Such a possibility was hinted at in June when an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany over an alleged bomb plot on the eve of President Rouhani’s visit. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted “how convenient.” Iran claimed that the Belgian couple found to be behind the fake plot were Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) activists. The target for the bombing was the MEK rally in Paris which would then presumably be blamed on Iran. How convenient indeed.
That the MEK is named in this way is no surprise. While other terrorist groups have been contained by Iran, MEK has proven tenacious, due in main to the support it receives from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the U.S. This is also due to its cult conditions which enslave and brainwash its members. But the fact that MEK is now based in Albania, far away from Iran’s border, might have doomed the group to obscurity if MEK’s violent regime change agenda didn’t so closely coincide with the desires of hawks in the Trump administration.
Trump, deliberately or unwittingly, has surrounded himself with MEK supporters. John Bolton, National Security Advisor, is a long-time MEK advocate and Rudy Giuliani, currently tackling Trump’s legal problems, has regularly spoken at MEK rallies. Now with former CIA man Pompeo as Secretary of State and taking a hard-line regime-change stance in all but words, all that all that remains is for an action plan to be put in place.
It could be that this is already taking shape in Albania where the MEK has deliberately curated a false narrative through its own websites that Iran is sending agents to attack and kill its members. This narrative is then repeated as established fact by political supporters and paid advocates.
In July, Pompeo repeated ‘news’ of the alleged bomb plot and also referenced the MEK-manufactured allegation that two retired Iranian journalists had been sent by Iran to conduct terrorism against them in Albania. It was MEK itself that falsely tipped off police to arrest the two innocent men. Building on this, Raymond Tanter, part of a cabal of mostly ex-CIA and former military officials who advocate for MEK, inserted this false information into a long article promoting the group MEK as bringers of peace and democracy to Iran. Nothing could be further from the truth.
MEK has a long history of covert as well as overt activities aimed at regime change against Iran. Over the years, when events were blamed on Iran, MEK often insinuated itself in various ways—as it did, for instance, in the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. After extensive investigation, the primary testimony implicating Iran’s leadership came from four high-ranking intelligence officers from MEK—specifically, Hadi Roshan Ravan, the chief witness who not coincidentally also served as the head of MEK intelligence. In 2013, Israel arrested a Swedish Iranian man, Ali Mansouri, who “confessed” to be spying for Iran in Tel Aviv. He turned out to be an MEK member. MEK’s role in publicizing intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program and alleged complicity with Israel in the murder of Iranian nuclear scientists is widely known. Whether or not MEK was directly involved in many of such activities or not, its propagandizing role is indisputable.
Since arriving in Albania between 2013 and 2016, MEK has already shown itself to be aggressive, criminal, and dangerous. Recently a scandal erupted after a British Channel 4 film crew, headed by prominent journalist Lindsey Hilsum, was assaulted by MEK operatives while filming outside the MEK’s closed camp in Manez, Albania. A few days later, Aaron Merat, a journalist with The Guardian, was also subjected to an assault by MEK operatives during his investigations. MEK accused them of being “agents of the Iranian regime.”
This news, shocking as it is, did not find an audience outside Albania. So far, so local. But it demonstrated the ease and impunity with which MEK uses violence when the outside world encroaches on its secrecy. Albanians were even more shocked that their security services tried to hide these events.
Interestingly the group’s self-portrayal of victimhood largely serves its own internal dynamics. MEK moved 2000+ members to a closed camp in Manez to prevent more members leaving the group. MEK leaders claim that Iran has sent various intelligence agents to Albania plot against them and kill them and the camp is their only protection. While this serves to frighten its own members and stiffen their thirty-year resolve to continue their struggle, it also fits the kind of false narrative that leads to the kind of false-flag operations that could be blamed on Iran.
Former CIA Director Pompeo’s Iran Action Group is a sub-group in the State Department answering only to him. This also favors the kind of covert operation with which the MEK is only too willing and able to engage. Worryingly, the attacks on foreign journalists could serve to escalate and accelerate secret plans already in place for a false-flag operation in Albania which would be blamed on Iran. The first victims would be MEK members. The next targets could be Albanian. And this time, in order to convince Europe that Iran is a dangerous sponsor of terrorism, people would die.