The Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) held an “Iran Freedom Rally” last weekend in Paris, in which the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, and a number of prominent U.S. politicians attending spoke of the need for regime change inside Iran. For those familiar with the MEK, the organization’s attempt to speak for the Iranian opposition, specifically, and freedom in Iran, more generally, is laughable.
Originally founded in 1965 by leftist Iranian students opposed to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his Western supporters, the MEK has since become a cult-like organization, despised by a majority of the Iranian population and diaspora.
Following the Iranian revolution, the MEK relocated to Iraq in the 1980s, where it reportedly helped quash Kurdish uprisings in the north as well as Shiite unrest in the south. Former MEK members recall Maryam Rajavi’s infamous command at the time: ”Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”
Doing even more damage to its reputation, the group sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Near the end of the conflict, Saddam armed the MEK “with heavy military equipment and deployed thousands of MEK fighters in suicidal, mass wave attacks against Iranian forces.” Needless to say, since then, Iranians have not looked fondly upon the organization.
Human Rights Watch has been clear on the MEK’s abuses, which range “from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.” Masoud Banisadr, the group’s former head of PR, recently spoke about the MEK’s troubling practices against its own members and general cult-like nature with VICE News. “There was a charismatic leader, [Massoud] Rajavi,” explained Banisadr. Massoud Rajavi was the original leader of the MEK, before marrying Maryam Rajavi and assuming dual leadership of the organization with his wife. “There was a black-and-white world view imposed; followers cutting themselves off from family; followers losing their personality. There was mind manipulation. At Camp Ashraf in Iraq [the MEK’s military headquarters] there were talks lasting for days on end. I remember one task where we had to write down our old personality in one column on a board, and the new personality in a different column,” Banisadr said.
Banisadr also told VICE News that the group’s members were forced to divorce their spouses, abstain from any sexual thoughts, refrain from interacting with members of the opposite sex, and treat suicide bombings and killings in Iran as “revolutionary acts.” Having grown disillusioned with the group, Banisadr eventually escaped in 1996 and went into hiding, until the MEK stopped searching for him.
The MEK’s cult-like behavior was also documented in The New York Times by Elizabeth Rubin, who visited Camp Ashraf, which is located near the Iraq-Iraq border, in 2003. She noted the brainwashing of kids as young as one or two years old, mandatory public confessions of sexual fantasies, and prohibitions on developing friendships.
Vocal proponents of the MEK (however few in number) are willing to put aside these human rights violations, in the belief that the group has support among Iranians. Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. A 2013 survey of Iranian-Americans found that seventy-nine percent of respondents did not support any Iranian “opposition groups or figures.” Of the fifteen percent that did, only five percent supported the MEK. That means the MEK’s claim to being the “largest opposition group” is based on less than one percent support from among Iranian-Americans. There is little indication support for the MEK is any greater among other Iranian diaspora communities, or in Iran itself.
The MEK may be good at PR in the West. But to Iranians around the world, it is nothing but a sham.