Bolton’s Ascent Gives Iranian Group a New Lease on Life

With a supporter in the White House, the MEK might finally have a voice in U.S. policy.

MEK supporters demonstrate outside the Iranian embassy in Berlin, Germany on Dec. 28, 2009.  (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
MEK supporters demonstrate outside the Iranian embassy in Berlin, Germany on Dec. 28, 2009. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

With John Bolton installed as President Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, an Iranian dissident group dedicated to regime change will now have someone sympathetic to its cause whom it can turn to in the White House.

Bolton has long been an advocate for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran — known in Persian as the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK — and has been a speaker at several of its events. The organization was founded in opposition to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in the 1960s and was eventually forced into exile after the 1979 revolution, first in Iraq with help from Saddam Hussein and then scattered throughout Europe and the United States in the 2000s.

Known for its insular and secretive leadership structure, as well as its hard-line stance on ousting the Iranian regime, the group has a history of cultivating relationships with Western lawmakers — and Americans in particular.

Until recently though, the MEK had been broadly shunned by career officials at the State and Defense departments, as well as the White House. Now however, with a cabinet stacked with Iran hawks and Bolton leading the National Security Council, the MEK has a rare chance to assert itself as a serious player in U.S. policymaking.

“Bolton is positively predisposed to the MEK,” says a congressional foreign-policy aide with knowledge of the group. “They will have some access to this White House at the least.”

The MEK has a long history of lobbying for its distinctive brand of political activism, especially in Washington. Given the fractious nature of other Iranian opposition activists in exile, the group’s organization — and significant funding — has made it a visible feature of D.C. debates on regime change.

“The MEK has always had the one advantage of being consistent and well organized,” says a Washington-based analyst who focuses on Iranian opposition figures. The analyst requested anonymity to discuss the group, which is known for taking aggressive action against its public critics and critical press coverage.

“Especially in D.C., there’s no pro-Iran lobby, so you already have a fairly good pitch when you come and say you want to fight against the Islamic Republic. It gets you a good audience,” the analyst says.

Most of the MEK’s outreach, much of which is financial, has been directed at House and Senate leaders — both Democrats and Republicans. The congressional aide, for instance, describes attending a lavish luncheon for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, hosted by an MEK-affiliated group in the Russell Senate Office Building. Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, addressed the gathering, and MEK leader Maryam Rajavi delivered a video address from her home in France.

“It was straight-up ‘regime change in Iran,’” the aide says. “I almost respect how up front they were. We were all suddenly at an MEK rally.”

On the House side, a spokesperson for the House Foreign Affairs Committee plays down the importance of the group. The “MEK is one of many Iranian-American organizations that closely tracks U.S. policy toward Iran and the activities of Congress,” the spokesperson says.

The State Department and NSC declined to comment directly on whether the administration views the MEK as a viable opposition group. “As President Trump has clearly stated, he wants to see a free and prosperous future for the people of Iran,” says Robert Palladino, a spokesman for the NSC. “We believe that future should be of their choosing.”

But the MEK’s energetic outreach has produced some notable public relations successes. A 2016 gala in Paris was attended by Bolton, former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, among others. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is also a regular attendee of the group’s events.

Bolton also attended a July 2017 gathering in Paris, where he praised the MEK’s potential role in regime change. “There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centered in this room today,” he said. “The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.”

American advocates for the group are paid well for their appearances — reportedly up to $50,000 per speech. A former senior State Department official says the MEK would offer prospective speakers between $20,000 and $30,000 for speeches at the group’s headquarters in Paris. Bolton was also allegedly paid for his time, though in the past he has refused to divulge the amount.

With Bolton’s ascension to the NSC however, the group may have scored its greatest prize yet. While the MEK previously has had supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress, this is the first time it has had an avowed ally this close to the president.

The MEK now has a direct channel to the highest levels of decision-making in the United States, which is not something they had previously,” says Ariane Tabatabai, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.

For its part, the MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, praises Bolton’s appointment.

“The National Council of Resistance of Iran has always welcomed a firm policy on the theocracy ruling Iran,” Ali Safavi, a member of the council’s foreign affairs committee, says via email. “In our view, the clerical regime is the primary enemy of regional and indeed world peace, and is the main source of instability, crisis, and warmongering in the region.”

How officials such as Bolton might use the MEK, and vice versa, is still an open question though. Former U.S. officials, Western diplomats, and Iranian experts have long dismissed the group as lacking popular standing inside the country.

“I suspect Bolton’s interactions with the MEK were above all motivated by financial interests,” says Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The MEK may be a backward cult with little to offer, but they are the enemy of his enemy. And they pay handsomely.”

The MEK’s unusual ideology has no widespread following in Iran, and several former U.S. government officials, as well as analysts with firsthand experience of the group, describe it as “cultish.”

After the 1979 revolution, the group fled Iran and settled in Iraq, where they allied with Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq War in an attempt to topple the Iranian government — a move that Iranians of every political stripe have never forgotten. “This is a group that sided with the adversary during the most traumatic event in recent Iranian history,” Tabatabai says.

Since then, the MEK has maintained only a tenuous connection to Iran itself. After the war, unable to return home, the group was confined to a camp in Iraq’s Diyala province. It stayed there until 2012, when it was forced to move to another outpost, Camp Liberty, near Baghdad.

Throughout the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Shiite groups carried out attacks targeting both camps.

“When the Shiite-dominated government took shape after the U.S. invaded, they hated the MEK,” says Daniel Fried, who was at the time the U.S. government coordinator charged with relocating the group. “They alleged that it was used by Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s to repress Shiites in the south.”

“The Iraqi government was ready to kill all these people,” says Fried, now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

As of 2016 though, all MEK members from Camp Liberty were moved out of Iraq with U.S. assistance — many to European countries.

“We resettled a lot of the MEK people from Iraq in Albania,” says Daniel Benjamin, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator during that period, now at Dartmouth University. “They were the only ones who would take them.”

But for the repatriation to take place, Washington first had to remove the group from a U.S. list of terrorist organizations. It had been placed on the blacklist for killing Americans in Iran in the 1970s during the shah’s rule.

“It became the goal of the U.S. government to get them out of there. That is the reason they were delisted,” Benjamin says. “It happened under the secretary’s authority, not because they had met the requirements for not being a terrorist group.”

Fried, the diplomat charged with shuttling back and forth between the MEK leadership, Iraqi government, and the European countries that might accept them, also notes the strange politics involved in the negotiations. “They had a huge stable of American supporters, senior political people,” he says.

With the group now completely exiled from the region and removed from Iranian domestic politics, some have questioned its utility to hawkish policymakers should the United States pursue a more explicit policy of regime change.

“They’re not the leading edge of any kind of regime change movement,” says Barbara Slavin, the head of the Future of Iran initiative at the Atlantic Council. “Many Iranians are eager for change, but they don’t want to go from the frying pan of an Islamic government to the fire of the MEK.”

One well-connected conservative activist in Washington, seen as a hawk on Iran, also expresses a deep wariness about the group. The MEK are occasionally useful as a de facto intelligence network, but it should never be seen as an organization that could assume power in Tehran, he says.

“If you wanted to roll out any political strategy that has any political legitimacy in Iran, you would not roll it out with the MEK,” the activist says.

Nevertheless, Bolton and others on the NSC could still use the group as one tool among many to harass the Iranian government. “They’re useful as provocation,” says the congressional aide with knowledge of the group. “They’re useful as a signal to the Iranian government that we’re coming to get you.”

Given the MEK’s broad base of support on Capitol Hill, the group could also be useful in drumming up congressional support for the administration’s increasingly aggressive stance toward the Iranian government.

“This is a group that has shown itself to be very adept at garnering political support,” Benjamin says. “If you’re sitting in the West Wing, you’re looking at this group and saying, ‘These guys can actually get me some real support for this policy.’”

In the past, such efforts were typically checked by officials with deep expertise in the region. The State Department and Defense Department, for instance, have historically been reluctant to give the MEK much credence. “The State Department is under no illusion about the MEK as a serious political actor or intel source,” the Washington-based analyst says.

Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment says the intelligence community holds similar views. “In the aftermath of the Iraq [weapons of mass destruction] fiasco, U.S. intelligence professionals are doubly skeptical of information provided to them by opposition groups with dubious sources and methods,” he says.

Now though, with an experienced political operator like Bolton at the helm and a marginalized foreign-policy bureaucracy, the MEK could gain some traction at the White House.

“A lot of these folks who really understand these dynamics are being pushed out because they aren’t being listened to,” Tabatabai says. “Perhaps under a different administration someone like Bolton would be isolated, but I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.”

Update, April 30, 2018: This piece has been updated to include comment from the National Security Council.

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

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