By Ty Joplin
The Mujahideen al-Khalq (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.
However, 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.
Sitting in a military-style compound in Tirana, Albania the roughly 3,500 members of the MEK are said to be waiting for some unspecified event to become relevant again. That moment may be coming soon.
It is now backed by the U.S. as a tool intended to destabilize the Ayatollah regime in Iran, which both the U.S. and MEK view as a threat.
But what does the group actually believe?
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: started in 1965 by a group of radical students at Tehran University, 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 of 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, hatched by Massoud Rajavi was Operation Mersad. Rajavi ordered an all-out invasion into Iran by MEK forces.
The operation took place at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. 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.
The MEK’s Descent into Being a Cult
Dead MEK fighters in Iran, after the failed Operation Mersad (Wikipedia)
Although he initially made headway with little resistance, the MEK ventured too far deep into Iran, and Iranian helicopters and war planes bombed them, killing thousands. Many others were captured and eventually executed. The plan backfired as the MEK became encircled by Iranian forces.
The group lost nearly half of its fighters, and it limped back to Iraq without a clear vision of where it could go next.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
Maryam Rajavi (AFP/FILE)
The group’s moved to Tirana, Albania has reportedly done nothing to loosen the hold Maryam has on its members. Trita Parsi views this as a tragic mistake, since the U.S. had the ability to separate its members and give them more freedom; something the U.S. declined to do. 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.”
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