by Eldar Mamedov
In a sign of re-emerging ties between the European Union (EU) and Iran, Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s minister of foreign affairs, visited Tehran on April 24. The visit was significant because Latvia will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2015. Issues pertaining to regional cooperation between the EU and Iran in Central Asia and Afghanistan were discussed during Rinkevics’ stay, indicating an EU desire to look beyond Iran’s nuclear program. This visit was another step in a string of reconnections that include trips to Iran by foreign ministers and parliamentarians from a number of EU countries including Austria, Sweden, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
Not everybody is pleased with these developments. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the front group for the exiled Iranian dissident organization, the Mujahadeen-e Khalq (known as the MEK, MKO, or PMOI), which was classified as a terrorist organization by the EU until 2009 and by the United States until 2012, denounced a trip last month to Tehran by Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. The denunciation came two weeks after the so-called Friends of Free Iran (FoFi), an informal network of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) closely allied to the NCRI, organized a conference calling for regime change in Iran and lauding the NCRI-MEK as the democratic alternative.
This is the message that the NCRI and bedfellows like FoFi have been promoting for years in European countries where the MEK has had many more years to lobby for and promote its agenda than in the United States. While the notion of an irreconcilable enmity between the West and Iran was relatively easy to promote during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-13), the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani and the meaningful progress in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program challenge that narrative. So, the MEK, which detests the notion of rapprochement between Iran and the West, has shifted gears and chosen human rights as its casus belli against the Iranian regime.
The MEK’s new strategy is to use Iran’s unacceptable surge in executions and incidents such as the brutal attack on the inmates of Tehran’s infamous Evin prison as proof that Rouhani’s campaign promises of reform and moderation are a bluff, and the only way to change Iran is to change its regime. What, however, MEPs repeating the MEK-promoted mantra of “Rouhani the executioner” fail to acknowledge is the fact that the death sentences are under the purview of the Iranian judiciary, not the president. What they also dismiss is the fact that in Iran, politics matter. The judiciary is dominated by hard-liners who use executions to sabotage Rouhani’s liberalizing agenda. Rouhani’s careful pushback against conservative domestic agendas confirms his reformist bent, but given the constraints within which he is forced to operate, the sequence of steps is crucial: he must first solve the nuclear issue and deliver sanctions relief, which will win him more political space to tackle civil and human rights issues.
The good news is that MEK lobbying efforts against diplomacy with Iran are unlikely to succeed. Even with the extravagant funds the MEK has spent on endorsements by political elites, the group’s prominence in the EU is confined only to one part of the EP. The foreign policy decision-making bodies of the EU — the Council of the EU and the External Action Service (EEAS) — do not consider the MEK a serious alternative to the current government in Tehran, as it has virtually no support among the Iranian population. The dominant EU line now clearly favors diplomacy with Iran, which will, hopefully, lead to a final deal over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. The more the chances of success for diplomacy increase, the more irrelevant the MEK will become.
It would be a mistake, however, to completely disregard the capacity of the MEK to poison the present atmosphere of European-Iranian relations. Institutions like the European Parliament are by their very nature open to lobbying from different groups, and the MEK has proven very adept at recruiting supporters. Among the conservative right, the MEK is viewed as staunch defenders of Israel and Western values against Iran’s so-called “mad mullahs”; among the progressive left, the MEK is seen as victims of the American invasion in Iraq in need of protection (the MEK created its base, Camp Ashraf, in Iraq following its exile from Iran).
The MEK’s expensive lobbying and advocacy efforts have also promoted an image of the group as defenders of human rights, especially women rights, facing Iran’s alleged “medieval, barbaric mullah regime”. The group’s strong presence of women, including leader Maryam Rajavi, is sold as evidence of its commitment to gender equality and secularism. Never mind the irony of its members in Camp Ashraf — excluding, of course, Mrs. Rajavi — being invariably dressed in uniformed, almost military suits and headscarves, and never mind the documented human rights abuses by the MEK against its own members.
On the operational level, the MEK is extremely persistent and aggressive. MEK lobbyists maintain a constant presence in the coffee bars of EP buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg, or in front of the plenary room in Strasbourg. These are strategic locations from which to bombard MEPs and their staffers with requests to support the MEK. Sometimes, however, they overdo it — one MEP recounted to me about how she had to scream at an MEK activist until they exited the elevator she was using to get to her office. Even MEPs’ offices are targets: the MEK lobbyists have no qualms about entering them uninvited and distributing flyers against alleged “Islamo-fascist tyranny” in Tehran.
Yet there is a growing backlash in the EP against the MEK. In May 2011, a number of MEPs from across the political spectrum sent an open letter to their colleagues warning against legitimizing the MEK and its destructive agenda, including to heavyweights such as the powerful German chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, christian-democrat Elmar Brok, the leader of the social-democrats, Austrian politician Hannes Swoboda, the president of the party of the European liberal-democrats, Annemie Neyts, and many others. The last resolution of the European Parliament on Iran contained no references to the MEK or its demands. And the delegation for relations with Iran, while regularly offering the floor to various opposition groups, resisted giving a platform to the MEK.
However, more needs to be done to counter MEK propaganda, which can impede diplomatic efforts with Iran that can, arguably, allow the government to reform from within. Iranian diaspora organizations and individuals, the vast majority of whom do not sympathize with the MEK, may feel that confronting the MEK would give the group unwarranted importance, but the reality is that by being the only organized and constantly present Iranian opposition group in the West, the MEK gets its voice heard. The only way to prevent those MEPs who sincerely desire democratic change in Iran — but are uninformed about Iranian politics or the MEK — from falling into the MEK´s trap is to provide alternative sources of information.
Tehran can also play its part. The leaders of the MEK and the Iranian government may never get along — the Islamic government executed MEK members en masse in the 1980s following terrorist acts by the MEK against Iranian officials that also killed civilians, and the MEK sided with Saddam Hussein’s regime during the brutal Iran-Iraq war — but the Iranian government faces no current, tangible threat from this organization. By complaining about the group to foreign dignitaries, Iran appears weak and preoccupied with secondary concerns. For example, the EP’s ties with the MEK were raised at all meetings during the EP delegation’s visit to Iran in December 2013, but members of that particular delegation never supported the MEK. Denouncing the MEK to this group of people was akin to preaching to the converted.
Ultimately, a successful nuclear deal will make the MEK more irrelevant, and the EU is an important actor in this process. This deal should also make way for tangible improvements in Iran’s domestic environment. So far, the MEK has not presented a credible challenge to this process, but it must not be given the opportunity to parasite on the legitimate concerns of the international community over Iran’s nuclear program and its civil and human rights policies.
Photo: Maryam Rajavi, the Paris-based leader of the MEK/NCRI, poses with members of the European Parliament.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.