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The MEK’s waning fortunes

Following a raid on the fringe Iranian group’s base, it’s become clear that Western leaders view it as more of a liability than an asset.

Analysis | Middle East

The former vice president of the United States Mike Pence joined a long list of former U.S. dignitaries who have thrown their weight behind the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a political front for the Mojaheddeen-e Khalk (MEK), a cult-like exiled Iranian opposition group with a history of human rights abuses and anti-American violence which merited it a place on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations from 1997 to 2012.

Pence, addressing an MEK event on March 13, hailed MEK as a “secular, democratic, non-nuclear” alternative to the current government in Iran. In fact, Pence’s flirtation with the MEK is not new: in 2021, he described the MEK as “well-organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported” to become Iran’s new government, while praising its “president-elect” Maryam Rajavi as an “inspiration to the world”.

Pence has since announced that he is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. While his popularity now is somewhere in the single digits, a hypothetical disqualification of the front-runner Donald Trump could throw the Republican race into disarray, with all bets off, and this is where Pence might try to capitalize on the non-Trumpian segment of the GOP – which is what he was trying to do ever since he left office by projecting an image of a responsible elder statesman.

That’s why his endorsement of the MEK is not a trivial matter. For Pence, like his fellow Trump administration veterans Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, cozying up to MEK is a way to signal his hawkishness on Iran and, perhaps, court mostly neoconservative campaign donors who oppose the Biden administration’s attempts to de-escalate tensions and would push for a return of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran.

Yet Pence’s bet may work out better in the narrow world of Washington’s politics than in effecting a real change in Iran for whose people he professes so much concern. This is so because the MEK’s fortunes are demonstrably on the wane. 

On June 20, Albanian law enforcement raided the MEK’s base in that Balkan country to which MEK cadres were relocated from their base in Iraq known as Camp Ashraf. Earlier, many MEK militants had resided intermittently in France after losing a power struggle in the early 1980s against the supporters of the leader of the Islamic revolution Ayatollah Khomeini, whom they initially supported against the pro-Western Pahlavi monarchy. From France, most of their membership moved to Iraq where they cooperated with Saddam Hussein, particularly in the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war. That cooperation earned the MEK the nearly universal hatred of the Iranians, irrespective of their political views.

Albanian authorities claimed that the raid on the base, tellingly called Ashraf III, was due to the MEK’s violation of the terms of the U.S.-mediated agreement that allowed them to resettle in the country. The agreement was conceived as a humanitarian gesture to a few thousand mostly aging individuals no longer welcome on Iraqi soil after Saddam’s removal. The MEK, however, reportedly used their presence in Albania as a base for political activities, including, at the very least, cyber-attacks directed against third countries (presumably Iran) and mass online trolling and harassment of the group’s many opponents. 

According to early reports, the MEK violently resisted the Albanian raid. The ensuing chaos has resulted in the death of at least one person and injuries of dozens more. That the MEK should resist the (completely legal) actions of the law enforcement of a country that has given them humanitarian asylum in itself raises questions about the extent to which the MEK may have evolved into some sort of a “state within the state” in Albania. There is no reason for a sovereign state like Albania to tolerate on its territory some enclaves where its national laws don’t necessarily apply.

The operation in Albania came on the heels of the decision of France to refuse permission, on security grounds, for a large NCRI/MEK’s gathering planned near Paris in July. That is another setback for the deep-pocketed group that used such rallies to gain international visibility as a credible alternative to the regime in Tehran. In fact, the French have long been uncomfortable with the group whose presence is seen as reaping more costs than benefits. 

The MEK and its American supporters, such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), predictably lashed out at France and Albania for supposedly acting at the “ayatollah’s behest”. This is an absurd claim, ironically fully in sync with the supporters of Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi who see the raid as a diplomatic victory for Tehran. In fact, diplomatic relations between Albania and Iran were severed in 2022 after a suspected large-scale Iranian cyberattack against Albania, so any notion of a Tehran-Tirana plot is highly unlikely to be grounded in reality. 

As to France, it has its own reasons to engage Iran: it hopes to revive, in some form, the moribund nuclear pact, gain the release of remaining French prisoners in Iran, and persuade Iran to drop its active support for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. To those ends, President Emmanuel Macron has recently spoken directly with Raisi. As long as the diplomatic channels with Tehran remain open, the MEK’s activities in France are seen as harmful. 

The fact of the matter is that the MEK is increasingly seen by international and regional players as a liability rather than an asset. After the raid in Albania, the U.S. State Department stressed that “the U.S. doesn’t see MEK as a viable democratic opposition movement that is representative of Iranian people.” While that, in itself, is not a new position, the way it was formulated was stronger than usual. It might have something to do with the fact that the U.S. and Iran are currently moving towards some sort of a de-escalation deal that would see Iran impose some limits on its nuclear enrichment in exchange for a limited sanctions relief. 

Another blow to MEK is the budding Saudi-Iranian normalization. Saudi Arabia, until recently one of Iran’s chief adversaries in the region, was long suspected of funding the MEK. Its high-level representatives, such as Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Britain and the U.S. and a former director of Saudi intelligence, sometimes attended MEK’s rallies where he supported the “downfall of the regime” in Iran. It is entirely conceivable that, as part of the Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement, Saudi Arabia would downgrade its ties to the group, if not abandon them altogether. 

Perhaps most damning of all, in Iran itself the group has no role or influence whatsoever in the ongoing women-led protests that began last fall. The MEK is desperate to remain relevant, particularly when it now faces stiff competition for Western politicians’ attention from the regime’s opponents in exile, including the son of the deposed shah Reza Pahlavi, activists Masih Alinejad and Hamed Esmailioun, and others who want nothing to do with the cult. 

Whatever short-term benefits Pence and other American politicians may derive from their relationship with the MEK, it is more evidence of Washington’s political dysfunctionality when it comes to relations with Iran than a safe bet for the future. 

Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), listening to former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman on the third day of the 2021 Free Iran World Summit, held at Ashraf III in Albania. (Shutterstock/ Siavosh)
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