By Ty Joplin
A little ways outside the center of Tirana, Albania lies a military-style base surrounded by high concrete walls topped with barbed wire and droves of security guards keeping watch over all those who venture near the compound.
No one is allowed in, and those who live in the base only come out once a year for a lavish conference in Paris hosted by the leaders of the group trapped inside.
What makes the compound one of the most unique in the world, is that its walls are built to keep its inhabitants in, rather than keep any intruders out. Inside are thousands of members of the Mujahideen al-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian organization that was deemed a terror group by much of the world, only to be quietly re-branded as a peaceful, democratic group of freedom fighters.
Now, it is considered a vital strategic partner by U.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team who hope that the MEK will one day storm Tehran, overthrow the Ayatollah’s regime and take the reigns of power. The U.S. paid the U.N. and Albania to build the base, ensuring the group’s survival for the foreseeable future.
“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the Ayatollahs,” Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton proudly announced to a conference hall full of MEK members bussed in to the annual Paris gathering from their compound. “And that opposition is centered in this room today.”
But who are the MEK? No one seems to know.
That question is nearly impossible to answer, not least because the MEK has shifted its own identity so many times that former members cannot recognize the group as a coherent body anymore.
Tightly controlled by its leader, Maryam Rajavi, many who have studied the group call it a cult. Iranians call them hypocrites for becoming a pro-Saddam militia that killed thousands of Iranians in the 1980s. Trump’s White House call them the last viable hope of a Free Iran.
The MEK, more than being a terrorist cult, militia or pro-democratic freedom fighters, seems to be a brutal tool of realpolitik, a blunt instrument to be used by the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf to antagonize their geopolitical rival, Iran.
To understand the this, Al Bawaba spoke with Massoud Khodabandeh, who was one of the groups most senior leaders for decades, before he escaped and renounced what it had become. Once their top spy, Khodabandeh now lives in the U.K. as a consultant working on deradicalization and lives a relatively quiet life. Although he speaks methodically, he often veers into small anecdotes about his time in the MEK, sharing stories that shed light on the group’s highly secretive past.
His decades-long involvement in the MEK has given him a unique insight into one of the most elusive anomalous groups in the world; he has chosen to share his story with Al Bawaba.
From Students to Guerrilla Fighters
Formed in 1965 by a group of students from Tehran University, the MEK was organized against the rule of the Shah, whose government was installed by the U.K. and U.S. to ensure Iranian oil flowed to the West. Its left-leaning members initially mixed a Marxist understanding of history with Islam, but were targeted by the Shah’s secret intelligence, the SAVAK.
Many of its members were jailed and executed, and the group underwent a series of internal rifts. Eventually, Massoud Rajavi rose to lead the group, and the MEK allied itself with the revolutionary cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was quickly positioning himself as the top contender for the Shah’s job as ruler of Iran.
The MEK became one of the Ayatollah’s most reliable revolutionary force, providing a backbone to protests on the streets of Tehran and supplying thousands of diehard activists. The MEK at this time enjoyed wide support throughout Iran.
Khomeini,a far-right Islamist, graciously accepted the help of the MEK, but had no plans to share power with them. When he did seize power in the 1979 Revolution, he disavowed the MEK and its leadership, driving them out of the official political scene. Reacting to this, the MEK quickly transformed into guerrilla fighters battling the Ayatollah regime inside Iran.
Just as quickly as Khomeini flipped on the MEK, they turned on him.
In June 1981, the MEK killed 70 high-ranking members of the Ayatollah’s Islamic Republican Party. The bombing also reportedly injured Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is now the current ruler of Iran, permanently affecting his right arm.
Then two months later, they bombed the offices of Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, who was Prime Minister, and Mohammad-Ali Rajai, who was the president at the time, killing both.
Khomeini then set his sights on expelling the MEK from Iran. Most of the members fled to Iraq while its leadership went to Paris.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein immediately found an use for the MEK, and took them under his wing. He allowed them to build a new base for themselves called Camp Ashraf just north of Baghdad in 1986, and began funding the group. Saddam was fighting a brutal war with Iran at the time, and deployed the MEK as a militia against Iran’s army and its Revolutionary Guards.
Under the command of Saddam and Massoud Rajavi, the MEK killed thousands of Iranians and then was used to violently suppress Iraqi Kurds, something Khodabandeh thought utterly contrary to the original ideals of the group, which he thought to be emancipatory.
“I had joined MEK with idealistic aims and revolutionary ideas,” Khodabandeh told Al Bawaba in an interview. “I was a teenager then.”
“After years, especially after seeing the situation in Iraq and the role of MEK in Saddam’s army, it was obvious that not only had that aim gone out of the window, but the force was now a force for suppression.”
As one of its senior members who helped create international branches in Europe and lead its security, Khodabandeh thought he could convince the rest of the leadership to stick to its founding principles.
“I tried for years to somehow influence the direction with no success whatsoever,” he said.
By the late 1980s, the group was universally reviled in Iran for its role in the Iran-Iraq war, and was firmly part of Saddam’s network of militias he controlled. Its goal of revolution in Tehran seemed distant and abstract compared to the funds and arms it was getting for killing Iranians and Kurds.
Due to its loyalty to Saddam, and its assassination of six American citizens, including three members of the military, the U.S. designated the MEK a Foreign Terror Organization (FTO) in 1997, and much of the world followed suit shortly thereafter.
How the MEK Got Off the Terror List
For most organizations, to be deemed a terrorist group spells doom for its ability to network and function internationally. They are either treated as pariahs, or actively targeted by states to be eliminated.
It usually means war, with bounties on leaders’ heads and international arrest warrants being issued.
The MEK, however, experienced none of that. In fact, their time as being considered terrorists was unusually luxurious: they lived and worked freely throughout Europe and the U.S., inter-mingling with policy makers and influences as if they were a non-profit with millions to spend.
The MEK also stands as one of only groups who successfully lobbied itself off the list, paying out millions of dollars in a tri-pronged campaign that included donating to influential U.S. politicians, saturating U.S. magazines with pro-MEK advertisements and convincing the U.S. military and political establishment that it was an asset rather than a security threat.
Its removal from the terror list began in 2003, when the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq, ousting Saddam Hussein and battling against his militias. The MEK was perceived as just another pro-Saddam militant organization, and were targeted as such by the U.S.
But then something strange happened.
After a brief period of conflict, the MEK called for a ceasefire and began discussions with U.S. officials about its status. According to a RAND report, the MEK’s negotiators convinced their U.S. counterparts that they had actually offered to help fight on the U.S.’ behalf before the invasion and that its members were U.S.-educated.
Both were false. They also told the U.S. officials that they hadn’t killed any U.S. forces, even though the MEK had killed at least one member of the special forces. With limited knowledge of the group, the U.S. officials were convinced and accepted the MEK’s terms of the ceasefire, which included the group keeping its weapons.
The MEK then quickly built trust with the U.S., and was treated less like a terror organization and more like a oppressed minority. For their part, the MEK quickly ditched its friendship with Saddam and replaced him with the U.S., who was busy fighting an insurgency and struggling to establish a new government in Iraq.
Despite being listed still as a terror group, then-Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld moved to grant the MEK the status of ‘“protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention in June 2004, effectively placing it under the protective custody of the U.S. The U.N., International Red Cross and Rumsfeld’s own department disagreed with the decision, but it was final. Rather than prisoners of war to be prosecuted, the MEK had been granted special privileges.
The U.S. also provided the MEK with its own office space in a forward operating base near Camp Ashraf; a move that further signaled the U.S.’ comfort with the MEK. They also openly prosthelytized to U.S. troops and formal requests to stop them were denied.
The MEK then set about the task of convincing U.S. policy makers that they could be a valuable asset in the ongoing geopolitical struggle against Iran, who was considered one of the key players in the so-called ‘Axis of Evil.’
A Remarkable Lobbying Effort
Rudy Giuliani with MEK leader Maryam Rajavi (AFP/FILE)
In Washington D.C., the MEK went about becoming a permanent fixture in the social and political spheres. According to Trita Parsi, the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council, the MEK gained the favor of many policy makers.
“Even when the MEK was on the terrorist list, the group operated freely in Washington. Its office was in the National Press Club building, its Norooz receptions on Capitol Hill were well attended by lawmakers and Hill staff alike, and plenty of congressmen and women from both parties spoke up regularly in the MEK’s favor. In the early 2000s, in a move that defied both logic and irony, Fox News even hired a senior MEK lobbyist as an on-air terrorism commentator,” Parsi writes.
At a time when anti-terror rhetoric was reaching fever levels, and the U.S. was passing highly controversial laws that put the U.S. in a kind of secure, lockdown mode, with warrantless wiretapping, systematic searches, surveillance programs and clandestine torture sites becoming the norm, the MEK was in good standing with the U.S., as terrorist groups go. Although some in the Department of State wanted them shipped back to Iran, and recognized that many of their members were responsible for war crimes, officials in the Department of Defense sheltered them and began using them as a tool against Iran.
The MEK also wanted to win over the hearts and minds of everyday Americans, who likely had not heard of the small, nascent group but may have been concerned about peace and democracy, which the MEK now claimed were their guiding principles.
The group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from 2005-2012 taking out ads in major newspapers, including The New York Times and the Washington Post. Their ads were designed to look more like petitions or news stories, and they blended into everyday reading.
“35,000 Iranians Rally in Brussels,” one advertisement headline read, seeking to show that the group had popular support. “250 Parliamentarians, 50 Jurists Condemn . . . Conspiracies against Iranian Mojahedin in Iraq, Call for Removal of Terror Tag from PMOI,” read another.
One full-page ad in The New York Times called for the group to be returned to Camp Ashraf after many had been forcibly transferred to the less-secure Camp Liberty.
(MEK’s ad in The New York Times)
To be sure, the group was under attack by Iraqi forces during the mid-2000s; tens of them died and hundreds were wounded in a series of strikes against Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty.
The MEK paid for a vast array of U.S. bipartisan support. Among its public allies, even when it was a terror group, was R. James Woolsey and Porter J. Goss, both former CIA heads, former president George W. Bush’s homeland security chief Tom Ridge, Obama’s first national security advisor, James Jones, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, popular Vermont Democrat Howard Dean. Its other allies included Democrat Congressman John Lewis, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Representative Patrick Kennedy and retired General Wesley Clark among others.
The ad campaigns and tireless lobbying efforts worked.
In Sept 2012, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the group was coming off the terror list. A Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher praised the decision, saying “The lives of hundreds of the M.E.K. misplaced persons could well be saved as result.” He also insisted that the group seeks “a secular, peaceful, and democratic government,” in Iran.
The MEK had convinced enough powerful people that they were a genuinely potent opposition force that could offset the power of the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran.
Trita Parsi, who was involved in trying to keep the group on the list, told Al Bawaba that State Department officials were desperately pleading with analysts and policy influencers in D.C. to oppose the delisting, and that Clinton dismissed their concerns about the MEK.
Parsi claims that Clinton was facing backlash from other Democratic party politicians, who had graciously accepted money from a listed terror group. “There were so many high level Democrats that had ended up on the MEK’s payroll…” Parsi says, that pressured Clinton to take the MEK off the list in order to clear their names from being associated with a group listed as a terrorist organization.
The MEK is a group that defies conventional understandings of non-state actors.
Its revolutionary beliefs were once seated in a Marxist understanding of history mixed with Islamism. Now, they are willing to sell their ideology to the highest bidder; there is evidence to suggest the MEK mirrors the stated beliefs of the state that gives them the most support. As of now, its stated goal is to establish a secular, democratic state in Iran.
The only thing is seems genuinely invested in is its leader, Maryam Rajavi, who controls its members so tightly that it has been described as a cult centered around her.
But what does the group actually believe? What is its vision for Iran, and how has its beliefs shifted? What caused the group to go from radical student collective to a set of aging, reclusive shut-ins?
The MEK's Ever-Shifting Ideologies
Iraqi security forces stand watch outside Camp Ashraf in Iraq, the former home of the MEK (AFP/FILE)
Tracing the beginnings of its ideology is easy enough: as it developed in Tehran University in thr 1960s, the MEK advocated for a Marxist reading of history mixed with Shia Islam. Iran, controlled by the U.S. and U.K.-installed Shah, emphasized the MEK’s Marxist leanings to alienate it from the political discourse of Iran at the time, and targeted the group and its founders.
After suffering a split from the more secular, left-leaning members and the execution of its founders, the MEK steadily aligned itself with the hyper-conservative religious cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini.
However grateful Khomeini may have been for the help of the MEK and other leftist revolutionaries in ousting the Western-backed Shah, he did not plan to include them in his theocratic government.
Their exclusion from Iranian politics and governance pushed the MEK into the fringe, where their first real ideological shift happened: going from idealistic pro-Ayatollah activist group to embattled guerrilla fighters.
The political aims for which they campaigned and fought began to fall by the wayside as the group emphasized militant insurgency and its leader, Massoud Rajavi, began to exert more control over its members.
By killing high-level officials of the ruling party in Iran, the MEK showed its willingness to go after those it saw as obstacles to its own plan to take power, even if those in the way were Iranians.
Thousands of members of the MEK were killed by regime intelligence and security forces, but Saddam Hussein promised to support the group, which likely saved it from being eliminated entirely. The group moved from Iran to a base in Iraq, called Camp Ashraf.
Saddam’s move however, led to an about-face for the MEK’s guiding principles, and represents the moment it began to be reviled by Iran. By the time Saddam began funding and housing the MEK, he was already steeped into a stalling invasion of Iran. He began to use the MEK as an auxiliary military force against Iran. The MEK, now refocused on destabilizing the Iranian regime as much as it could, obliged and took part in several operations that killed thousands of Iranians.
Supported by Saddam’s air force, the MEK managed to capture and briefly occupy the Iranian town of Mehran on the Iranian border with Iraq. The MEK reportedly stayed in the town even after official Iraqi army forces had left, and though they were eventually pushed back into Iraq, the battle left three to five thousand Iranians dead.
Their most ambitious plan however, was Operation Mersad. By the time the operation was launched, both sides had agreed to end the war, which had killed hundreds of thousands for no clear strategic gains by either side.
Massoud Rajavi, however, saw the war as his crucial opportunity to dislodge the Iranian regime, and felt it could not end before the MEK had one last shot at mounting a revolt.
Rajavi ordered an all-out invasion into Iran by MEK forces.
Rajavi hoped that his MEK forces, numbering close to 7,000, would be met with a warm welcome by Iranians while he stormed into Tehran to overthrowing the Ayatollah’s regime. He thought the task would be simple and that the MEK could easily do it.
He was mistaken.
Operation Mersad and The MEK’s Descent into Being a Cult
Dead MEK fighters in Iran, after the failed Operation Mersad (Wikipedia)
As Khodabandeh tells it, Rajavi called every MEK member from around the world to Iraq for an undisclosed purpose. MEK members streamed into Iraq, where Massoud Rajavi then told them that they would invading Iran.
His plan was to file the group in a straight, thin line to the first major Iranian town, which would rise up with the MEK against the regime and compel a nation-wide revolution. The plan baffled Iraqi generals, who pleaded with Rajavi and tried to inform him that militaries do not send their entire army in a single-file line for an invasion. Rajavi rebuffed them and went ahead with the plan.
The Iraqi army provided air and material support for the MEK for the first leg of the journey, but refused to continue supporting the group once it got further into Iran. Iranian generals, for their part, were astonished that the MEK would defy basic military logic and move all of its assets at once on a single path towards Tehran, so they swooped down to close off the border with Iraq and prevent any further infiltration.
Then, they let the MEK wander into a mountain range, where they trapped the group.
“The whole force got stuck in these four mountains,” Khodabandeh said. Iran’s military closed it off entirely, and the airforce began pummelling the MEK relentlessly.
In just a few days, Iranian forces killed over 3,000 MEK members, many of whom were never trained to be part of an army in the first place. Many escapees were captured and summarily executed, others still with imprisoned and tortured.
The MEK lost half of its members and many of its leaders. “Rajavi never gave the order to come back. Anybody ‘who survived, they came back themselves,” Khodabandeh said.
Khodabandeh also remembers watching Iraqi generals crying at their posts, pleading with Masoud Rajavi to explain why he would order such an attack against all advice that sent his own people into a death trap.
The move to invade Iran cemented the MEK’s domestic reputation as a group of rogue militants in the pocket of whomever would fund them, and forever doomed their ability to generate popular support inside the country.
After this incident, Massoud Rajavi blamed those who survived the massacre for not being loyal enough, and began to mold and shape the MEK into a more insular group, one that could be controlled by just a few people, namely, him and his wife, Maryam Rajavi. Throughout the 1980s, Massoud orchestrated what he called an ‘ideological revolution,’ within the MEK, which forced its members to obey his orders.
But these tools of control became more sinister after Operation Mersad.
“After the failed military operation of ‘Forough Javidan’ [Operation Mersad]...” Massoud Rajavi ordered all those who lost a spouse to immediately re-marry, Khodabandeh said. On top of that, “within a few months he started a new phase of [the so-called] ideological revolution in which his demand was that everyone has to divorce forever and all the women are now his.”
This order reorganized the MEK from being a militant group with some remnants of ideological beliefs, to one where its members were primarily subservient to a person, who dictated every aspect of their lives. Children of MEK members were forcibly taken from their parents and flown out of Iraq, where they were raised in the U.S. and U.K. by sympathizers.
Khodabandeh said he knew of at least one child who was flown out: “I know one of them who changed hands in Canada and U.S. five times. They would register the children for benefits and then would leave them in the street.”
“Every time they faced a major defeat like this, in order to retain control of the organization, the leadership became more and more repressive internally and cultish,” Trita Parsi, the founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council, said to Al Bawaba in an interview.
There is also reason to believe Massoud was literally fashioning the MEK to be a cult as well. Throughout Khodabandeh’s time in the U.K., he sent dozens of books on psychological manipulations and cults to Massoud Rajavi. Rajavi constantly requested them as well as other odd items including a fake eye for one of his former wives. Khodabandeh, not knowing any better, complied with the requests. Decades later, he learned that Rajavi was having them translated into Farsi and was using them as guides to mold the MEK into a cult.
Massoud Rajavi also introduced other methods of control, some years before the failed invasion of Iran ever happen. Many of them were intended to prevent further divisions in the group from forming.
One ‘session’ was called The Cross, where some MEK members were forced to bear a large cross on them. Another, called ‘Individuality,’ forced members to describe their loyalty to Massoud and prove that they were working towards his goals. Of course, members were forced to confess deviant thoughts or actions to MEK leadership as well. Those who had transgressed Massoud would be punished, sometimes through solitary confinement and public shaming.
Human Rights Watch began looking into the group’s treatment of its members, and found members who had been held in solitary confinement for years at a time, and of dissident members being tortured to death in front of others as a way of showing the danger of going against the group. It is highly likely many of these methods were developed thanks to the guide Rajavi had made for himself with Khoadenbeh’s books.
The ‘Social Division’ of the MEK released a statement urging its members to accept this internal, ‘ideological revolution,’ that was really a kind of ongoing purge of the group.
“To understand this great revolution…is to understand and gain a deep insight into the greatness of our new leadership, meaning the leadership of Massoud and Maryam. It is to believe in them as well as to show ideological and revolutionary obedience of them…By correcting your old work habits and by criticizing your individual as well as collective shortcomings, we shall gain much awareness in confronting our enemies…Report to your commanders and superiors in a comprehensive manner your progress, its results and outcomes that you gain from promoting and strengthening this ideological revolution.”
After Massoud Rajavi disappeared in 2003, Maryam took over and continued enforcing cult-like practices on the MEK, likely continuing to this day.
Maryam Rajavi (AFP/FILE)
In 2016, the MEK was moved to Tirana, Albania, but this trasnfer has done nothing to loosen the hold Maryam has on its members.
The U.S. had the ability to separate the members from the leadership and give them more freedom; something the U.S. declined to do. Trita Parsi thinks many would have defected if they were given such a chance.
Meanwhile, Tara Sepehri Far, an Iran researcher with the Human Rights Watch told Al Bawaba that there are no signs the MEK’s abusive practices against its membership has ended.
“We haven't updated our research after that but we're not aware of remedy that has been paid to victims since then,” Far stated. “My understanding is the group still keeps the camp isolated in Albania and doesn't allow independent monitors and journalist to freely report from there.”
Former MEK members have told journalists that the group's leadership forces individuals in the Tirana camp to write down their sexual thoughts every day and then read them out loud to others, using shame as a method of control. A leaked Albanian police report assess the MEK as a dangerous group and that there are "reasonable suspicions" that it may be torturing and even killing members trapped inside the Tirana compound today.
“It’s not really proper to called them MEK ‘members,’ they’re more or less MEK hostages. They want to leave but they’re not allowed to,” said Parsi, who has spoken to several families of MEK members in the U.S. who have been fighting for years to reconnect with loved ones stuck in the compound in Albania.
The MEK’s public face is that it is a force for democracy and secular pluralism, though it has little to show for its claim.
The group’s official website says, “The PMOI/MEK seeks to replace Iran’s religious dictatorship with a secular, pluralistic, democratic government that respects individual freedoms and gender equality.”
However, the website also can’t help but remind everyone that it is fundamentally a one-person show by naming Maryam Rajavi as “the future President of Iran,” having apparently decided the results of a hypothetical election in Iran to be in her favor.
“[Massoud] Rajavi always would say that if it was not because of the Internal Revolution the organisation would not exist,” Khodabandeh said.
“I think he was right but the organisation which existed after these changes is not the first one anymore.”
The revolutionary beliefs of the MEK were slowly weeded out of its membership and replaced with forced obedience to one person: Maryam Rajavi.
According to Khodabandeh, the MEK “has since became the tool for the ones who paid to keep it going and became a closed dictatorial organisation.”
Who Funds the MEK
It is widely rumored that Saudi Arabia has been a loyal supporter of the MEK, but there has not concrete account to verify this claim, until now.
Khodabandeh has provided details of specific transfers of valuables good from Saudi Arabia to the MEK, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The details are difficult to verify, but nonetheless represent the first comprehensive account of the MEK’s partnership with Saudi Arabia.
According to the former MEK member who personally oversaw the transfers, Saudi officials operating within the security apparatus of Turki bin Faisal al Saud, the head of Saudi intelligence at the time, and the late king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, gave the MEK three tons of solid gold, at least four suitcases of custom Rolex watches and fabric covering the Kaaba, the most holy site in Islam. The transfers were worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Saudi’s Gold Transfers to the MEK
Late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in 2014 (AFP/FILE)
Massoud Khodabandeh, who used to head security for MEK’s top leaders and was one of its most-senior members, described to Al Bawaba a network of smuggling and black market sales that Saudi used to fund the MEK covertly.
Gold and other valuable commodities were be shipped from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad. Then, they would be sold in black markets in Amman, Jordan via Saudi-linked businessmen; the money would go to offshore accounts linked to the MEK, funding their operations.
In 1989, a year before Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, Khodabandeh and the MEK’s leader at the time, Massoud Rajavi, went to Saudi with an escort by Iraq’s secret police. “Rajavi was to perform pilgrimage as well as other things. At the time for our return to Iraq, we were presented with two suitcases each, presents from King Abdullah, then crown prince. They included gold, [and] Rolex watches,” Khodabandeh said. These watches were custom-made and had the king’s head designed into them.
The MEK, having disavowed personal possessions, removed the king’s head from the watches and sold them to black market businessmen in Amman, Jordan.
They were also presented with a piece of a priceless kiswa, a large drape that is adorned over the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Kiswas are embroidered with gold and are manufactured at a cost of around $5 million, but the religious and symbolic importance of the fabric makes them much more valuable.
“I was also assigned to bring gold in special lorries,” Khodabandeh said.
Aided by two Iraqi and two Saudi representatives, Khodabandeh smuggled three trucks filled with gold bars from Saudi Arabia to Baghdad. He estimated that each truck held about a ton of gold, making the shipment’s contemporary worth almost $200 million.
“After a few days I arranged for it to go to Amman to be sold,” added Khodabandeh. “We knew a few businessmen who could do this for us and move the money to offshore accounts.”
That top Saudi officials, including the late king Abdullah who was crown prince at the time, was funding a Shia militant group complicates the narrative that Saudi was exclusively exporting a hyper-conservative brand of Sunni Islam, called Wahhabism, around the world to combat Shi’ism. In looking to destabilize the Iranian regime, Saudi appeared more than willing to funnel millions of dollars worth of goods to the Shia MEK.
Khodabandeh noted that some of the money received from its dealings with Saudi was for military vehicles.
Through the Saudi-linked businessmen in Amman, “we bought large fleets of Toyota semi-military vehicles and many other logistical needs.”
Other Sources of MEK Funding: Saddam and the U.S.
MEK leader Maryam Rajavi speaking to a crowd of supporters (AFP/FILE)
During much of the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK was sheltered and supported by Saddam Hussein, who co-opted the group. Khodabandeh told Al Bawaba that, in addition to receiving regular payment from Saddam, the MEK was funneled money from Iraqi oil that was exported to the U.K.
The MEK also garnered a significant amount of money from fraud and money laundering activities around the world.
A massive FBI investigation into the group’s finances in 2004 revealed a complex web of front organizations disguised as charities that were MEK revenue generators. Fraud and laundering schemes were found all over Europe and the U.S.,
From Washington D.C., to Tampa, Dallas, Los Angeles and even London, Stockholm and Paris, the MEK operated “cells” that took part in fraud schemes and fake charities.
One such fake charity was called the Committee for Human Rights. MEK members posed as representatives of the so-called Committee for Human Rights, seeking donations for the medical treatment of starving Iranian refugee children. The donations received were then laundred via Turkey back to the main base in Iraq, where they were used “to fund MEK’s terrorist operation” according to the report.
To smuggle in MEK members to the United States, which listed the group as a foreign terrorist organization at the time, the organization forged identity and immigration documents.
An MEK gathering in Paris, France (AFP/FILE)
In 2012, it was delisted as a terror group and recruited by the U.S. for use in destabilizing the Iranian regime. The U.S. paid $20 million to the U.N. refugee agency to transfer thousands of MEK members from Iraq to Tirana, Albania and provided Albania the funds to build the MEK’s military-style facility in Tirana.
The U.S. also “allocated a budget of 10 million dollars for the purpose of a ‘de-radicalization’ program to dismantle MEK as an organisation and sort out the members,” according to Khodabandeh. But the Trump administration halted the program, leaving the members trapped with the leadership.
The group’s shifting alliances closely align with its sources of funding, making the group a kind of quasi-mercenary force, although the group has not engaged in combat in years.
“It changed from a terrorist military organisation to an intelligence-based propaganda machine.”
Turki bin Faisal al Saud, who was directing Saudi’s intelligence at the time Khodabandeh was assigned to smuggle Saudi goods into Iraq for the MEK’s benefit, has since become an outspoken advocate for the MEK.
“Your efforts to confront this regime are legitimate, and your struggle to rescue all sectors of the Iranian society… from the oppression of the Velayat-e Faqih rule, as was said by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, is legitimate and an imperative,” bin Faisal told thousands of MEK members at an annual conference for the group in Paris in 2017.
“Therefore, advance with God’s blessings.”
Khodabandeh said that bin Faisal replaced Saddam as the main backer of the group. “I would say that after the fall of Saddam, the MEK which was then being run by Massoud under the patronage of Saddam, changed to the organisation run by Maryam under the patronage of Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud.”
“It changed from a terrorist military organisation to an intelligence-based propaganda machine.”
As its sources of funding have largely come from Saudi Arabia and the U.S., it is safe to say that the MEK has re-molded itself to be a kind of tool for them.
How the MEK is Currently Being Used
U.S. President Donald Trump does not like Iran and he has increasingly surrounded himself by people who feel the same way. Understood to be the ghoul siphoning off U.S. power in the Middle East, members of the Trump team have been open about their desire neutralize growing Iranian power.
“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues,” Trump said during his speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly on Sept 25.
“And we ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny,” he added.
White House national security advisor John Bolton promised to bring regime change to Iran by 2019 before stepping back the remarks in a press conference on Sept 24 on the US sanctioning in Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the same conference regarding the reimposition of sanctions that Iran needs 'enormous change' before the U.S. reconsiders its stance. Trump’s lawyer and loyal ally, Rudy Giuliani, said that he hoped the sanctions would bring a “successful revolution” to the nascent country.
Destabilizing the Ayatollah’s regime in Iran is a Herculean task, not least because domestic opposition to it is disorganized and have largely localized, economic concerns.
But the Trump team are convinced that they have an effective tool to antagonize Iran: the MEK. The MEK claims itself to be Iran’s main opposition group. Bolton, Giuliani and Pompeo have all received thousands of dollars from the MEK to speak on their behalf, championing them as the saviors to the rogue nation.
In reality, the MEK boasts a membership of about 3,000 aging Iranian exiles and former members. Their compound in Tirana, Albania is a full 2,130 miles away from Tehran and they are only allowed out once a year to attend their annual gathering in Paris. They have virtually no support in Iran.
So how are they the linchpin to the U.S.’ plan for Iran?
The MEK and Iran's Nuclear Program
The MEK has billed itself to provide two services for those who wish to see a destabilized Iran: a network of spies to provide intelligence and a well-oiled propaganda machine that throws dirt on the regime.
The group’s supposedly deep network of spies inside Iran was given credit for helping to expose the country’s secret nuclear facilities in the early 2000s. In 2002, the MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), made a theatrical claim that it had discovered a secret nuclear facility in Natanz, Iran. The claim made the MEK seem like a credible source of insider knowledge into Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons development scheme, but as it turns out, much of it was just for show.
The international body in charge of monitoring nuclear sites, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) already knew about the Natanz site, making the information less than groundbreaking.
In 2015, the NCRI repeated its style of staging a theatrical reveal when it claimed that Iran was developing a secret ‘underground centrifuge facility’ on the outskirts of Tehran, just before the Iran nuclear deal was signed into effect. Some of the details the NCRI discussed about the site, including “3 by 3 meter radiation proof doors that are 40 centimeters thick and weigh about 8 tons … to prevent radiation leak,” are evidently unnecessary for a uranium-enrichment facility, and the images it ‘released’ were ripped from an Iranian company’s website.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said “Well, we don’t have any information at this time to support the conclusion of the [NCRI’s] report.”
The ‘reveal’ was fake.
The uranium enrichment facility at Natanz (AFP/FILE)
What little actual new information it had produced regarding Iran’s nuclear sites were reportedly fed to them by the Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence, who wanted to reveal the information but needed an element of plausible deniability. The MEK then, was used as an easy middleman.
The other use of the MEK has been as a kind of anti-Iranian regime propaganda machine.
The MEK hosts a lavish annual conference, bringing together its members with some of the world’s top politicians, all united against the Ayatollah regime. The MEK’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, speaks of bringing equality and liberal democracy to Iran in each year’s headline speech. Its official news outlets on its website and the MEK-backed Iran News Wire, produce daily stories on unrest inside Iran to convey to the world that the people of Iran are turning against the regime.
Nevermind that no one is protesting in Iran for the MEK to take over.
Much of Iran News Wire’s story revolve around an ongoing labor strike of Iranian truck drivers; an issue that has no apparent link to the MEK.
(MEK Propaganda, Twitter)
It was recently revealed that many of the MEK members in the Tirana base have been operating a troll factory intended to create the false impression that there are untold masses of Iranians who wish for the MEK to overthrow Ayatollah Khamenei and his clerical government.
The MEK operates thousands of social media accounts that posts pro-regime change messages and fights with the MEK’s detractors.
“The majority of it is abusive, libelous, ad hominem and intended to silence,” Azadeh Moaveni, a fellow at New America said of the posts in an interview with an Al Jazeera team investigating the troll factory.
The posts are often made strategically to create trending hashtags, giving the false impression of a populist insurgency against the regime. To be sure, Iran is experiencing unrests across the country: protests have sporadically broken out over the past year due to the country’s economic woes. Double digit inflation and funding expensive military campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Yemen have hampered the country’s budget, choking off its middle class. The U.S.’ re-imposition of sanctions has only added to that volatility.
While these protests may open the window of opportunity on opposition groups, the MEK is universally reviled in Iran for its role in the Iran-Iraq war and is not a player in the country’s political landscape.
This matters little for those U.S. and European policymakers however, who see a further use in the group. Not as a proxy group or intelligence asset, but a source of money.
"Anything to Needle Iran."
MEK members (AFP/FILE)
The MEK, with its generous funding sources, has funnelled millions of dollars to politicians since 2003, giving John Bolton at least $180,000 in one year alone, the man now in charge of forming Trump’s foreign policy doctrine. They pay politicians as much as $50,000 to speak at its conferences, and give to both Democrats and Republicans; anyone who will publicly support them in exchange for donations.
Among their beneficiaries are former presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the late John McCain who received at least seven installments of MEK funds according to Joanne Stocker, an editor at Defense Post. They’ve also given money to former CIA heads, other national security advisors and heads of homeland security.
From this strategy of all-out spending, the MEK has amassed a veritable army of D.C. insiders and kingmakers who speak on the group’s behalf, convincing their colleagues that the group is paving the way towards a free Iran.
In return as well, the MEK has received tens of millions from the U.S. to build and maintain its current facility in Tirana via a donation to the U.N. Refugee Agency, and likely continues to enjoy support from Saudi Arabia.
What this means in practical terms is that Trump’s foreign policy stance towards Iran will likely always include the MEK
“Anything to needle Iran,” Ervand Abrahamian said of the support for the MEK from countries like Saudi Arabia. Abrahamian is a historian at the City University of New York who wrote a book on the group, called “The Iranian Mojahedin.”
According to Abrahamian, the cost of Saudi’s support for the group is a mere “pittance,” compared to the consequences of regime destabilization. Trita Parsi, a prominent critic of the MEK and founder of the National Iranian American Council, told Al Bawaba that the MEK continues to serve a useful role in egging on regime collapse in Iran.
“If your objective is regime collapse... then the MEK is almost a perfect fit,” said Trita Parsi to Al Bawaba in an interview. The MEK, Parsi argued, is a capable force to effect regime collapse due to their years of fighting both inside and outside of Iran and their ability to conduct espionage operations.
The group, in other words, is not still around to help inspire a democratic upheaval in Iran, but to dismember the country, taking its government and its people with them.
That such destabilization may cause war, an uncontrollable humanitarian catastrophe and more resentment against Western meddling in regional affairs does not seem important to those hoping to see a disempowered Iran.
Back in the MEK’s camp, the ragtag bunch of former revolutionaries-turned-twitter-trolls don’t look like the group they once were.
Dragged through the decades by the Rajavis with a mix of promises that they would eventually march into Tehran as victors and being thoroughly trapped, the Rajavis have coaxed them along with promises they would all one day march to Tehran as victors of an imaginary revolution and thoroughly trapped them inside a remote prison.
The group, by all accounts, shouldn’t exist anymore.
It carries on as a ghost, pushed forward only by massive amounts of money by states with their own fantasies of uprooting the Iranian regime.
Now that the MEK’s average age is around 55 or 60, “it is fair to say the members have nowhere to go but to stay,” in Tirana and watch the organization slowly fade away, Khodabandeh said.
“The only alternative for them is suicide. Especially the ones who have joined following an idea.”
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