Reports out of Iraq say government troops have raided the camp of an Iranian exile group, the Mujahedeen-e Khalq. Though the MEK has long been recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, its members housed in Camp Ashraf just north of Baghdad had been placed under U.S. protection since the Iraq invasion in 2003.
U.S. military officials, including Gen. Ray Odierno, commanding general of the U.S.-led Multi-National Force in Iraq, insist the raid was carried out without their knowledge. Considering that the Iranian government has been clamoring for years to have the camp disbanded and the MEK members extradited to Iran to stand trial on terrorism charges, the action by the Iraqi government may indicate a shift in Iraqi policy away from Washington and toward friendlier relations with Tehran.
The MEK’s support for Saddam Hussein during the horrific eight-year war with Iran has made it perhaps the only group Iranians detest more than their own repressive regime.
A Marxist paramilitary organization formed in Iran in the 1960s, the MEK was an integral part of the anti-imperialist coalition that overthrew the regime of Mohammad Reza Shah in 1979. Its guerrilla tactics, which killed dozens of the shah’s supporters as well as a number of American soldiers and civilian contractors working in Iran at the time, were instrumental to the revolution’s success. After the formation of the Islamic republic, however, the MEK lost favor with the clerical regime and was promptly outlawed. Its members were forced to flee to Iraq, where they were provided protection from Saddam Hussein in exchange for their assistance during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.
After the American invasion of Iraq, members of the MEK were rounded up at Camp Ashraf and detained, as negotiators in Iran and the United States began mulling over a prisoner exchange. The Iranians had dozens of captured Taliban and al Qaeda fighters that they were willing to hand over to the U.S. in return for members of the MEK who had been charged with terrorist activities in Iran.
The interim Iraqi government encouraged the prisoner exchange. Indeed, it wanted all of the MEK members expelled from Iraq and prosecuted for the active role they took in assisting with Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds and Shiites after the first Gulf War.
But as negotiations were under way, the Bush administration suddenly changed course and granted the MEK protected status under the Geneva Conventions—something it had yet to grant Iraqi prisoners of the war. There was, at the time, a simple reason for the shift in policy, as the conservative commentator (and professional Islamophobe) Daniel Pipes wrote in 2003. The MEK, Pipes claimed, offered the Bush Administration “an excellent way to intimidate and gain leverage over Tehran.”
Put another way, the MEK may have been a terrorist organization with what the State Department insists is “the capacity and will to commit terrorist acts in Europe, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, and beyond.” But with the proper assistance it could become our terrorist organization.
Since then, the MEK and its Paris-based political wing The National Council on Resistance in Iran has been increasingly viewed as the most viable alternative to Iran’s clerical regime: the Iranian equivalent of Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. That explains why the MEK/NCRI is the only internationally recognized terrorist organization with offices in D.C. and an open line to some extremely influential people within the federal government. Indeed, the group has been championed by more than a few powerful personalities on Capitol Hill, as well as by neocon avatars like Pipes and Richard Perle.
Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat of California, has called the MEK “our best hope to counter the [Iranian] regime.” Last month, Filner, who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, along with his fellow California Democrat, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, called on the Obama administration to actively assist the MEK/NCRI in its attempts to bring down the Iranian regime. (In 2002, more than 150 members of Congress signed a letter to the State Department demanding that the MEK be removed from its terrorist list; this year the European Union caved to pressure and removed the group from its own terror watch list.)
Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican of Kansas, echoes Filner. When I spoke to him a few years ago for a related story, Brownback told me: “There are serious questions to be raised about [the MEK’s] terrorist designation, particularly in light of the intelligence they have provided on Iran’s nuclear program.”
The MEK/NCRI has indeed provided both Israel and the United States with a trove of intelligence about Iran. Unfortunately, as was the case with the Iraqi National Congress, a great deal of that intelligence is not only uncorroborated but unquestionably tainted by the organization’s own personal interests.
Even some of the most ardent opponents of the Islamic Republic are wary of the MEK’s influence in the U.S. government. Michael Ledeen, founder of the Coalition for Democracy in Iran and one of the most vocal supporters of regime change in Iran, bluntly dismisses the possibility of cooperating with MEK.
“I do not think we should have anything to do with the MEK,” Ledeen once confided to me. “They are a terrorist organization despised by most Iranians.”
Ledeen is right. The MEK’s support for Saddam Hussein during the horrific eight-year war with Iran has made it perhaps the only group Iranians detest more than their own repressive regime.
Yet for a great many of the group’s detractors, it is not so much its terrorist designation that is of concern but rather the bizarre devotion its members have for their husband and wife leaders, Maryam and Massoud Rajavi. Scholars and human-rights activists have long accused the organization of functioning like a religious cult, employing brainwashing techniques, ideological cleansings, forced celibacy (except when it comes to the Rajavis themselves), and even torture to condition its members to absolute obedience.
When French authorities arrested Maryam Rajavi—whom the group considers Iran’s president in exile—in 2002 for her alleged involvement in terrorist activities, several of her followers immolated themselves on the streets of Paris in protest. According to Human Rights Watch, members who have criticized the Rajavis or their organization have been detained against their will—and some have committed suicide to escape. Those who refuse to be rehabilitated were sometimes forced to make videotaped confessions of their disloyalty, then handed over to Saddam Hussein as Iranian spies to be tortured.
None of this fazes supporters like Filner, who has declared that since an invasion of Iran is not a viable option at the moment, the U.S. should just “get out of the way” and let the MEK do the job for us.
“We should not stand in their way of trying to get rid of the present regime,” Filner said.
In other words, the enemy of my enemy…
It is difficult to know how to read the sudden decision by the Iraqi government to raid and disband the MEK camp. Does the move imply increased tensions between the Iraqi and U.S. military? Is Iraq betting that, with American troops soon departing, warmer relations with Iran—which, after all, is not going anywhere—may serve its interests better than relations with the U.S.?
Thus far, it seems that no decision has been made about what to do with the MEK members rounded up in the raid. Will they be extradited to Iran, where they will surely face execution? Would that not drive a wedge between the U.S. and Iraq?
Reza Aslan, a contributor to The Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.