A month ago, intense negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, resulted in a framework for a final nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran. As negotiators from Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United States and United Kingdom, plus Germany) continue nuclear talks to reach a comprehensive deal before the end of June, opponents of diplomacy and potential détente have intensified their efforts to derail any accord.
Prominent in this effort is exiled Iranian dissident organization, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK or MKO, also known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or PMOI) which was classified as a terrorist organization by the EU until 2009 and by the United States until 2012. MEK is bitterly opposed to the current Iranian government and seeks its overthrow.
The cult-like organization has spent vast sums of money to lobby political elites on both sides of the Atlantic for recognition as an alternative to the current Iranian government. Since a negotiated, multilateral deal with Iran would effectively bury prospects of Western-led regime change in Iran, the MEK is attempting to leverage its extraordinary influence to sink talks.
Regime change in Iran, by any means, is the only item on the MEK agenda. Like experienced salesmen, its members employ different tactics to “sell” this approach to various audiences.
In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-proliferation and Trade last month (delivered via videoconference from Paris), Maryam Rajavi, the self-proclaimed “president-elect” of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which serves as the MEK’s front office, suggested the best way for Western nations to combat the threat posed by ISIS is to oust the regime in Iran. Of course, no reference was made of the fact that Iran was one of the first countries to commit blood and treasure to the fight against ISIS. Nor did Rajavi mention that, when ISIS first overtook Mosul in the summer of 2014, the MEK hailed the militant group and its supporters as “part of a popular revolution against the Maliki regime” in Iraq, which the MEK views as an Iranian pawn. Once the U.S. military joined the fight against ISIS, however, it became politically untenable to defend or minimize its crimes. So, the MEK quickly changed its tune, suddenly portraying ISIS as Iran’s creation.
Exploiting local political sensitivities in Europe, the MEK has chosen a different tactic to advocate for government overthrow. To European audiences, the MEK has emphasized Iran’s human rights issues, such as the high number of executions in the country, as well as issues to do with women rights and infringements on religious liberty. In mid-April, MEK operative Firouz Mahvi, a member of NCRI’s so-called “Foreign Affairs Committee” and a fixture at the Brussels-based European Parliament (EP), sent an e-mail to parliamentarians (MEPs) calling on them to adopt an urgent resolution on capital punishment in Iran. The proposed resolution would have almost certainly led to the cancellation of a scheduled visit by members of the Majles, the Iranian parliament, to Brussels. In fact, this very thing happened last year: following the adoption of a different resolution on Iran critical of its human rights record, the Majles delegation cancelled a planned trip in protest.
Inter-parliamentary dialogue is one of the only institutionalized platforms for interaction between officials from the EU and Iran. For progress in EU-Iranian relations to occur, whether on the nuclear issue or otherwise, it is essential to keep Iranian conservatives at the table.
Realizing the issues at stake and familiar with the MEK’s modus operandi, the parliamentary majority read the situation correctly: The MEK’s push for a resolution on capital punishment had little to do with genuine concern for the human rights of Iranians, and everything to do with ongoing attempts to sabotage the nascent EU-Iran dialogue.
When their plan failed, MEK associates, this time under the guise of the dubious “Iranian Refugee Association in Belgium” (it has neither an e-mail address nor a website) launched a call for MEPs to boycott the May visit from the Iranian delegation. While the call was not heeded by Polish conservative Janusz Lewandowski , chair of the EP delegation for relations with Iran, other MEPs fell into the MEK’s trap. For example, Beatriz Becerra, a Spanish MEP from the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE) challenged her colleagues to raise new legislation in the Iranian parliament, which is said to limit the sexual and reproductive health rights of Iranian women, with delegation members. She also tabled a written question on the issue to the Council of the EU and the European Commission. Becerra may be a well-intentioned defender of women rights, but her aggressive advocacy on behalf of the MEK and Maryam Rajavi certainly does more harm than good.
Another common MEK strategy is to hold public hearings in the EP, like the one organized last month on religious freedom in Iran by the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. ECR is a strange mix of seemingly respectable mainstream parties such as British Conservatives and fringe right-wing outfits, such as the Dutch Calvinist party (which until recently forbade women from becoming members) and the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party. When it comes to foreign policy, what binds these disparate forces together is their fervent support for Israel, extreme hostility to Palestinians and hardline hawkishness on Iran. In the recent past, even after the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, the ECR tried to block the first official visit of European parliamentarians to Tehran. The bid failed and the delegation visited Iran in mid-December 2013.
In light of this, it is unsurprising the ECR yielded the floor to Sanabargh Zahedi, chair of NCRI’s so-called “Judicial Committee.” Presenting himself as an “Islamic scholar,” even though there was no evidence of his scholarship on Islam or any other field for that matter, Zahedi asserted that, “unless all countries put improvement of human rights as a pre-condition to doing business and trade with this regime, we will not see any real progress in any area, including the nuclear issue.”
None of this is to say that human rights in Iran should not be a matter of grave concern. The UN Human Rights Council renewed the mandate of Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who has been denied entrance to the country for four years. In his latest report, Shaheed noted that the number of executions in Iran in 2014 had reached its highest level in twelve years, and cited other problems like the deterioration in women’s rights and online freedoms, and the ongoing imprisonment of prisoners of conscience.
Still, there are more effective ways to address these crucial issues than calling for regime change, undermining nuclear negotiations, or following the agendas of those with obvious ulterior motives. Ultimately, the nuclear deal and the possibility of engagement with Iran hold a better promise for achieving real progress in the human rights sphere than any delusions about “regime change.” This is certainly how respectable human rights organizations and activists see it.
Hadi Ghaemi, director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran welcomed last month’s Lausanne agreement as an important step toward creating better conditions for discussing human rights with Iran. Those in the West who genuinely care about the human rights of Iranians would do well to listen to these voices rather than let themselves become puppets in the MEK’s destructive schemes.
The views set out in this article are solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union or the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.