The Mujahadeen-e Khalq

Should Washington Embrace the MEK?


Eli Segall

Political Science 498

Fall 2003

Prof. Raymond Tanter






Puzzle:  It is puzzling that - given the international security threat posed by Iran - the United States has not embraced the armed Iranian opposition group Mujahadeen-e Khalq as a tool to bring down the Iranian regime. 


Question:  Should Washington support the Mujahadeen in their efforts toward regime change in Tehran?



The Threat from Tehran

MEK and State Department’s Terrorist List


The Real History of the Mujahadeen


Support in Iran


Prospect Theory


Deterrence Theory


Policy Recommendations







The American-led War on Terrorism had resulted in the toppling of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; there is now increasing speculation that the Islamic Republic of Iran – geographically squeezed between Afghanistan and Iraq - may be Washington’s next target for regime change.  The Taliban was overthrown due to their sponsorship of international terrorism, specifically allowing Al-Qaeda to function uninhibited within Afghanistan’s borders and carry out the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; Saddam was toppled in May 2003 due to his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and his continued deceit of international weapons inspectors.  There is ample evidence showing Iran both sponsors international terrorism – in the form of diplomatic, military, and financial support – and has mislead the international community with respect to their nuclear program, raising suspicion that they are indeed pursuing a nuclear weapon.


Given the threat posed by Iran, some American policy-makers are calling for Washington to adopt “regime change” as the official policy towards Tehran.  Many of these same voices are also calling for President George W. Bush to embrace the largest armed Iranian opposition group, the Mujahadeen-e Khalq (“MEK”), as a tool to bring down the regime in Tehran.  MEK sympathizers point out that the Mujahadeen have exposed previously unknown elements of Tehran’s nuclear program, resulting in increased inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); Washington should therefore support this group to gather intelligence with the potentially of supporting military activities to destabilize the mullahs.  It is also emphasized that the MEK’s platform calls for democracy, human rights, secularism, and protection of minorities’ and women’s rights in Iran.



                                                                                Masud Rajavi                                                                                    Maryam Rajavi 


However, it would be unwise to embrace the MEK.  To do so would mean that the United States is following the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  But what if the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy?  The MEK has a long record anti-West propaganda and terrorism, often directed at the United States.  They murdered six Americans in Iran in the 1970s and helped both topple the pro-U.S. Shah in 1978-1979 and occupy the American Embassy of Tehran in November 1979.  Following their expulsion from Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s, the MEK allied with Saddam Hussein and - in exchange for providing domestic security operations against Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds - Saddam gave the MEK millions of dollars, protection, and bases along the Iranian border from which the MEK could launch their frequent attacks against the clerical regime. 


Furthermore, the Mujahadeen have the characteristics of a personality cult that centered on their leader Masud Rajavi.  Due to a history of setbacks at achieving their goal of ruling Iran, as proscribed by prospect theory the MEK is in a domain of loss and as such should be treated with suspicion due to expected irrational behavior.  Many MEK supporters are also under the influence of motivated bias, which distorts their information processing by allowing individuals to see what they want to see; that the MEK is pro-U.S., pro-democracy and fighting only to free the Iranian people from their oppressive rulers.  However, as summarized by a 1994 State Department report, the MEK is “scorned by the majority of Iranians, (is) fundamentally non-democratic, (and) does not represent a viable alternative to the current government in Iran.”[1]  Washington should consequently refrain from supporting this group.




The Threat from Tehran


There is no question that Iran poses an international security threat; this is due to its sponsorship of international terrorism, harboring of Al-Qaeda operatives and leaders, and active pursuit of WMDs, especially nuclear weapons (NW).  Although in October 2003 Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage stated that Washington did not favor deposing the Iranian government,[2] the United States should change its stance and take an official position supporting regime change in Tehran.



                                        President Mohammed Khatami                                                                                        Flag courtesy: www.cia.giv

                                            Photo courtesy:


Sponsorship of International Terrorism

Iran was named by the U.S. State Department as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2002” in their annual report on state sponsored terrorism.[3]  The focus of Tehran’s involvement in terrorism centered on anti-Israel terror groups; the State Department’s report says, “Iran provided Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian rejectionist groups – notably Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) – with funding, safehaven, training, and weapons.  Tehran also encouraged Hizballah and the Palestinian rejectionist groups to coordinate their planning and to escalate their terrorist activities against Israel.”  The report further cites Iranian support of Islamic terror groups in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


Iran began its history of anti-U.S. terror activity by holding 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in 1979-1980 in the American Embassy in Tehran.  Shortly thereafter, the Islamic Republic intervened in Lebanon’s civil war by creating the proxy group Hizballah.  This Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist organization began its long, violent history with three massive attacks against American personnel and allies: the suicide bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut (April 18, 1983), killing 61; the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marines headquarters in Beirut (October 23, 1983), which killed 241; and the suicide bombing of the French Army barracks in Beirut (October 23, 1983), which killed 56.[4] 


Further links to Hizballah terror include having alleged prior knowledge of and/or involvement in the 1988 kidnapping and murder of Col. William Higgins, a U.S Marine involved in the UN observer missions in Lebanon; the 1992 and 1994 bombings of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Cultural Center, respectively, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which combined to kill over 100 people;[5] and Israeli and American intelligence have accused Tehran of attempting to illegally ship 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinian Authority in January 2002.[6]   Tehran continues to harbor Imad Mughniyeh, a founder of Hizballah and the man responsible for the 1983 attacks on the American embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.[7]  Additionally, about 150 Iranian Revolution Guards remain in Lebanon to coordinate Iranian arms deliveries to Hizballah via Syria.



Photo courtesy:


Iranian sponsorship of terrorism is not limited to supporting Hizballah.  In June 2001, the Justice Department stated that Iran was involved in the June 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen.[8]   The Islamic Republic has long been linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that has conducted numerous suicide bombings and other terror attacks in Turkey.  In 1989, PKK leader Abdullah Ocala’s brother Oman opened a PKK office in Iran, and in 1990, Tehran allowed the PKK to establish 20 bases from which to strike Turkey across Iran’s border.  Approximately 5,000 PKK members fled Turkey into both Iraq and Iran in September 1999, receiving safehaven.[9]


Harboring of Al-Qaeda Operatives and Leaders

Currently there is much debate over the extent to which the Iranian government is allowing members of Al-Qaeda to take refuge in Iran.  Evidence exists showing Tehran is actively pursuing Al-Qaeda members within its borders and that the Shi’ite government has never had a good relationship with the Sunni terror network.  Before September 11, Iran was the main supporter of the Northern Alliance and nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1998 after Afghan forces killed 10 Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i-Sharif.[10] 


Responding to American accusations that it permits Al-Qaeda members to live in Iran, Tehran has arrested a number of alleged members of the terrorist network.  Kamal Kharrazi, Iran’s Foreign Minister, announced in September 2003 that Iran would put Al-Qaeda members on trial, while rejecting U.S. demands to extradite them to their home countries.[11]  Iranian officials have also publicly acknowledged holding “big fish” - senior Al-Qaeda members - in their country,[12] and have given to the UN Security Council a list of 240 names of alleged Al-Qaeda members Iran has arrested.[13]  The State Department has even said that Tehran has “detained and turned over to foreign governments a number of Al-Qaeda members.”[14]


The controversy over Iran’s ties to Al-Qaeda began in May 2003 with the suicide car bombing of residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that killed 35 people, including eight Americans.  Western intelligence intercepted a telephone call between Iran and Saudi Arabia, suggesting that Saif al-Adel, Al-Qaeda’s number 3 man and chief military planner, was in Iran.[15] Later that month, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “It is clear that (Iran has) permitted senior Al-Qaeda operatives in their country, and that is something that creates a danger to the world.”[16]  Secretary of State Colin Powell further declared in September, “We believe Iran has Al-Qaeda leaders in Iran, and Al-Qaeda personnel.”[17]


Despite signs of Iranian cooperation in the fight against Al-Qaeda, intelligence experts say Iran has not turned over senior leaders in their country.  Such individuals include: Saad bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son; Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Al-Qaeda’s spokesman; Saif al-Adel; and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda’s number 2 man and Osama bin Laden’s personal physician. [18] The U.S. broke off official contacts with Iran in May, accusing Tehran of allowing Saad bin Laden and others to plan the May suicide bombings in Riyadh.[19]  Others allegedly in Iran include: Mahfouz Ould Walid, aka Abu Hafs the Mauritanian, head of the religious committee that issues fatwas justifying attacks; Abu Mohammad Masri, an Egyptian wanted for the 1998 East African U.S. Embassy bombings and Al-Qaeda’s chief financial planner; and al-Zawahari’s deputy, Abu Khayer.[20] 



                                                                                              Ayman al-Zawhiri                                            Saif al-Adel

                                                                                                                                   Photos courtesy:


There are also substantial links between Iranian-sponsored Hizballah and Al-Qaeda.  Former Al-Qaeda operatives have testified in court that Mugniyah, the Hizballah leader living in Iran, met Osama bin Laden several times in Sudan in the mid-1990’s and agreed to train Al-Qaeda members in the use of explosives and other techniques in exchange for weapons. Hamid Zakiri, a defector from Iran’s elite Jerusalem Force told the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sarq al-Awsat that Mugniyah had “personally planned the escape of dozens of Al-Qaeda men to Iran” and that he served as “a liaison officer with Dr. Zawahari and with commanders of other fundamentalist organizations.”[21]  At the East African embassy-bombing trial, terrorist suspect Ali Mohammed admitted to providing security for meetings between Al-Qaeda and Hizballah.[22]  Additionally, in February 2002, Turkish police arrested two Palestinians and a Jordanian who had illegally entered Turkey from Iran on their way to carry out a terrorist attack in Israel.  These individuals were members of Beyyiat el-Imam (an Al-Qaeda affiliate), had fought for the Taliban, received training in Afghanistan, and were sent on their mission by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a top Al-Qaeda leader who was in Iran at the time and has been linked to Hizballah.[23]


The terrorist suspects allegedly in Iran pose significant international security threats and have killed hundred of innocent people.  Aside from the May 12 Riyadh bombings, Saad bin Laden has been directly linked to the April 11, 2002 synagogue bombing in Tunisia that killed 19,[24] and the May 16, 2003 bombings in Casablanca, Morocco that left 45 people dead.[25] The Iranian security force believed to be protecting these Al-Qaeda leaders is the highly trained and well-funded Jerusalem (“Qods”) Force. The group’s former commander, Ahmad Vahidi, allegedly help plan the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aries’s Jewish Cultural Center, killing 85 people. Of the more than three dozen Shi’ite and Sunni foreign Islamic terror groups it has supported, the Jerusalem Force has given arms and training to Hizballah, Hamas, and PIJ; U.S. and European intelligence sources add that they have been tied to Al-Qaeda for more than a decade[26]


Pursuit of WMD

According to the CIA, “Iran already has stockpiled blister, blood, and choking agents – and the bombs and artillery shells to deliver them – which it previously manufactured.  It probably also has made some nerve agents.”[27]  The unclassified report added,” Tehran probably maintains an offensive (biological weapons) program.” Under the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, the Bush administration on January 16, 2002 sanctioned two Chinese companies and a Chinese individual for transferring to Iran sensitive equipment and technology used to manufacture chemical and biological weapons.[28] Sanctions were also imposed May 9, 2002 on 12 Chinese, Moldavian, and Armenian firms and individuals for transferring items to Iran that could assist the Tehran with missile development or the production of CW and/or BW.[29



                                                                                       Iranian missile parade                                                                                    Shahab-3

                                                                                              Photos courtesy:                                                                   Photo courtesy:


Of greater concern to the United States and the international community, however, are Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon; in fact, President Bush declared on June 18, 2003 that the United States “would not tolerate construction” of such a weapon by Iran.[30]  The CIA has stated that Washington “remains convinced Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program” and that “Iran has technology that also can support fissile material production for Tehran’s overall nuclear weapons program.”[31]  The report further claims, “Iran has continued to attempt using its civilian nuclear energy program to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire assorted nuclear fuel-cycle capabilities.”


In response to accusations by the MEK, Iran acknowledged in December 2002 that it is, in fact, building facilities at Arak and Natanz that could be used to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei visited the Natanz site in February 2003 and in his June 6, 2003 report, was very critical of Iran, saying that Natanz was an advanced uranium enrichment facility and that Iran had hidden certain aspects of its nuclear program, such as importation of uranium.[32] As a result of these IAEA inspections, five additional facilities were put under safeguards; the two enrichment plants in Natanz are also built partly underground, raising concerns about the transparency of Iran’s program.[33] Nevertheless, Iranian Foreign Minister Khazari declared in September that Tehran would not end its nuclear program.[34]

In late October 2003, Iran agreed to allow spot inspections of its nuclear facilities and to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing following international pressure that stemmed from last year’s discovery of highly-enriched uranium at two previously unknown sites.[35] But in November, a confidential report from the IAEA revealed that Iran secretly manufactured small amounts of enriched uranium and plutonium as part of a nuclear program for 18 years.  While the report said there is “no evidence” that Iran had sought to build a nuclear bomb, the U.N. weapons watchdog said it would continue to investigate this as a possibility.  In addition to the 18-year uranium centrifuge program, Iran has also acknowledged its 12-year laser enrichment program.[36] 




MEK and the State Department’s terrorist list


Originally designated by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 1997, MEK supporters feel that the first step towards bringing down the Iranian regime is to embrace the MEK and have them removed from the terrorist list.  This will be difficult for the time being, since Secretary of State Colin Powell recently amended the State Department’s list of FTOs to include two American affiliates of the MEK, the National Council of Resistance (NCR) and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).[37]  However, pro-MEK activists argue that Washington should support the MEK both abroad and at home by allowing NCR and NCRI to resume press conferences and fund-raising.


Why was the MEK put on the terrorist list?  Some argue that it was done to appease newly elected President Mohammed Khatami; as noted by Raymond Tanter, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “the Assistant Secretary of State at the time…Martin Indyk, disclosed that White House interest in opening up dialogue with the Iranian government in 1997 pushed the MEK classification.[38]


The State Department has three main criteria for designating a group as an FTO: 1) It must be a foreign organization; 2) The organization must engage in terrorist activity; and 3) The organization’s terrorist activity or terrorism must threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security of the United States.[39]  All criteria have been met by the MEK.  The State Department says that during the 1970’s, the MEK killed U.S. military personnel and civilians in Iran and supported the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.  They also helped Saddam in suppressing Shi’ite and Kurdish uprisings in southern and northern Iraq.  Other major acts of terrorism include killing over 70 high-ranking Iranian officials – including the Chief Justice, President, and Prime Minister - in 1981 by blowing up the head office of the Islamic Republic Party, and the near-simultaneous attacks in April 1992 on Iranian Embassies in 13 countries.[40] 


While the MEK may have once deserved to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization, many feel this is no longer the case, citing the MEK’s pro-U.S. stance and the fact that they have not attacked Americans in over thirty years.  For the past 15 years the MEK has been organized primarily as an army whose attacks are directed only at specific Iranian regime targets.[41]  More importantly, the MEK has exposed elements of Iran’s nuclear program that were previously unknown to the international community and the IAEA.  The NCRI has held press conferences displaying satellite imagery, as they did on August 14, 2002 when they showed satellite photographs of previously unknown nuclear sites at Natanz and Arak.  Following this press conference, Iran’s Vice President Reza Aghazadeh informed the IAEA of Iran’s undisclosed activities in the nuclear fuel cycle, leading to multiple IAEA visits to Iranian facilities throughout 2003.[42]  Explains Tanter: “The MEK (provides) the eyes and ears for human intelligence on the ground in Iran.”[43]


The Iranian dissident group has enjoyed significant Congressional support despite their designation as a terrorist organization.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) - the most outspoken supporter of the group in Congress - claims that the MEK “loves the United States.  They’re assisting us in the war on terrorism; they’re pro-U.S.” and that “in no meeting or briefing I have ever attended has anyone called this group an anti-U.S., terrorist organization.”[44]  In October 2000, 228 Members of Congress issued a “Statement of Iranian Policy,” calling for Washington to officially support the “democratic goals” of the NCR and stating that this group “can contribute to the promotion of peace, human rights and stability in this part of the world.”[45]  One year later, 30 Senators expressed “support for the democratic goals” of the MEK.[46]  Rep. Ros-Lehtinen claims that a petition she circulated in the House in November 2002 praising the MEK garnered 150 signatures, although she has declined to release the names of those who signed it.[47]



                                                                                               Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL)

                                                                                                          Photo courtesy:


While the MEK once engaged in anti-U.S. terrorist activity, Mujahadeen activists are correct to point out that they have not done so for over three decades.  They do not appear to pose a threat to American personnel or national security; in fact, their efforts to destabilize the Iranian regime and to expose hidden elements of Tehran’s nuclear program only serves U.S. interests.  It is thus time for the State Department to remove the MEK from its terrorist list, allow their American affiliates to resume press conferences in the United States, and to release their frozen assets.  However, should the U.S. officially embrace the MEK as a tool to bring down the Iranian regime?  This is a different question and has a different, more complicated answer.  To answer this dilemma, one must understand the history of the MEK and identify their true ideological and military foundations.




The real history of the Mujahadeen


The publicly stated goal of the MEK is to bring freedom and democracy to the Iranian people and to rid the country of its oppressive theocratic rulers.  They present themselves as a pluralistic and democratic organization that shares common Western values such as secularism, ownership of private property, a market economy, and the protection of minorities’ and women’s rights.[48]   They also claim to be staunch supporters of the United States.  In reality, the MEK is a dangerous personality cult centered on leader Masud Rajavi, and functions more as a mercenary organization, offering its services to convenient allies.


The roots of the MEK date back to the early 1960’s with Mehdi Bazargan’s founding of the Liberation Movement of Iran, a nationalistic, liberal, lay-religious party.  This group strongly supported Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, who was toppled in 1953 by a CIA-backed coup.  Members of the Liberation Movement were, like Bazargan, largely Western-educated professionals and from wealthy mercantile families.[49]  Allied with radical cleric Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani, in June 1963 the Liberation Movement launched a failed uprising against the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.  This resulted in 10-year prison sentences for both Bazargan and Taleqani[50] and younger members of the Liberation Movement broke off to form a more militant anti-Shah organization; this formed the nucleus of what later became the MEK.[51]


Mohammed Mosaddeq

Photo courtesty:


The failed June 1963 uprising was seen a major turning point by the Mujahadeen. “The question,” according to one early founder, “was no longer whether but when and how one should take up arms.”  In an article entitled ‘Armed struggle is as historical necessity,’ it was declared by the group that the answer to “What is to be done?” was “armed struggle.”  Another pamphlet said that the June Uprising, despite ending in defeat, “laid the ground for the future revolutionary armed struggle…. The masses could no longer delude themselves with the idea that such a bloodthirsty regime could reform itself.”[52]



It was around this time that the MEK developed their ideological mix of radical Islam and Marxism.[1]  Original members of the group’s “Ideological Team”, Hosayn Ruhani and Torab Haqshenas, once explained that their “original aim was to synthesize the religious values of Islam with the scientific thought of Marxism…for we were convinced that true Islam was compatible with the theories of social evolution, historical determinism, and the class struggle.”  According to the Mujahadeen, the Prophet Mohammed had come to establish not just a new religion but a new ummat – a progressive society that sought social justice – and his message was one of nezam-e tawhidi, a classless society free of poverty, corruption, war, inequality, and oppression.[53]


The Mujahadeen quickly angered Iranian clerics by tampering with Shi’ite theology – i.e. changing traditional religious terms to instead have only Marxist significance and treating the Quran as a historical document rather than God’s word and eternal truth.[54]  However, the focus of MEK’s complaints was imperialism, but more specifically, American imperialism. The Pahlavi dynasty – backed by the United States – had only brought increased political, economic, social, and cultural hardship upon the Iranian people, and the only solution was armed struggle. 


Alongside the anti-imperialist/U.S. attitude, there also developed a strong identification with other “revolutionary” struggles.  Saïd Mohsen, one of the original three Liberation Movement members to organize the Mujahadeen, declared before a military tribunal in 1972, “The present situation leaves one with no choice but to take up arms against the royalist regime…. What is more, the revolutionary experiences of Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, and the Palestinians have shown us the new road…. We have two choices: victory or martyrdom.”  Current MEK leader Masud Rajavi further declared at the same tribunal that most of the world’s problems had been created by imperialism and that American imperialism in particular was the main enemy of Iran. Not only did the U.S. overthrow Mosaddeq, but also it had sold weapons to the “bloodthirsty regime” that “perpetrated the crimes of June 1963.”  “Thus,” Rajavi asserted, “the main goal now is to free Iran of U.S. imperialism.”[55]


The MEK currently postures itself as an inclusive, pro-democracy organization that shares common Western values.  According to Abrahamian, “the Mujahadeen in the past had little to say about democracy and political pluralism.”  However, threatened by the increasingly powerful clergy, the MEK “eagerly adopted” these two ideals as their own.  By mid-1980, Rajavi was openly declaring that political freedom and true Islam were inseparable and that humans could not live without freedom.  Although they once flirted with anti-Semitism and anti-Baha’ism, the Mujahadeen of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s “carefully avoided such prejudices, and instead openly defended the rights of Jews, Christians, and Sunni Kurds.” 


Anti-Western rhetoric has long been a staple of MEK propaganda, both in the period leading up to the Islamic Revolution and afterward.  In late February 1979, the MEK released a detailed 14-point program calling for, among other things, the nationalization of all banks and businesses (especially Western ones) and the termination of all foreign alliances to allow Iran to enter the community of non-aligned nations.[56]  In May 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini denounced the U.S. Senate, the MEK joined the two million demonstrators chanting anti-American slogans, and Rajavi again described U.S. imperialism as the “main threat” to Iran and said American spies were working to divide Iranian society. 


In August 1979, during the campaign for the “Assembly of Experts,” the MEK ran 26 candidates under an anti-West agenda and called for the cancellation of all military and political ties to the West; the nationalization of all foreign corporations; and explicitly demanded that “land be given to the tiller” and that “the whole capitalist system be uprooted.”[57] During the 1981 presidential elections while championing Western principles  – but only in the context of criticizing the regime’s political record – Rajavi declared, “Only democracy can safeguard us from American imperialism.”[58]  Even as late as June 1992, Rajavi appeared with the MEK’s main ally, Saddam Hussein, and said, “Iranian national movements and their masses strongly denounce the Iranian regime’s alliance with U.S. imperialism, world Zionism and regional reactionaries to launch aggression against Iraq, participate in the blockade on it and interfere in the domestic affairs of this safe, steadfast country in the interests of colonial schemes and conspiracies.”[59]


MEK as a Cult

As described by Amir Taheri, the MEK is “a personality cult built around blind devotion to Masud Rajavi, (and) it has recruited its adepts mainly from relatives of people executed by the Khomeinist regime.  Individuals are brainwashed, and not allowed to develop normal relationships outside the organization.”[60]  Members have reportedly deified Masud’s wide, Maryam Rajavi, MEK’s political leader; her picture is found throughout all MEK camps.  According to one report, “from the day they were born, (members) were not taught to think for themselves, but to blindly follow their leaders.”[61] During protests outside Iranian and French embassies in recent years, MEK members and sympathizers have gone on hunger strikes and more than a dozen set themselves on fire.  As explained by one French-Iranian and in reference to France’s jailing of Maryam Rajavi, “The immolations happened because people see Ms. Rajavi as a symbol of hope.  They acted in desperation when this symbol was taken away from them.”[62]  These extremist displays of support for the MEK show that they are not just the average dissident group; it is in fact a cult that has operated as such for decades.



The first sign of cult-like tendencies came in the late 1960’s when the MEK began preparations for armed struggle against the Shah.  It was decided to establish small cells of two to three members; as explained by Abrahamian, these groups were encouraged to live together “in collectives, later known as ‘safe houses’, in order to pool resources, get to know each other better, and where feasible marry fellow members.”[63]  The MEK had a particularly strong following in Iranian prisons, forming komunha (communes) of tightly knit networks; the Qasr commune, led by Rajavi, was the largest.  With the removal of the Shah in 1979, Rajavi quickly promoted younger activists from Qasr to the top of the MEK.  Abrahamian describes Qasr as “the seedbed for the cult of personality that was to grow around Rajavi in the early 1980s and reach full bloom in the mid-1980s.  Those rejecting the cult tended to be pushed aside.”[64]


After the MEK launched a failed coup attempt in the summer of 1981, the bulk of its members that had not yet been killed or imprisoned fled to France and other European countries.  In exile, especially in Western European cities, the MEK again placed its members in communal households.  Each member had a supervisor (masul), who in turn had a supervisor, and this followed a chain of command all the way up to Rajavi himself, “the first supervisor” (masul-e avval).  Each member had to give a complete account of every day’s activities to their masul.  Members were effectively isolated inside their houses; communes had little interaction with each other and each member had to give the MEK all of his or her financial assets. 




Members were forbidden to read non-MEK newspapers and were encouraged to spend their free time studying the group’s publications.  Self-criticism was required, and those who wished to marry needed to request permission to do so.  If permission was granted, the MEK found a spouse for the individual and often arranged the wedding ceremony itself.  “The MEK continuously stressed the importance of obedience, discipline, and hierarchy, not of free expression, open discussion, or internal elections.” Members obeyed Rajavi since he somehow “embodied the members’ general will.”  The official MEK publication Mojahed published streams of letters, speeches, and poems praising Rajavi; one person even wrote, “Masud is to the Mujahadeen what Marx was for Marxism and Lenin for Leninism.”  The group had also taken on a new slogan: “Iran is Rajavi, Rajavi is Iran.”  Those who had accepted Rajavi were seen as absolutely good, and those who rejected him were labeled traitors and evil.  The MEK now had all the characteristics of an inward-looking personality cult.[65]


Past MEK military activities and alliances

Since it began its armed struggle against the Shah in the late 1960s, the MEK has allied itself with countries hostile to the West and the United States and, as described by the State Department, has a history “studded with anti-Western attacks.”[66]  This includes killing American military personnel and businessmen in the 1970s, as well as assisting in the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the MEK – in exchange for money, weapons, and bases along the Iranian border - acted as an internal security organization for Saddam Hussein, fighting with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and suppressing Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions after the Gulf War.[67]


The MEK began their long history of shadowy alliances in the late 1960s when they launched their armed struggle against the Shah’s regime.  Contact was established with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the MEK sent several members to Jordan and Lebanon to be trained in PLO camps.[68]  This alliance can only be seen as natural, since the MEK – ideologically influenced by Pol Pot, Marx, and Ché Guevara - frequently voiced support for Palestinians and other “revolutionary” groups in Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere.  By the early 1970’s, top MEK officials were traveling the world, solidifying ties with the PLO, Col. Muammar Qhaddafi’s Libya, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.[69] 


It was also around this time that the MEK carried out their first anti-U.S. terrorist attacks.  On May 30-31, when President Richard Nixon was visiting Iran, the MEK exploded time bombs in the Iran-American Society, the U.S. Information Office, the Hotel International, the offices of Pepsi, General Motors and – 45 minutes prior to President Nixon’s arrival - the Marine Oil Company.  They also attempted to assassinate the chief of the U.S. Military Mission in Iran, Gen. Harold Price.  Between 1973 and 1975, the MEK bombed ten major buildings in Iran, including Pan-American Airlines, Shell Oil Company, and Hotel International.  They also murdered Col. Lewis Hawkins, the deputy chief of the U.S. Military Mission, outside his home.  In June 1974, during a visit by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the MEK set of bombs in American businesses and firms representing U.S. interests.[70]  As part of their war against the Shah – who was seen as a tool of American imperialism – the MEK killed a total of six American military personnel and businessmen in Iran in the 1970’s.[71]


In the mid- to late-1970’s, the Shah’s regime was slowly unraveling.  Facing pressure from Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the Shah released thousands of political prisoners in the late 1970’s; many of these were MEK sympathizers and members, including Masud Rajavi.  The MEK then “threw themselves wholeheartedly into the revolutionary struggle.”[72]  Throughout the disintegration of the Shah’s regime, the MEK strongly supported Ayatollah Khomeini in his rise to power; they burned movie theaters, restaurants, hotels and bookstores, and murdered Iranian policemen.[73]  In fact, one of the first people to address the nation following the ascension of Khomeini was an MEK spokesman who congratulated Iran for the revolution, hailed “His Highness Ayatollah Khomeini as a glorious fighter,” and urged all Iranians to remain united behind him in the face of threats from “royalists and imperialists.”[74]

Shah leaving into exile, 1979

Photo courtesy:


In November 1979, the MEK actively helped Khomeini’s “Followers of the Line of the Imam” occupy the American Embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americas were held hostage for 444 days.  Predictably, the MEK has denied all connections to this episode; in an April 2003 statement, the group declared, “The claims about (MEK) involvement in the killing of U.S. military personnel…or its support for the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran…are absolutely false.”  However, in 1979 and after the Islamic Revolution, the MEK did in fact take credit for the murdered Americans in a publication entitled, “Shah: The Enemy of the Masses, the Enemy of the Mojahedin.”  Later that year, in its newsletter Mojahed, the MEK said its fighters had sided with Khomeini’s Revolutionary Guards.  In a January 27, 1981 issue of Mojahed, just days after the release of the 52 American hostages, the group declared that it was “the first force who rose unequivocally to the support of the occupation of the American spy center,” calling the hostages’ release a “retreat” and “surrender.”[75]


Above all else, the MEK’s relationship with Saddam Hussein should prove most troubling to U.S. policy-makers as they debate whether or not to embrace this group.  “Since 1982, the MEK has been politically, militarily, and financially supported by the Iraqi regime” and since 1986 has maintained its ‘National Liberation Army’ in Iraq.[76]   MEK paramilitary units helped Saddam crush the 1991 Kurdish uprising in the north and the Shi’ite insurgency in the south.  It has also been estimated that the MEK received nearly $80 million per month from Saddam between late 1982 and early 1990[77] and - according to former Iraqi military intelligence official, Maj. Gen. Wafik al-Samara’ai – still received around $7 million a month from Baghdad after the Gulf War.[78] 

Saddam Hussein

Photo courtesy:


CIA transcripts show that Masud Rajavi sent several cables of “congratulations” to Saddam over the years and has met regularly with, among others, Saddam, former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, and “Chemical” Ali Hasan al-Majid.[79]  According to the State Department, in late 1998 Saddam began construction of a new large headquarters complex for the MEK in Falluja, 40 km west of Baghdad.  The 6.2 square km includes lakes, farms, barracks, administrative buildings, and other facilities.  Furthermore, the money Saddam used to pay for this new complex came in part from smuggled oil.[80]  Even more shocking, however, are reports that the MEK hid Iraqi WMDs in their camps.[81]  MEK defectors provided information to UN weapons inspectors in 1997 that Saddam had hidden banned weapons-production equipment and possibly nuclear materials in an MEK camp outside of Baghdad; MEK fighters even blocked entrance to the camp when a UN inspection team once attempted to enter.[82] Since the United States went to war over Iraqi WMD programs, this information should prove vital as politicians debate the pros and cons of supporting the Mujahadeen.


Undemocratic nature of MEK

Despite presenting itself as a democratic organization - with particular emphasis on their high rates of female membership – the MEK has been anything but a functioning democracy.  Today, members go to great lengths to showcase their “Iranian Parliament in Exile”, described as “a democratic façade that has elected Maryam Rajavi to be ‘Iranian president in exile.’”[83]  Anthony Cordesman, a former national security advisor and Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), has said that members of the U.S. government advocating a relationship with the MEK are “misguided.”  “It’s a group that has attacked and murdered Americans…. But it has always been able to persuade people who don’t know about the region that it is more democratic than it really is.”[84]                               



 Mujahadeen Parliament

   Photo courtesty:

In the years following the Islamic Revolution, when the MEK reached their height both in popular domestic support and sheer strength, the Mujahadeen never once held elections for its top leadership positions or convened a conference to formulate official group strategy.  Instead, Masud Rajavi maintained tight control over the organization and kept the MEK’s focus on guerilla warfare, not electoral politics.[85]  To display his broad-sweeping powers, in late 1986 Rajavi decided to dissolve the entire Central Committee and instead established a 500-person Central Council.[86]  As pointed out by Wilfried Buchta, while the MEK now claims to defend Western values such as democracy, secularism,  and free-market economics, this “supposedly radical departure from its former ideological principles took place without any public debate, and no evidence of this change may be found in any documents published by the organization.”[87]


Moreover, as other Iranian dissident groups joined with the MEK in the 1980s, many left upon discovering that the MEK maintained full control over all important decisions.  It was the MEK who decided who could join the governing National Council (“Council”); who would receive full voting rights as a “prominent national figure”; and who could represent the Council at international meetings.  Critics of Rajavi, who had assumed the chairmanship of the Council, “were either squeezed out…or else silenced with the constant reminder that it was the Mojahedin, and not they, who were providing the bulk of the martyrs in the struggle against Khomeini.” They also demanded that conferences sponsored by the Council display a large picture of Rajavi so the audience would “be consciously aware of the ideological presence of the ‘great’ chairman.”[88]



Support in Iran


The MEK once posed the most significant threat to the clerical regime in the early 1980s; they could bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets for protests and had a formidable army.  However, they have never enjoyed support from all or even a majority of the Iranian people, and following their expulsion from Iran, the MEK has commanded an ever-decreasing amount of support inside Iran.


One reason the MEK never had support from all segments of Iranian society is that their membership did not represent the Iranian people at large; since its inception, religiously conservative sons from college-educated, leftist, middle class, urban, Persian-speaking Iranian families have dominated MEK membership.  Subsequently, they appealed to only a certain part of the population and certainly not across all spectrums of the country. 


In its early years, the MEK appealed primarily to Iranian intellectuals; these people composed 10% of Iran’s adult population yet were almost half of the Mujahadeen.  MEK members, having been radicalized by the Islamic Revolution, wanted to not just bring down the Pahlavi dynasty, but they also sought to rid Iran of its entire upper class.  Intellectuals as a class were also largely nationalistic and anti-imperialistic; as explained by Abrahamian, the MEK had “impeccable nationalistic credentials.”  The Mujahadeen were staunch supporters of Mossadeq and annually commemorated his death; they called for the nationalization of all foreign companies; and they exhibited support for non-aligned countries.  Lastly, the MEK had great appeal to Iranian intellectuals - especially those who sought a grass-roots revolution and socio-economic changes – due to its fusion of radical Shi’ism, modernism and Marxist social thought.[89]


The MEK made little headway among women and the working classes.  Women were made to appear to be merely the extension of their male relatives, always referred to as “mothers,” “wives” or “widows.”  They were also encouraged to wear a traditional Islamic headscarf, which formed the unofficial female uniform along with long-sleeve shirts and full-length pants.  Homa Nateq, a leading Iranian feminist, once said that the MEK treated their women members no better than “sheep.”  The urban working class, which made up 32% of Iran’s labor force, represented only 6% of MEK’s martyrs; additionally, while peasants formed almost 45% of the country’s labor force, they provided less than 1% of killed MEK members.  Before going into exile, MEK’s lack of support from Iran’s traditional middle class can be attributed to the group’s socialist ideology, including redistribution of wealth, establishing a classless society, and denouncing merchants as corrupt bourgeoisie.[90]




Since their expulsion by the clerical regime in the 1980s, the MEK has received diminishing support from inside Iran.  Knowledge that the MEK fought with Iraq against Iran – a highly destructive war in which Iraq unleashed chemical and biological weapons on Iranian forces several times, not to mention the millions of civilians killed on both sides – has cost the MEK dearly in terms of popular support.  Their assassination and terrorist campaign against Iranian government officials have also killed many Iranian civilians, further decreasing their support.  According to one report, ordinary Iranians consider the MEK “as toxic, if not more so, than the ruling clerics.”[91]  Further evidence of the insignificance of the MEK was seen in 1997.  While the Mujahadeen today remains the most significant source of opposition to the government of Iran, their calls to the Iranian people to boycott the presidential elections that year were ignored; over 29 million people turned out to vote, representing 80% of the electorate.[92]




Prospect Theory


The history of the MEK has been marked by continuous and repeated setbacks.  Having reached their peak of popularity in the early 1980s, widespread Iranian support has been non-existent ever since, and the group has experienced hostility from various foreign governments.  Additionally, the government of Iran has waged a campaign of bombings and assassinations against MEK members around the world.  These experiences have resulted in the MEK being in a “domain of loss,” a frame of mind explained by prospect theory. 


Despite their currently poor status among the Iranian people, the MEK was once seen as a strong organization.  Beginning with the Parliamentary (Majiles) elections of 1980, the MEK realized that, while the government would not allow them to function as such, they enjoyed enough popular support to be the clerical regime’s main opposition group.[93]  Following these elections, the conflict between the government and the MEK increased significantly; by the late 1980s, the MEK were openly accusing Khomeini’s regime of “monopolizing power”, “hijacking” the revolution, and conspiring to establish a “fascist” one-party dictatorship. 


By early 1981, government authorities had closed down MEK offices, outlawed their publications, and banned demonstrations, effectively forcing the MEK underground.  The MEK carried out their most devastating terrorist attack that year, blowing up the main office of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP) and killing more than 70 high-ranking Iranian officials.[94]  Having forged an alliance with President Bani-Sadr against the clerics, multiple demonstrations against of over 100,000 people against the clerics were held.  Following a ban on MEK protests by Khomeini, on June 13, 1981, two days of mass demonstrations were held in 30 cities across Iran; it appeared that the Islamic Revolution was repeating itself.


June 20, 1981 proved to be one of the most significant days in MEK history, as it brought on their purge in and eventual exile from Iran.  Huge crowds emerged that day in many cities, including 500,000 in Tehran alone.  The previous day, Bani-Sadr and the MEK called upon all Iranians to take to the streets to express their opposition to the mullahs.  In reality, they sought to repeat the events of the Islamic Revolution: first, incite increasingly large demonstrations; second, set off “sympathy strikes” across Iran in the industrial sectors; and finally to “demoralize the armed might of the state until the whole regime crumbled.”


However, government forces responded quickly and with extreme brutality, opening fire on unarmed demonstrators and arresting thousands.  Bani-Sadr and Rajavi fled to Paris while the regime went on to execute countless MEK members.  The Mujahadeen responded by carrying out several suicide-bomb attacks and killing hundreds of government security force members.  The MEK continued their campaign of assassinating government authorities until 1983, at which point their armed membership had been cut down significantly.  In the four years following the June 1981 attempted coup, the government killed 12,250 political dissidents; over 9,000 of the dead belonged to or supported the MEK.[95]


Prospect theory explains that losses loom larger than gains; individuals dislike losing more than they enjoy winning.  Additionally, “individuals are generally risk-aversive with respect to gains and risk-acceptant with respect to losses.”[96]  Alongside the endowment effect – which states, “the longer one possesses a good, and particularly the effort and resources expended to acquire it, the greater its perceived value”[97] – loss-aversion implies that people tend to overvalue losses relative to opportunity costs, or “foregone gains.”  Therefore, when an individual loses something that he or she has invested a significant amount of time and resources into and values dearly, the individual is likely to exert extraordinary efforts and display risk-acceptant behavior to recover this item. With a large percentage of their power-base either killed or arrested, the MEK went from posing the most formidable challenge to the clerical regime to losing their domestic standing in Iran.  On top of that, MEK’s leadership was expelled from their homeland and forced into exile.  The Mujahadeen had been placed in the domain of loss, in that their status quo had negatively changed, leaving them in a worsened state after their attempted coup than before it.


                                                                            Ayatollah Khomeini                                                                            National Liberation Army

                                                              Photo courtesy:


Many, if not all, political leaders posture themselves in the domain of loss in order to give a sense of legitimacy to whatever they may be trying to accomplish.  By appearing to have been stripped of a valuable possession, leaders can justify potentially excessive efforts at “regaining” such possessions, whether or not these leaders were truly cheated.  However, with the MEK, this domain of loss has not been fabricated.  Since the early 1980s, when the Iranian government suppressed the MEK’s attempted coup by killing thousands of its members and expelling the group, the Mujahadeen have been arrested, killed, and generally thwarted in their efforts to challenge the Islamic Republics authority.  Irrespective of whether the MEK deserved these hardships, the tumultuous past 20 years have resulted in significant setbacks for the Mujahadeen, only enhancing their efforts to regain what they once had: a robust fighting force inside Iran that could command a strong degree of popular support and topple the clerics.


Moves against the MEK in recent years include being designated a “terrorist group” by the United States, Australia, and European Union; an Iranian attack on seven MEK bases in Iraq in April 2001[98]; French security services in June 2003 arrested 150 MEK members, including political leader Maryam Rajavi, seized $1.4 million in U.S. cash and shut down MEK’s long-standing offices just north of Paris[99]; Australian police arrested 10 MEK members in June 2003 on charges of supporting terrorism.[100]  Most importantly for U.S. policy-makers, however, is that with the commencement of Operation Iraqi in April 2003, American forces bombed the main MEK bases outside of Baghdad.  It was then arranged for the group to surrender approximately 3,000 fighters and 7,000 relatives.  Under the terms of agreement, the MEK were forced to abandon their bases in Iraq, disable and leave all their weapons and fly white flags form their vehicles and as they moved to their main base in Baqubah on specified roads, all while being watched by U.S. aircraft.[101]


As expected, MEK members and supporters were displeased to learn of the American attack on MEK bases.  Mohammed Mohaddessin, a top official in the National Council of Resistance, condemned the bombing as “an astonishing and regrettable act.  It is kowtowing to the demands of the Iranian regime.”  Yleem Poblette, staff director for the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia and aid to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, stated, “In the months leading up to the war, we made it very clear that these folks are pro-democracy, anti-fundamentalism, anti-terrorism…. They are our friends, not our enemies.”[102]


Having reached the height of their organization’s strength and popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Mujahadeen saw themselves in a domain of gain; they helped topple their sworn enemy the Shah and had seen the removal of American “imperialist” influence from Iran.  Now, they sought to consolidate their grip on Iran and oust the ruling mullahs.  However, they did not launch their coup unprovoked and subsequently defy prospect theory by becoming risk-acceptant in the domain of gain; instead, the MEK’s final push to topple Iran’s theocracy was brought by the inevitability of conflict between the MEK and the IRP.  The MEK had strategically avoided confrontation with Khomeini since the removal of the Shah[103] and it was not until late 1980 and early 1981 that the MEK explicitly challenged the mullahs’ authority over Iran.  A war with the Iranian regime was unavoidable, as the Iranian public viewed the Mujahadeen as the only real alternative to the theocratic government[104] and Khomeini was moving against the MEK with increasingly tougher policies.


Given their history of suffering one setback after another, the MEK must be viewed as an organization that will undertake great risks to recover what they feel was unjustly taken from them: their power base inside Iran and the realistic ability to topple the mullahs.  Prospect theory further “leads us to expect people to persevere in losing ventures much longer than standard rationality would lead one to expect…. Sometimes we embark on a program without much sense of the many obstacles.  Were we aware of them at the start, we would never begin.  But if we see the obstacles only after we have put in a great deal of time and effort, we will be reluctant to write off our investment and so will continue, and perhaps succeed.”[105]  While the MEK today has only small levels of support inside Iran and - as shown above - has faced opposition from countries around the world, they should still be expected to continue their struggle.  As dictated by prospect theory, the MEK – despite the fact that their ousting the mullahs is nearly impossible - will continue its ever failing struggle to rule Iran. 


Additionally, “cutting losses after the expenditure of blood and treasure is perhaps the most difficult act a statesman can take; the lure of the gamble that persevering will recoup the losses is often to great to resist.”[106]  Thus, after years of having its members killed, arrested, and exiled by the Iranian regime, and fighting diplomatic opposition around the world, the MEK cannot be expected to just end their movement.  While the U.S. disarmed the MEK in Iraq and put Mujahadeen fighters under their control,[107] this should not be seen as the closing chapter of the MEK.  This organization has had literally thousands of its members killed by the Iranian regime and, as of 1997, had roughly $500 million worth of assets.[108]  No group can be expected to just forfeit decades’ worth of time, effort, and blood with a single cease-fire agreement; the MEK has invested far too much over the years to stop now.




Deterrence Theory


Deterrence theory has explained past MEK behavior: “People are strongly influenced by events that are recent, that they or their country experienced first-hand…. Furthermore, the lessons people learn are usually oversimplified and overgeneralized – they expect the future to resemble the past.”[109]  In light of the success of the Islamic Revolution and the relatively high amount of support in Iran, the MEK’s decision to launch the June 1981 coup appears reasonable.  As the MEK performed well in the 1981 Parliamentary elections, their relationship with Khomeini worsened, setting the two parties on a collision course.  With tens of thousands of fighters and the ability to command hundreds of thousands of protestors into the streets – and given that the Islamic Revolution was still a fresh memory – it seemed likely that the events of 1979 could be repeated.


More importantly, the concepts of motivated and unmotivated bias derive from deterrence theory and can be used to explain why many support the MEK.  Essentially, MEK sympathizers want to believe MEK claims of supporting democracy and human rights because they see the Mujahadeen as the next best available option to the current government in Iran.  Since the MEK is widely acknowledged as the largest armed resistance movement, they receive the backing from those who - above all else - seek regime change in Tehran.   The MEK is viewed as the means to achieve this end. Thus, to justify supporting this group, individuals want to believe that the MEK supports democracy and pluralism, when the facts say otherwise.


Motivated biases distort information processing because individuals see what they want to see, while unmotivated biases cause people to see what they expect to see.  “These biases arise because the problem of dealing with complex and ambiguous information leads people to adopt short-cuts to rationality that simplify perceptions…. Our perceptions are strongly colored by our beliefs about how the world works and what patterns it is likely to present us with.”[110] When motivated biases are at work, many of the beliefs that fuel policies are actually rationalizations; reversing the normal order, the policy now precedes the justification.[111]  Additionally, “leaders commit themselves to a course of action and deny information that indicates that their policy might not succeed” since their thought processing is colored by personal objectives and pre-conceived notions.[112]


The concept of motivated bias applies best to MEK sympathizers.  In deciding whether to embrace this group, the United States must “understand the beliefs and images”[113] of the MEK; this can be difficult, however, given that “the need for people to simplify the enormous amount of information they receive and the psychological pressures that result in motivated distortions mean that there will be serious discrepancies between the perceived and actual environment.”[114]  Given the long and somewhat complicated history of the MEK, current supporters instead simplify this information by looking at statements made within recent years, statements that consistently champion human rights, democracy, and personal freedoms.  When the threat emanating from Iran is taken into account, the MEK’s cultivated image looks even more appealing, allowing people to believe the Mujahadeen’s claims.


The following are statements given by American policy-makers and experts and MEK officials, highlighting motivated bias.  Here, distortion of information processing begins with the idea that the Iranian regime poses a significant international security threat.  Since the best solution to this is threat to topple the government, these individuals reason that the only way to achieve this goal is to embrace the best available option: the largest armed Iranian opposition group, Mujahadeen-e Khalq.


“This group loves the United States.  They’re assisting us in the war on terrorism; they’re pro-U. S…. (The MEK will be) one of the leading groups in establishing a secular government in Iran.”[115]

-          Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL)


“When you’re trying to get rid of a terrorist regime, you use who you can.”[116]

-          Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY)


“The United States wants a change in Iran and so does the MEK.  We are on the same side.”[117]

-          Hedayat Mostowfi, U.S. representative of National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).


“They are our friends, not our enemies.  And right now, they are the most organized alternative to the Iranian regime.”[118]

-          Yleem Poblette, aid to Rep. Ros-Lehtinen


‘Without our support, it will be difficult to bring down the clerics.”[119]

-          MEK official “Raza”


“Is the MEK a terrorist group? No…. Can the MEK liberate Iran? No. Its strategy of invasion by an army can’t work.  The foul theocracy in Tehran will come to an end when the democratic forces in Iran finally manage to push it aside…. Can the MEK be useful? Yes.”

-          Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum and Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.[120]


“It is now up to the U.S.  Does it keep the MEK on its terror list or does it accept it as the best available conduit to promote political change in Iran?”[121]

-          Alireza Jafarzadeh, former U.S. representative for NCRI and current foreign affairs analyst for Fox News.


“(The MEK’s) aims are our aims…. Regime change is not our policy toward Iran, but it should be.”[122]

-          Raymond Tanter, adjunct scholar at Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former member of National Security Council.


These statements highlight the idea that the MEK is the best available option to promote regime change in Iran. Thus, Iran hard-liners look at MEK statements and publications as cognitive shortcuts to deciding whether or not support this group:  Such publications include books entitled “Democracy Betrayed,” which claims that “100,000 people” have been killed throughout the Iranian Resistance’s “long-endeavored” efforts to “establish democracy, independence, peace, and stability in Iran”;[123] and “Crimes Against Humanity”, which is dedicated to the “more than 30,000 men and women, of all ages, of all types, of all tastes, united in a single goal; that of Iran’s liberation from the clutches of fundamentalist tyranny.”[124]  Those who advocate toppling the mullahs must do so in the context of supporting democracy and human rights in Iran for fear of appearing too hawkish; instead of saying a rogue state must be overthrown by force, a policy of regime change is framed as being in the best interests of the Iranian people.  


Not all support the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” An oft-cited example is Rep. Bob Ney’s (R-OH) letter to The Hill.  According to Rep. Ney, “That the MEK continues to peddle its lies should not be a surprise to those who are aware of the group…. When MEK representatives first visited my office several years ago, preaching democracy for Iran, I was glad to join them…. However, I quickly discovered that the MEK are not the proponents of democracy they claim to be…. I have never supported, and will never support, the current regime in Iran or the mullahs who control it…but I refuse to pick between two groups that have promoted and sponsored terrorism.”[125]  Leon Hadar of the CATO Institute said, “You can make an argument that the government of Iran is a terrorist government that came to power in a violent way and engages in violent action abroad.  But you have a group like the MEK opposed to the government but using the same methods.  It’s a fuzzy situation.”[126] 




Explains one Congressional staffer whose member later withdrew from an MEK support letter, “They come to us and say,  'Don’t you oppose terrorism?  Don’t you oppose the mullahs?’ It’s hard to say no.”[127]  Dan Brumberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has said MEK’s support in Washington is “atrocious” and “due to total ignorance and political manipulation.” More strikingly, in October 2003, Reps. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman and ranking Democrat of the House International Relations Committee, respectively, wrote a letter to House members that sought to give “full” and “accurate” information on the MEK: “We are strong opponents of the current government in Iran, but do not believe that it is necessary to use terrorism or make common cause…(with) Saddam Hussein to change Iran’s government.” [128] 




Policy Recommendations


It is clear that the government of Iran poses an international security threat.  Their support for international terrorism, harboring of Al-Qaeda members, and pursuit of nuclear weapons not only threaten the stability of the Middle East, but also has the potential to threaten world peace.  The Iranian regime has a clear record of violence and deception, providing diplomatic and material support to several international terrorist groups and lying to the international community about the nature of their nuclear program.  Thus, Washington should adopt an official policy that seeks regime change in Iran.


The MEK has not carried out any terrorist attack against U.S. interests in approximately thirty years and do not pose a threat to American national security or American citizens in general.  Excluding security operations for Saddam Hussein throughout Iraq, MEK military activity since the 1980s has maintained a specific focus on the Iranian regime.  The Mujahadeen have also exposed previously withheld information concerning Iran’s nuclear program, leading to increased IAEA inspections in Iran and heightened pressure on Tehran to be more forthcoming about the intentions of their nuclear program.  In this sense, the MEK has been a valuable asset to the international community and should be removed from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.


In America’s quest for democracy in Iran, President George W. Bush or the next Administration, whomever that may be, should sign into law an “Iran Liberation Act”, parallel to that adopted by President Clinton in 1998 for Iraq.   This document will establish a foundation upon which Washington can strategize to bring down the mullahs. America’s military is currently spread out too thin across Iraq and Afghanistan; on top of that, a third U.S. military campaign in three years to oust another terrorist regime will certainly result in a diplomatic nightmare, no matter how just the war may be.  And even though the U.S. would not use them for military activities in the near future, the MEK should not be embraced.  It has a history of anti-Western propaganda and terrorist attacks and can be accurately characterized as a personality cult.  Their relationship with Saddam Hussein should prove most troubling.  The Mujahadeen received millions of dollars for several years and were given bases along the Iranian border from America’s former sworn enemy; they also helped Saddam violently suppress Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions following the Gulf War and even obstructed UN weapons inspectors from entering sites of concern in Iraq. 


Given their record of continued setbacks, the MEK should be viewed as an organization that will not end their movement quietly.  They are in a domain of loss, and as dictated by prospect theory will persist in a losing venture longer than standard rational would expect.  The MEK currently has ever-dwindling support in Iran, faces the threat of arrest and having offices shut down in Western countries, and have had literally thousands of its members killed by the Iranian regime.  Due to their being in a domain of loss, U.S. policy-makers should expect the MEK to fight irrationally long and to exert extraordinary efforts toward regaining what once was theirs: strong support inside Iran and a realistic chance of overthrowing the Mullahs.  It misleads the public by presenting itself as a group that has long-advocated democracy and human rights and seeks only to rescue the Iranian people from continued tyranny.


Such lies and misrepresentations should be viewed in the context of shifting alliances.  After attempting to oust Khomeini and being expelled from Iran, neighboring Iraq saw the MEK as a group that would serve as a thorn in the side of the Islamic Republic. Saddam therefore offered money and bases to the MEK and let them carry out terrorist attacks against the Iranian regime (which benefited both Saddam and the MEK) in exchange for domestic security services against rebellious Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds.  With increased political isolation of the Iraqi regime beginning in the early 1990s, the MEK launched a global public-relations campaign to gain diplomatic favor from Western nations.  A heavy emphasis is placed on courting American support.  Statements by MEK members openly acknowledge that they are the best available option to the regime in Tehran and that this alone should warrant support. 


However, this is a dangerous attitude.  The MEK is an organization that – due to being in a domain of loss - strategically presents itself as pro-West to gain allies in their quest to oust the Iranian regime.  This manufactured image was created only due to decreased chances that allying with Saddam would allow the MEK to accomplish their goals.  It is not an organization that the United States can trust, despite the fact that the regime in Tehran poses and international security threat and the largest armed resistance group to that regime is, in fact, the MEK.  Their cult-like tendencies and current public relations maneuvering suggest that the real form of government the MEK would establish would be a single-party dictatorship under Masud Rajavi.  The Mujahadeen’s clear record of anti-West propaganda and terrorism highlight the true nature and origins of the group, and their relationship with Saddam Hussein shows that they will offer their services to convenient allies.  Saddam supported the MEK because he followed the dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  The United States should not follow suit.






[1] The MEK officially split into Islamic and Marxist factions in 1975.  The group now called “MEK” is the Islamic group, although many of its members still adhere to Marxist social principles; e.g., Masud Rajavi, former leader of the Islamic faction and still the top MEK official, declared in May 1979, “We speak on behalf of the masses who strive for the establishment of a classes tawhidi society.” (Abrahamian 186).



[1] Wilfred Buchta. Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Washington, DC: 2000.  p. 116


[2] Steven Weisman. “U.S. Takes Softer Tone on Iran, Once in the ‘Axis of Evil.’” The Washington Post, October 29, 2003.


[3] United States Department of State. “Patterns of Global Terrorism – 2002.” Released April 30, 2003.




[4] Yoram Schweitzer. “Iranian Transnational Terrorism.” May 24, 2001.




[5] Council on Foreign Relations. “Terrorism: Questions and Answers – Iran.”




[6] Kenneth Katzman. “Iran: Current Developments and U.S. Policy.” CRS Report for Congress, IB93033. June 26, 2003.


[7] Michael Rubin. “U.S. and Regime Change in Iran.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Nov. 20, 2001.




[8] U.S. Department of State. “Patterns of Global Terrorism – 2001.”  Released May 21, 2002.




[9] Michael Rubin. “Tactical Terrorism: Iran’s Continued Challenge to the Secular Middle East.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 2003.




[10] Council on Foreign Relations – Iran.


[11] Guy Dinmore. “Iran rejects U.S. extradition plea over Al-Qaeda.” Financial Times. September 25, 2003.


[12] Roula Khalaf. “Mystery surrounds Iran’s Al-Qaeda captives.” Financial Times. August 23, 2003.


[13] Mark Huband. “Iran gives names of al-Qaeda captives to UN.” Financial Times. October 25, 2003.


[14] U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism – 2002


[15] Khalaf, August 23, 2003.


[16] Bill Gertz. “U.S. says Iran harbors al Qaeda ‘associate.’” The Washington Times. June 10, 2003.


[17] “Some Al-Qaeda leaders, personnel in Iran: Powell.” Agence France Presse. September 14, 2003.


[18] Faye Bowers. “Iran holds Al Qaeda’s top leaders.” The Christian Science Monitor.  July 28, 2003.




[19] Douglas Farah and Dana Priest. “Key Al Qaeda role for bin Laden son.” MSNBC. October 14, 2003.




[20] Peter Finn and Susan Schmidt. “Al-Qaeda is Trying To Open Iraq Front.” The Washington Post. September 7, 2003.


[21] Farah and Priest, October 14, 2003.


[22] Matthew Levitt. “Heart of the Axis.” National Review Online. May 29, 2003.




[23] Ibid.


[24] Bowers, July 28, 2003.


[25] Farah and Priest, October 14, 2003.


[26] Dana Priest and Douglas Farah. “Iranian force’s long ties to Al-Qaeda.” MSNBC. October 14, 2003.




[27] Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions: 1 January Through 30 June 2002.”




[28] Seth Brugger. “China Sanctioned for Chem, Bio Transfers to Iran.” Arms Control Association. March 2002.




[29] Alex Wagner. ‘Washington Levies Sanctions for WMD-Related Transfers to Iran.”   Arms Control Association. June 2002.




[30] Katzman, June 26, 2003.


[31] CIA, Unclassified Report: 1 January Through 30 June 2002.


[32] Katzman, June 26, 2003.


[33] Sharon Squassoni. “Iran’s Nuclear Program: Recent Developments.” CRS Report for Congress, RS21592. August 15, 2003.


[34] Parinoosh Arami. “Nuclear Program to stay: Iran.” National Post (Canada). September 23, 2003.


[35] Barbara Slavin. “Iran agrees to nuclear spot inspections.” USA Today. October 22, 2003.


[36] Joby Warrick and Glenn Kessler. “Iran Had Secret Nuclear Program, U.N. Agency Says.The Washington Post. November 11, 2003.


[37] U.S. Department of State. “State Department Amends Terrorist Designation of Mujahedin e-Khalq.” August 15, 2003.



[38] Raymond Tanter. “U.S. Policy toward Iran – Regime Change.” Washington Institute for Near East Policy. October 20, 2003.


[39] U.S. Department of State. “Fact Sheet – Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” May 23, 2003.




[40] U.S. Department of State. “Patterns of Global Terrorism – 2002.”


[41] Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson. “A Terrorist U.S. Ally?” New York Post. May 20, 2003.




[42] Squassoni, August 15, 2003.


[43] Michael Moran. “Trusting the ‘enemy of my enemy.’” MSNBC. August 26, 2003.




[44] Sam Dealey. “Rep. Ros-Lehtinen defends Iranian group labeled terrorist front for Saddam Hussein.” The Hill. April 8, 2003.




[45] “U.S. Congress members support goals of Iranian resistance.” CNN. October 11, 2000.



[46] Michael Crowley. “The enemy of my enemy is my what?” March 21, 2003.



[47] Frank Davies. “Support waning for controversial Iran rebel group.” The Miami Herald. April 10, 2003.


[48] Buchta, p. 115


[49] Ervand Abrahamian. Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin. I.B. Tauris and Co., Ltd., London: 1989.  p. 81


[50] Ibid., p. 84


[51] Colin Robinson. “In the Spotlight: Mujaheddin-e Khalq Organization.” Center for Defense Information. September 11, 2002.




[52] Abrahamian, p. 86


[53] Ibid., p. 92-93


[54] Ibid., p. 96-97


[55] Ibid., p. 134-135


[56] Ibid., p. 184-185


[57] Ibid., p. 191-194


[58] Ibid., p. 209


[59] Sam Dealey. “MEK mounting charm offensive to generate support on Capitol Hill.” The Hill. April 23, 2003.  Dealey cites a translation by the CIA’s Foreign Information Broadcast Service (FBIS).


[60] Amir Taheri. “Islamist, Marxist, Terrorist.” Wall Street Journal. June 23, 2003.


[61] Council on Foreign Relations. “Mujahedeen-e-Khalq: Iranian Rebels.”




[62] Anwar Iqbal. “U.S. not using Mujahedin against Iran.” United Press International. July 9, 2003.


[63] Abrahamian, p. 127


[64] Ibid., p. 139


[65] The two paragraphs discussing post-exile MEK were based on information found in Abrahamian, p. 250-261.


[66] U.S. Department of State. “Patterns of Global Terrorism – 2002.”


[67] Ibid.


[68] Abrahamian., p. 127


[69] Ibid., p. 137


[70] Ibid., p. 140-142.


[71] Buchta, p. 112


[72] Abrahamian., p. 170


[73] Taheri, June 23, 2003.


[74] Abrahamian, p. 172


[75] Dealey, April 23, 2003.


[76] Buchta, p. 114


[77] Ibid.


[78] Charles Recknagel. “Iran: Washington Says Iranian Opposition Helping With Iraqi Security Operations.” Radio Free Europe – Radio Liberty. May 23, 2002.




[79] Dealey, April 23, 2003.


[80] U.S. Department of State. “Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” March 24, 2000.




[81] Robinson, September 11, 2002.


[82] Kenneth Timmerman. “’Gray Lady’ runs ad for terrorists.” WorldNet Daily. January 24, 2003.




[83] Buchta, p. 114


[84] Chris Cobb. “Flames of Fanaticism.” The Gazette (Montreal). July 5, 2003.


[85] Abrahamian, p. 183


[86] Ibid., p. 260


[87] Buchta, p. 115


[88] Abrahamian, p. 248-249


[89] Abrahamian, p. 227-230


[90] Ibid., p. 234-237


[91] Council on Foreign Relations. “Mujahadeen-e-Khlaq: Iranian Rebels.”


[92] Buchta, p. 38


[93] Abrahamian., p. 205


[94] U.S. Department of State. “Patterns of Global Terrorism – 2002”


[95] Abrahamian., p. 216-223 (refers to “Following these elections” up to location of citation)


[96] Jack Levy. “An Introduction to Prospect Theory.” Political Psychology, Vol. 13., No. 2, 1992.  p. 171


[97] Ibid., p. 176


[98] Sean  Boyne. “Iran attacks rebel camps with heavy weapons, but were they ‘Scuds’?” Jane’s.  April 26, 2001.




[99] Philip Shiskin and Christopher Cooper. “French Raid Offices of Iran Resistance Group MEK.” Wall Street Journal. June 18, 2003.


[100] “Australian police raid homes of Iranian terror suspects.” Agence France Presse. June 23, 2003.


[101] Juan Tamayo. “U.S. Struggles with What to do with Iranian Exile Group.” Knight Ridder. April 17, 2003.


[102] Douglas Jehl. “Iranian rebel bases are bombed by U.S.; Group’s terrorist label status is disputed.” The New York Times. April 18, 2003.


[103] Abrahamian, p. 189


[104] Ibid., p. 194


[105] Robert Jervis. “Political Implications of Loss Aversion.” Political Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1992.  p. 191


[106] Ibid.


[107] John Sullivan. “Iranian-exile group backed by Saddam agrees to disarm.” Knight Ridder. May 10, 2003.


[108] Buchta, p. 114


[109] Robert Jervis, Richard Lebow, Janice Stein, with contributions by Patrick M. Morgan and Jack L. Snyder. Psychology and Deterrence. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.  p. 22


[110] Ibid., p. 18


[111] Ibid., p. 25


[112] Ibid., p. 214


[113] Ibid., p. 33


[114] Ibid.


[115] Dealey, April 8, 2003.


[116] Sam Dealey. “A Very, Very Bad Bunch: An Iranian group and its surprising American friends.” National Review. March 25, 2002.




[117] Iqbal, July 9, 2003.


[118] Jehl, April 18, 2003.


[119] Ibid.


[120] Pipes and Clawson, May 20, 2003.


[121] Iqbal, July 9, 2003.


[122] Moran, August 26, 2003.


[123] Democracy Betrayed: A Report to U.S. State Department Report on Mojahedin and Iranian Resistance. Foreign Affairs Committee of National Council of Resistance of Iran, 1995. p. xii-xiii.


[124] Crimes Against Humanity: Indict Iran’s Ruling Mullahs for Massacre of 30,000 Political Prisoners. Foreign Affairs Committee of National Council of Resistance of Iran, Auvers-sur-Oise, France: 2001.


[125] Bob Ney. Letters to the Editor. The Hill. April 23, 2003.




[126] Cobb, July 5, 2003.


[127] Timmerman, January 24, 2003.


[128] Dealey, April 8, 2003. Refers to both Hyde-Lantos quote and Brumberg’s.