The MEK and the Bankrupt U.S. Policy on Iran

Maryam Rajavi (Apa Iceurope via Flickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

Among the many indicators of misdirection in the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran, one of the clearest is the fondness for the cult-cum-terrorist group known as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). National Security Advisor John Bolton and Donald Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, are among the group’s most prominent cheerleaders, having been featured speakers at its rallies. They and other shills for the MEK refer to the group as if it represented what it decidedly is not: a democratic alternative to the current Iranian political system.

Journalist Arron Merat, an experienced Iran-watcher who formerly was the Economist’s Tehran correspondent, has just published a 6,600-word article about the MEK in the Guardian. The piece is well worth reading as a richly informed and up-to-date portrait that leaves no doubt about the nature of the group and the ghastly inappropriateness of using the MEK in any way as a vehicle for U.S. policy in the region.

The MEK originated as a student movement that opposed the shah of Iran and spouted an ideology that weirdly combined Islamism and Marxism. The group was virulently anti-American from the beginning. Its terrorist operations targeted American-owned businesses, and it killed six American citizens in addition to its far more numerous Iranian victims. The MEK was a major player in toppling the shah in the 1979 revolution but soon had a falling out with the new Khomeini regime—among other things, the group  opposed the regime’s release of the American hostages held at the U.S. embassy. The group continued its terrorism, with the only difference being that the Islamic Republic had replaced the shah’s regime as a principal target.

With the eight-year Iran-Iraq War already underway, the MEK threw in its lot with Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator gave the group weapons, cash, and a compound called Camp Ashraf in return for its continuing attacks inside Iran as well as helping Saddam suppress his own domestic opponents. Iranians understandably viewed this phase in the MEK’s history as an unforgivable act of treason, erasing whatever support the group previously had in Iran.

Merat’s article provides details of the cult-like aspects of how the MEK has functioned, earlier at Camp Ashraf and more recently, after the group had to leave Iraq, at a compound in Albania. As cult leaders, the husband-and-wife duo of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi have resembled the likes of Jim Jones and Shoko Asahara. Families have been broken up, married couples told to divorce, and women threatened with punishment if they did not “marry” Massoud and endure his sexual abuse. (Massoud dropped out of sight after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it is not known whether he is dead or alive.  Maryam continues as the public face of the group.) Stomach-turning details continue to emerge from the MEK’s current location in Albania, including stories of forced hysterectomies and would-be escapees subjected to solitary confinement. The former head of Albanian military intelligence says that MEK members live in the group’s current compound as “hostages” amid “extraordinary psychological violence and threats of murder.”

Buying a Makeover

The MEK’s efforts over the past two decades to convey a benign public image completely at odds with this internal reality, and to pose as a force for democracy in Iran, have depended on buying the public endorsements of well-known public figures. This has required money—lots of it. Five-figure speaking fees have flowed freely. Public disclosure forms indicate that Bolton received $40,000 for a single appearance at an MEK event in Paris last year, and Merat gives an estimate of $180,000 as the total that Bolton has received for his multiple appearances on behalf of the group.

In addition to the generous big-name fees, lobbying for the MEK has included other well-financed techniques. The crowd at the Paris event, for example, was supplemented by young people bussed in from Eastern Europe who enjoyed a free weekend in Paris. The group used the same rent-a-crowd technique for a demonstration outside the State Department when the MEK was ramping up its lobbying a few years ago to be delisted as a foreign terrorist organization. Some of the participants in that event were recruited at a homeless shelter in New York. They admitted knowing very little about the MEK but appreciated the free meals they were given for attending.

Where the money is coming from is still somewhat of a mystery. But some clues point to governments that are regional rivals of Iran as the most likely source.

Two further observations flow from this surprisingly successful but wholly unjustified remaking of the MEK’s image. One concerns how some famous—and perhaps otherwise respectable people—evidently have been willing to prostitute themselves to get in on those fat speaking fees. A wide range of political figures have played the game, from Howard Dean on the left to Bolton and many others on the right. Some of the players may have had little more understanding of the MEK when they got involved than did the guys from the homeless shelter in New York. Ed Rendell, a former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, freely admitted that he knew little about the group when he accepted an invitation to speak at an event the MEK staged at a downtown Washington hotel. He then told his audience—in a demonstration of the self-sustaining nature of big-name endorsements—that the reputations of the other speakers at the same event persuaded him that it must be for a worthwhile cause.

Not everyone has succumbed to the monetary temptations. Tip your hat, for example, to Elliott Abrams, a card-carrying neoconservative responsible for more than his fair share of misdirection in Middle East policy, for declining an invitation to speak at an MEK event. Abrams cited the fact that the group was still on the foreign terrorist organization list at the time, but the politically and morally inexcusable nature of advocating for such a group does not depend on such a formal list.

Disruption, Not Democracy

The other observation is that, although the shills have taken their fees to the bank, the fact that a group as loathsome as the MEK figures so prominently in the administration’s policy on Iran demonstrates the bankruptcy of that policy. If the MEK is in the game, the game is not about democracy, human rights, or doing right by ordinary Iranians. Bolton and at least some of the others who have touted the group are smart enough to realize that and to understand the true nature of the group. They are interested not in democracy but in the capability for sabotage, destruction, and assassination in Iran—a capability that the MEK still has despite its claims to have forsaken violence.

Fostering that capability may serve the objectives of regional rivals who do their own sabotage, destruction, and assassination aimed at Iran and welcome the augmentation of their capabilities for mayhem that the MEK offers. It certainly does not serve the interests of the United States. It instead increases instability in and thus around Iran, strengthens the market for hardline views in Iran, and besmirches the reputation of the United States through associating itself with the MEK. If the MEK represents what American leaders mean when they talk about democracy, then the vast majority of Iranians want nothing to do with it.

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. If native “champions of freedom” the US promotes abroad were in America and destabilizing our country, they would, as often as not, be prosecuted in criminal courts here. But when they betray their own people for our geopolitical mischief, they’re coddled as saints! Let’s not forget MEK held lavishly choreographed rallies in Washington in perfect safety long BEFORE it was taken off the official terrorist organizations list. I was witness to (and have photos of) one such charade at Freedom Plaza, two blocks from the White House, in November 2004. Complete with dozens of huge MEK flags and huge portraits of top MEK leaders held high. The next day, a Washington Post report gave details, including a police estimate of the crowd size, without a hint of irony. That was eight years before MEK was de-listed.

  2. There are plenty of very intelligent Iranians, who are world class industrial leaders, who could form a viable opposition to the Ayatollahs. Many have become Iranian-Americans. The Iranian diaspora is broken up. Truth is that, the horrible Ayatollahs and their regiment of followers, are winning in that regard. We need a government in exile that the world can refer to. It is a sad situation. No two well educated modern secular Iranians will agree to a plan and stick with it.

  3. Thank Paul Pillar for initiating the necessary conversation about the known terrorist group, MEK. A major financier is the Saudi specifically MbS. However I’m surprised that you’re calling or implying to name Bolton, Nothin-Ya-Who and MbS as smart people!

  4. “No two well educated modern secular Iranians will agree to a plan and stick with it.” Yes because possibly they are neither ‘secular’ nor ‘Iranian’ nor ‘well educated’ to realize the teamwork advantages! Each self so-called ‘secular’ Iranian is in fact an ‘Ayatollah’ who has some religious place to pose for a picture together with a selfmade ‘God’.

  5. By the way Mr Pillar, MEK is Reza Pahlavi’s army (Reza is shah’s son who lives in the US). When someone like Mostofi is talking about formation of an Iranian government in exile he is including MEK as the army of the newly formed government! These people are truly delusional and people like Trump, Bolton and Rudy and a few in the US Congress are falling for them! One major reason for falling in love with the MEK terrorist group is the fact that they do not have any intelligence or totally blinded to the people who are living in Iran! Only hearing stories from a bunch of delusional Iranians living abroad!

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