Mojahedin-e Khalq, Security and Terrorism in Iran: A Dialogue with Javad Hasheminejad

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Flag of the Mojahedin-e- Kalq
The flag of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (Credits: Emblem is the work of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. SVG by MrPenguin20, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Persian Files ISSN 2975-0598 Volume 18 Issue 2
Author: Silvia Boltuc

The Mojahedin-e Khalq organisation, also known as MEK, has a controversial history both within and outside Iran, dating back to the monarchy period. While some international representatives view MEK as a legitimate opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran, concerns arise due to the methods used in its struggle against the Iranian government.

Articles of abuses towards MEK members within their camps add to these concerns, especially after the decision to host its fighters in Albania and include them in certain Western official events. It’s worth noting that throughout history, Western representatives have also been targeted by MEK.

This report aims to provide a historical background on MEK activities, supported by a dialogue with Javad Hasheminejad,  the Secretary General of Habilian Association and the son of a political figure killed by MEK because of  his leading role in the Islamic Revolution in Mashhad in the early ‘80s.

Historical background of Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK)

During the 1950s and 1960s, Iran witnessed a period of severe repression under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, particularly targeting dissidents and political activists through the actions of his secret police, known as Savak.

In 1965, three Iranian students, namely Mohammad Hanifnejad, Saeid Mohsen, and Ali Asghar Badizadegan, established a new opposition movement. This movement later evolved into the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), commonly referred to as the Mojahedin-e Khalq – MEK (persian: سازمان مجاهدين خلق ايران, sāzmān-e mojāhedin-e khalq-e Irān).

Initially, the MEK was a movement that combined elements of Islam and Marxism, with the aim of overthrowing Shah Reza Pahlavi’s monarchy. Over time, particularly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the group transformed into a terrorist organisation, conducting attacks to remove the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and establish a new one. They also instituted a political wing called the National Council of Resistance.

Several influential founding members and the leader of the MEK, Massoud Rajavi, were imprisoned and, in some cases, executed during the Persian monarchy.

During its early existence, the MEK not only opposed the Shah but also his Western allies, such as the United States. While fighting against the Pahlavi monarchy, the MEK targeted a significant number of Americans through attacks.

For instance, in 1972, they set off bombs in Tehran at the U.S. Information Service office (part of the U.S. Embassy), the Iran-American Society, and the offices of several U.S. companies to protest President Nixon’s visit. In 1973, the MEK assassinated the deputy chief of the U.S. Military Mission in Tehran.

In later years, the MEK denied responsibility for these attacks, claiming that a breakaway Marxist-Leninist faction known as Peykar had taken control of the group’s activities and carried out the attacks against Americans.

Both the MEK and the MEK Marxist-Leninist faction played a role in the overthrow of the Persian monarchy during the 1979 Revolution and took part in the occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. However, differences emerged after the establishment of the new government of the Islamic Republic, leading to a split with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini due to differing interpretations of Shia Islam.

In 1981, the MEK went underground and began a series of bombings, including attacks on the head office of the Islamic Republic Party and the Prime Minister’s office. These attacks resulted in the deaths of 70 high-ranking Iranian officials, including President Mohammad-Ali Rajaei, Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar, and Chief Justice Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti. In response, the Islamic Republic cracked down on the group, forcing the MEK to go into exile in France.

Another pivotal moment occurred in 1986 when the French government, led by Jacques Chirac, expelled the MEK, leading the group to relocate to Iraq. In Iraq, they aided Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran with large-scale attacks against Iranian forces.

The MEK carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Iranian government representatives, military personnel, and civilians, both within Iran and internationally. For example, in 1992, they attacked the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York and simultaneously targeted other Iranian embassies and consular missions in 13 countries.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in August 1993, elected Massoud Rajavi’s wife, Maryam Rajavi, as Iran’s future President for the transitional period following, according to their goal, the overthrow of the religious government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. To prove their devotion to the Rajavis, members of MEK were told to divorce their spouses and renounce romance.

Their activities extended into the 2000s, including a mortar attack on a major Iranian leadership complex in Tehran that housed the offices of the Supreme Leader and the President. They also maintained a presence in Iraq, Europe, and the United States.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the U.S. military took control of the MEK’s Ashraf camp in Iraq, and the group surrendered its heavy arms. Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the group received all of its military assistance, and most of its financial support, from the former Iraqi regime.

With the loss of support from Iraq, the MEK has used front organisations to solicit contributions from expatriate Iranian communities. The U.S. military has recognised the MEK fighters in Iraq as Protected Persons under the Geneva Conventions.

The United States State Department, which had designated the MEK as a terrorist organisation in 1997 during President Clinton’s administration, removed the group from the list in 2012. The decision made in 2012 was accompanied by the following statement:

“With today’s actions, the Department does not overlook or forget the MEK’s past acts of terrorism, including its involvement in the killing of U.S. citizens in Iran in the 1970s and an attack on U.S. soil in 1992. The Department also has serious concerns about the MEK as an organisation, particularly with regard to allegations of abuse committed against its own members. (…)”.

In 2009, the European Union also removed the Mojahedin-e Khalq from its list of terrorist organisations.

MEK today: Ashraf 3 camp in Albania

The group’s nominal leader, Massoud Rajavi, vanished in 2003. After the U.S. ceded the control of the Ashraf camp in Iraq to the Iraqi government, many MEK fighters moved to Albania. The group claims the camp houses about 2,500 members.

The first members of MEK came to Albania in 2013. However, the bulk of them were brought in 2016, when the then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced their massive landing in Tirana.

In the United States, there are notable allies of the group, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, who served as Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, and John R. Bolton, the former National Security Adviser. Open sources indicate that both Giuliani and Bolton have been paid tens of thousands of dollars for speaking at the organisation’s conferences. During these events, these influential figures from the U.S. have characterised the People’s Jihadists as the most legitimate opposition to Iran.

Iran blacklisted dozens of U.S. officials over their support of the MEK, which the Iranian government considers responsible for killing 17,000 Iranians over decades.

On June 20th, 2023, the Albanian Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SPAK) orders a raid in the Ashraf-3 camp in Manez. The operation saw the use of around a thousand agents. The suspicion that prompted the Albanian authorities to intervene was that the servers from which the cyber-attack suffered by Albania on July 15th, 2022, and for which Tirana blames the Iranian state, are located inside the camp.

Interior Minister Bledi Cuci, in a joint press conference with Police Chief Muhamet Rrumbullaku, clarified that members of the Iranian opposition violated the agreement signed with the Albanian government in 2014 by engaging in illegal political activities.

In response to the event, the U.S. government distanced itself from the MEK and emphasised that the decision regarding the organisation should be left to Albania to determine.

According to a New York Times journalist who visited MEK camp in Albania, located 15 miles west of Tirana, and several international reports, the group operates online troll farms, repeatedly boasting of hacking or penetrating state-linked institutions in Iran.

Former members, now living independently in Albania, outside the camp, described being brainwashed into a life of celibacy. Indeed, MEK has often been described as a messianic jihadi cult. The cult banned romantic relationships and sexual thoughts, highly restricted contact with family, and discouraged friendships.

Members are being forced to participate in self-criticism rituals, whereby members would confess to their commanders any sexual or disloyal thoughts they had. Many families who lost their children to the cult are fighting for years to rescue them from captivity.

MEK and the victims of terrorist attacks in Iran: a dialogue with Javad Hasheminejad

Silvia Boltuc and Javad Hasheminejad
Silvia Boltuc, SpecialEurasia Managing Director, and Javad Hasheminejad, the Secretary General of Habilian Association, during their meeting in Mashhad, Iran (Credits: SpecialEurasia)

SpecialEurasia met with Javad Hasheminejad, the Secretary General of Habilian Association, an Iranian Human Rights NGO established in 2005 by a group of families of Iranian terror victims with the aim of highlight that Iran is one of the biggest victims of terrorism. According to the Habilian Association, the number of casualties from terror attacks on the Iranian nation has exceeded 17.000.

The Habilian Association was established by the victims of terrorist attacks against the Iranian nation. How are you connected to this matter?

“The terrorist organisation known as the Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) carried out a suicide operation that resulted in the assassination of my father, Seyyed Abdol Karim Hasheminejad. He was a key political figure and a prominent scholar in Iran during the early 1980s. My father played a leadership role in the Islamic Revolution in Mashhad. He, along with 40 other clergies, was arrested after delivering a speech in Tehran on the night before June 5, 1963, the same night when Imam Khomeini was also arrested in Qom. In 1979, my father narrowly survived an assassination attempt by Savak, who launched explosives into his house. Tragically, after the Revolution, he was killed by a member of MEK while leaving a classroom at the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party in Mashhad.”.

What is the official stance of Western countries on the MEK organisation?

“The U.S. Department of State has explicitly stated that the MEK terrorist group has been responsible for assassinating thousands of individuals. Unfortunately, some of these terrorist groups, which have carried out attacks in our country, are currently being hosted in European and Western nations.

The European Union designated the MEK as a terrorist organisation for seven years, from 2002 to 2009. During that time, they had an active presence in various European parliaments and held meetings with European parliament members using their official logo.

The evidence gathered by the U.S. State Department and other European countries strongly supports the classification of this group as a terrorist organisation. However, their activities in European countries suggest otherwise. It appears that these assassinations inside Iran have been politically motivated and carefully targeted.

Furthermore, it concerns that Western media has remained notably silent on the events in Iran, and it is crucial to bring this issue to the world’s attention. It is unprecedented to declare a group as a terrorist organisation and simultaneously allow them to operate freely within a country’s borders. In recent months, members of this group have been responsible for the assassination of Iranian border guards, and the countries supporting them have enabled these actions.”.

How do you feel, being the son of a victim of the MEK, towards Europe?

“I’ve personally travelled to various European countries and engaged with their officials. I’ve experienced a clear double standard.

For instance, during my visit to England, I presented all the documents I had concerning the MEK and other terrorist groups, especially to well-known English media agencies. My father was assassinated 40 years ago when I was very young. In England, I was told that this issue is now considered historical, as 40 years have passed. Nevertheless, I can see these groups freely operating on the streets of London, even though they represent a threat also for the West.

What’s surprising is that an Iranian citizen was put on trial because of its association with this terrorist group, and in this case, it seems the past was not a relevant factor for the authorities.”.

In your view, why did the Western world remove the Mujahedin e-Khalq from its list of terrorist organisations and provide support for some of their activities?

“The United States and Europe possess a comprehensive understanding of the terrorist group in question, including their operations and objectives. However, they sometimes use these organizations as tools to exert pressure on the current Iranian government, driven by their own political agendas. Unfortunately, in the ongoing political confrontation between these two powerful countries, we, the general population, continue to suffer as victims of terrorism.

During a conversation with a Swedish reporter, I mentioned the Mujahedin e-Khalq, and she promptly brought up Hezbollah.

Same two years ago, when I had a meeting with the head of the Foreign Commission of the European Parliament in Iran, we were in the Iranian Parliament, alongside all the Iranian Members of Parliament, with European Union (EU) representatives in attendance. During the discussion, EU Parliament Members (PMs) accused the Iranian MPs of defending Hezbollah and, by extension, supporting terrorism. I felt compelled to interject, emphasizing that their focus was on Hezbollah, which is a present-day reality. My concern, on the other hand, was rooted in events from the early 1980s when Hezbollah did not yet exist. Specifically, I refer to 1981 when terrorists were responsible for assassinating a president and a prime minister, and the MEK openly claimed responsibility for these acts.

In the same year, 1981, the French government welcomed the MEK leader at a French airport and provided support, only two years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. The French were the first to openly support the MEK, followed by other European countries.

I’ve observed European Members of Parliament taking photos with the leader of the MEK, a group that has admitted to assassinating my father. Regrettably, I am still awaiting justice for this act.”.

In your view, what do you consider a favourable or positive result or outcome of this interview?

“Presenting the historical background of these groups could offer the audience a valuable opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of them and potentially contribute to the effort of accurately labelling them as what they are, a terrorist organisation.

Events unfolding worldwide often priorities interests over human rights. Governments have fostered terrorist groups for political motives. However, the media possesses significant potential to bring these political decisions to light. A single report from a journalist has the power to alter a country’s course or even lead to the resignation of a politician.

It’s essential to emphasise that even among the Iranian population, including those who occasionally protest against the government, there is a strong opposition to MEK. The methods employed by MEK do not find support within Iranian society.”.

Conclusion

Over a decade ago, both the United States and the European Union removed the MEK from their lists of designated terrorist organisations, as the MEK had pledged to abandon violent tactics.

However, on June 2023, the Albanian police raid into the Ashraf 3 camp and France prevented the MEK from holding a rally in Paris on July 1st, 2023. Moreover, the U.S. distanced itself from the MEK. These actions may indicate a shifting stance either towards the MEK or Iran, as the group had been a tool to counter the Iranian government effectively.

According to Ylli Zyla, who served as head of Albanian military intelligence from 2008 to 2012, members of this organisation live in Albania as hostages. The revelations of abuses in various reports, ongoing efforts by families to rescue their children from MEK camps, and comparisons to a cult raise questions about the legitimacy of the organisation’s activities.

Moreover, a CIA agent expressed the opinion that the politicians supporting MEK inside the U.S. know this group is not democratic and anyway has no constituency inside Iran. Still, they pursued anything that would disrupt the political order in Iran.

While many governments worldwide employ such strategies as part of their geopolitical toolkit, which has proven effective, there is a potential for unfavourable consequences. Some former members of the MEK have reported that the group’s primary activities in Albania involve engaging in an escalating online information battle between Iran and its adversaries.

They disseminate anti-Iran propaganda in English, Farsi, and Arabic on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and in the comment sections of newspapers. This could create a false impression of foreign involvement in actions against Iran or vice versa, potentially leading to increased tensions or even a confrontation between the two countries in a worst-case scenario.

Albanian citizens often view the presence of the MEK in their country with skepticism, drawing parallels to ISIS, while the Iranian population is concerned about the group’s methods.

Therefore, it’s essential for Europe to conduct a thorough evaluation of the potential repercussions of harbouring politically contentious groups, as this could potentially result in heightened geopolitical tensions and instability.


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