Every year the notorious cult and "former" terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) holds a political conference to promote its propaganda and call for regime change in Iran, and every year many current and former American, Canadian, and European officials and elected representatives line up to pay homage to the group and their leader, Maryam Rajavi. Members of both major parties in the U.S. have either traveled to the group’s compound in Albania or spoken remotely through video messages in exchange for hefty speaking fees for the last ten years. The annual parade of prominent officeholders and policymakers that offer up effusive praise to such a wretched group is an ongoing disgrace for the United States and its allies, and it is a symptom of deeper problems with our foreign policy.
This show of support for the MEK reflects the extent to which our foreign policy debates are distorted and corrupted by the lobbying efforts of foreign groups and governments alike. No one knows for sure where the MEK gets its money, but there is reason to believe that it may be coming from the Saudi government and/or Saudi individuals. In recent years, prominent Saudis have begun participating in MEK events, and that coincided with the kingdom’s intensifying hostility towards Iran in the last decade. Our Iran policy debate is being influenced to an alarming degree by an extremist cult and an increasingly repressive authoritarian client state, and none of that can be good for American interests or democratic accountability in our foreign policy.
American support for the MEK reminds us that bipartisanship in foreign policy usually means rallying behind exceptionally bad causes. This year’s conference was described in one report as a "rare moment of bipartisan unity," as if this somehow made cheering on a deranged cult better. The pro-MEK boosterism also shows that there are far too many people in and around our government that will make common cause with absolutely anyone if they are in favor of regime change in Iran. That in turn is a measure of just how irrational our government’s fixation on Iran is.
The MEK was originally an armed group opposed to the Iranian monarchy before the revolution, and during that period it was also responsible for killing several Americans. The MEK supported taking and keeping US diplomats hostage. After the group fell out with Khomeini and were brutally purged, the group relocated to Iraq where they joined with Saddam Hussein to attack their own country. Their participation in Iraq’s attack on Iran has earned them the enduring loathing of almost all Iranians everywhere, and for that reason and others they have virtually no support in Iran or in the diaspora. While the MEK was officially removed from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012 after an extensive lobbying campaign, it remains a totalitarian, cultish organization that abuses its own members. There is good reason to believe that members of the group still act as cat’s paws for Israeli intelligence in carrying out assassinations and acts of sabotage inside Iran. As part of the group’s effort to remake its image, it uses a political front organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), to create the impression that the MEK has changed and committed itself to democracy.
The MEK has not changed. They remain at their core the same militant and extremist organization they have been for decades. Cheering on the MEK is as crazy and irresponsible as endorsing the Lord’s Resistance Army or defending the Khmer Rouge, and it is not an accident that the group has sometimes been likened to the latter. Unfortunately, because they hate the Iranian government and make the right noises about democracy, they are given a free pass and Iran hawks embrace them as allies. In the past, participants in MEK summits have ranged from Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, and Rudy Giuliani to Joe Lieberman, Tom Ridge, and John McCain. This year it included former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, the current Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, his fellow New Jerseyan Sen. Cory Booker, and many other members of Congress. The speakers routinely declare that the MEK and its allies are the "real" opposition working towards "secular democracy," they denounce the Iranian government, and they call for some form of regime change.
Flournoy’s participation in the conference this year proved to be especially controversial since she is a major figure in Democratic national security circles and had frequently been mentioned as a possible Biden nominee for Secretary of Defense earlier in the year. In her remarks, she expressed hope for "internal regime change" in Iran, and congratulated the assembled audience for their work: "we must continue to applaud and support the important work of Diaspora groups like yours that keep alive the vision of a secular, free, and democratic Iran."
Faced with a swift backlash online, Flournoy now claims that she didn’t know that she was speaking at an MEK event and wouldn’t have participated had she known, but it strains credulity that she was unaware of the nature of the event and its sponsor. A simple web search would have shown the relationship between the NCRI and the MEK, as well as the violent and disturbing history of the cult. Frankly, it is impossible to believe that she didn’t know who she was addressing.
The language that Flournoy used in her speech sounds too much like the standard pro-MEK talking points that other speakers have used for the last decade, and the MEK’s lobbying efforts are too well-known and have been going on too long for her to plead ignorance. It is notable that Flournoy felt the need to concoct a cover story to excuse her participation, since most pro-MEK shills take pride in what they do, but her excuse isn’t credible. Even if her explanation were true, it doesn’t excuse the horrible lack of judgment that she displayed here. If she didn’t understand that she was addressing an MEK event, she shouldn’t be offering advice on Iran policy or holding forth on the political future of Iran.
The MEK is a dangerous and disreputable group. They ought to be so politically radioactive that no one would want to be associated with them, but that has not happened because Iran hawks from both parties and in many other Western countries find the MEK useful to their agenda. Supporting the MEK allows them to mislead ignorant audiences into falsely believing that their hard-line policies enjoy support from the Iranian Diaspora No one who knows anything about Iran thinks that the MEK deserves support or has any support back in Iran, so whenever someone celebrates the group that is all the proof you need that nothing else that person says about Iran and Iran policy should be taken seriously.
Iran hawks and the MEK are both obsessed with regime change in Iran. Since they cannot achieve it from within Iran, it is just a matter of time before the cult’s yes-men in Washington push for military action aimed at toppling the government. Just as they sided with Saddam Hussein to attack their own country over forty years ago, the MEK wants to rope the US into fighting another war against Iran. If we want to prevent that war from happening in the future, the MEK’s cheerleaders need to be exposed to ridicule and criticism over their willingness to support a group that has both American and Iranian blood on its hands.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.