By Ty Joplin
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 Mujahideen al-Khalq (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. Analysts claim the MEK is a cult that shames, tortures and controls everyone inside the group. They live in a military compound in Tirana, Albania, a full 2,130 miles away from Tehran and 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 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.
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.
The MEK’s Other Use
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.”
The group, which has a history of being funded by Saudi Arabia, continues to enjoy the support of the country: Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, who used to leave Saudi’s intelligence, spoke at the MEK’s 2016 conference in Paris to make his backing of the group public.
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.
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