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The resilient MEK: Rebuilding the Iranian Resistance in exile

People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)
People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)

This is the second part of a series by Mehdi Abrishamchi, a veteran member of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK).

In the first part, Abrishamchi discussed how the founding of the MEK gave rise to a popular national movement for freedom, and how the Shah and Khomeini dictatorships failed in their efforts to destroy the MEK. Read the first part here.

In our fight against two brutal dictatorships, we have gone to the brink of complete destruction, but came back each time even stronger than before.

During the 1980s, our organization had thousands of its members imprisoned, many of our rank and file were executed or killed as the regime raided our safe houses, and we were forced to move our Central Committee, with exception of a few, into exile. Logically, we had to maintain a proximity to Iranian borders. As our main leadership was based in Paris along with the broader opposition coalition of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), thousands of our rank and file operated in our border bases by the Kurdistan region and Iraqi borders. 

In those days, the MEK was spread thin and under constant attacks from all fronts:

  • Most of our cadres were in the border areas with minimum resources at the beginning, yet we still managed to broadcast our radio program into Iran;
  • Our links to the sympathetic social base was sharply severed due to the mullahs' brutal and extensive suppression and intelligence operations. A mere innocent and sympathetic mention of the MEK could land you in jail or at the gallows. Inside Iran, our primary focus was to operate under the radar and avoid further arrests;
  • Our bases by the borders and members in exile continued to be subjected to the mullahs' terrorist and military attacks. We lost many at that time;
  • Our international campaign for peace and ending the IranIraq War was effective. We paid the price for this by enduing growing political attacks starting with the 1985 testimony before the US Congress by the State Department’s Richard Murphy, which later became the foundation for the terror tag in the 1997 against the MEK at the behest of the mullahs’ regime;
  • Our strong presence and diplomatic campaigns in Paris were effective until the French government decided to enter deals with Khomeini’s regime in 1986, leading to the departure of our leadership from France;
  • As the regime assassinated our members and NCRI representatives in Europe, it also started a deceptive campaign aimed at weakening the NCRI coalition;
  • Our international campaign for exposing human rights violations was successful until the 1989 duplicitous report by thenUN Special Rapporteur who visited Iran and came back with favorable assessments for the regime. His report gave the regime the international cover for the 1988 massacre of 30,000 of our members and sympathizers. 

Nonetheless, we established the National Liberation Army of Iran at the Iran-Iraq frontiers and many joined us from Iran, all over the world and other political organizations. As the mullahs’ regime and the criminal Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) noticed our successful military operations into the Iranian border cities, including reaching the gates of the major city of Kermanshah in western Iran, they realized how quickly their regime could collapse. During the NLA’s operations, hundreds of regime’s military personnel turned themselves in as Prisoners of War. We treated them as our guests and not POWs. We worked very closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations to oversee their safe departure from Iraq. But many who had no ideological sympathy with the regime requested to join the NLA and later became members of the MEK.  

As we rebuilt our capabilities again and again in many different fronts, the regime became more bloodthirsty to destroy us globally. During the 1990s, our entire movement was blacklisted as a “terrorist group” by the US State Department. According to an October 1997 Los Angeles Times piece quoting US officials, the terror tag constituted a “goodwill gesture” toward the mullahs’ regime and its newly elected president Mohammad Khatami. Many of our resources, including financial assets, were seized and subject to major scrutiny around the world. Our peaceful campaign for democracy and freedom in Iran was demonized as support for “terrorism.” Meanwhile the mullahs assassinated, bombed and funded terrorist groups across the entire region with impunity. While under significant international pressure during the 1990s, we were able to:

  • Establish connections with our social base inside Iran, significantly growing our support networks in the US and Europe among the Iranian diaspora, and began operating a 24hour satellite TV and radio network, broadcasting messages of hope and democracy into Iran;
  • As the regime began wider deceptions through the slogans of ‘reforms,’ our network inside Iran challenged the censorship and exposed the repression of the regime. Such campaigns allowed us to expand and by 1999 our network supported the student movements in Tehran’s university and across the country. The third generation of the MEK found its way into our ranks during this time from both inside Iran and abroad.  
  • In partnership with the NCRI, we filed the first petition against the unjust terror tag in the United States at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 19971998.
  • In partnership with the NCRI, we strengthened and expanded our global campaigns in US Congress and various European parliaments. As a result, the majority of the world’s elected representatives stood on our side for human rights, democracy, and freedom for the Iranian people.

Sadly, many groups who opposed the regime did not survive during the 1980s and the 1990s. While the regime’s attitude towards our organization was the harshest, for some of these groups the diminishing space for political activity, backed by an oppressive atmosphere and mass imprisonment, chain killings and executions, was enough to silence and sideline them. Some even compromised their principles and cooperated with the regime inside and outside of Iran. Perhaps when it comes to the Iranian history of struggle for freedom, this is one of the most unfortunate realities with which our country must come to grips. As a progressive organization that firmly believes in freedom and promotes pluralism and freedom of association, we watched in disbelief, sadness and sorrow how the mullahs’ regime destroyed some of these groups whose past was filled with heroic sacrifices for the establishment of democracy in our homeland.

Some managed to leave the country but the struggle for democracy became seasonal intellectual endeavors through literature, poetry and lectures. Many became “café revolutionaries” who gradually lost credibility, resiliency and the sufficient spirit of resistance required to confront a brutal theocracy. Today, some show up as “cyber revolutionaries.” The common thread among them all was the inability to re-energize, re-organize and re-mobilize because such a stand would exact a very heavy price in the fight against the barbaric regime of the mullahs. This is another moment of regret where the regime gained the upper hand in their oppressive tactics, even in exile. 

Undoubtedly, our organization was not immune to these threats either. There were those among us who could not tolerate the persistent, toxic and destructive attacks from the mullahs. They grew tired and left us. While I do not directly speak for the NCRI, I witnessed firsthand how the regime used similar tactics against us and other member organizations and personalities within the NCRI. A small number of former members were deceived or recruited by the regime and exploited to operate against the Iranian Resistance as a whole. The regime continued its significant demonization and disinformation campaigns against our movement using these defectors. While I leave the details to the many published rebuttals to their claims and lies, the disinformation continues to serve the mullahs, its media lobbies in the West and supporters of the failed appeasement policy.

As Massoud Rajavi says “The enemy has been attacking us all along, not only face-to-face, but by stabbing us in the back many times. Regardless, we had to stick to our principles.”

In 2002, at great risk to our network inside Iran, we exposed information about the mullahs’ clandestine nuclear weapons program. The world community began to take the regime’s nefarious designs more seriously. We had previously informed the world community during the 1980s about ongoing human rights violations in Iran and in the 1990s about its terrorist activities across the globe.

Regrettably, the threat of the mullahs was not taken as seriously as it should have been, and the world continued to appease the mullahs at a catastrophic cost.

In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, our bases were subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, based on the mullahs’ fabricated lies that we housed the former Iraqi government’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The search came up empty, yet the allied forces continued to take the regime’s word over ours.  Our bases were heavily bombed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, killing 156 innocent people. These attacks took place despite the fact that the MEK had officially declared its neutrality in the conflict and refused to fire a single bullet. We had even communicated to the United States the precise locations of our bases.

I am proud to say that not even one NLA member fired back at the coalition forces during these unjustified military raids and bombings. I mention these details not to air grievances—which is absolutely within our rights according to international laws—but rather to show how resolute our movement has been over the years in fighting the mullahs. Since day one, we have said that we only have one enemy and that is the mullahs’ regime in Iran. It only took a short period to realize that the intentional bombing of our bases was at the request of the mullahs’ regime who had promised to deliver Al-Qaeda members to the US in exchange; a promise that was never kept by the mullahs.

In May 2003, the Secretary General of the MEK signed an agreement with General Raymond Odierno, then-Commander of the 4th Infantry Division and later Army Chief of Staff, agreeing to a voluntary consolidation of our weapons. He recognized that our movement is “committed to democracy in Iran.” As we began to enlighten US forces about our cause and exposed the mullahs’ regime in Iraq, our movement came under even harsher attacks in Europe and the US. In early July 2003, the French government arrested Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the NCRI, and majority of the NCRI members based in Paris. While the charges against them were fabricated, politically motivated and motivated by the economic relations between the mullahs and France, I leave the additional details to the well documented book by a French journalist who was in the room when French and the Iranian Foreign Minister plotted this conspiracy against our movement. In mid-August 2003, the MEK press office and the NCRI office in Washington, D.C. were shut down as a result of an Executive Order by then-Secretary of State Collin Powell.

These actions were all taken as a favor to the mullahs’ regime during the summer of 2003. Despite these multi-faceted and devastating blows, our organization persevered.

In July 2004, after an extensive 16-months investigation of every one of our members in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, by seven different US government agencies, including the Department of State, we were found clear of any violation of US law. In addition, the US Government classified us as “non-combatants” during the 2003 war and granted us “protected persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

The mullahs’ plots against us did not stop even with the US military protection of our camp. As we worked with various Iraqi political personalities and tribes to educate them about the mullahs’ sinister objectives in the region, the regime attacked our convoys and kidnapped our members in Baghdad.  Having found natural allies within the Iraqi society across Sunnis, Shiite, Christian and many different tribal leaders and communities, we continued our popular campaign against the mullahs. By 2006, 5.2 million Iraqis signed a declaration calling for the eviction of the mullahs’ regime from Iraq and the recognition of our presence and status as a major counterbalance to the regime's destructive meddling in Iraq.

In January 2009, despite our warnings and its international obligation based on the 4th Geneva Convention, the US government turned the protection of our camp to Iraqi security forces beholden to the Iranian regime. From 2009-2013, the mullahs’ regime used every opportunity, directly or indirectly, to commit massacres, kidnappings, forced disappearances, waging a psychological war against our camp with loudspeakers broadcasting hateful and shameful messages 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet, the unarmed MEK members stood their ground and continued fighting the regime with empty hands because we stayed true to our principles. We were also encouraged by an international campaign for Camp Ashraf waged in the US Congress, Europe and various international courts.   

Meanwhile, as the regime was hell-bent on destroying us, our efforts inside Iran continued in two fronts:

  1. Expansion and mobilization of our network to support anti-regime popular protests, including the 2009 uprising;
  2. Revelations on various aspects of regime’s sinister nuclear program.

Our efforts, in partnership with the NCRI, in the US and Europe, led to the adoption of several UN Security Council Resolutions against the regime. In Europe and the US, we continued to fight the unjust designation against the MEK and NCRI. We won every single court case in Europe and the US, and finally by 2012, the politically motivated and unjust terrorist tag was lifted.