I: The Attack at Ashraf
At the beginning of April, as popular uprisings ripped through the cities of Yemen and Syria and NATO missiles pounded Gaddafi strongholds in Libya, a specially protected refugee camp was attacked by government troops in Iraq. Camp Ashraf is a gigantic settlement in the north-eastern province of Diyala that shelters 3,500 exiled members of the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MEK) and is protected under the Geneva Convention. On the morning of April 8th, Iraqi soldiers smashed through the perimeter fence, driving armored personnel carriers and bulldozers into buildings and crowds and attacking unarmed residents with grenades and tear gas and AK-47s. Around thirty residents died and hundreds more were denied medical aid at the local hospital in Baquba.
This was the latest in a series of incidents that have escalated in violence and scale since US troops withdrew from the camp last year. Their presence had saved the MEK from extradition back to Iran, where they face certain imprisonment and likely execution; this security quickly vanished once power was transferred over to the Iraqi authorities. The MEK and their Western proxy, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI), broadcast grainy footage on their satellite TV and YouTube channels showing Iraqi Humvees plowing through people and the flash of rifle fire from the center of swarming crowds.
There was no international outcry. Despite the violence of the Iraqi operation and despite (or perhaps because of) the regional ferment, the global response was marginalised and slow. Prominent MEK supporters in Europe and America, including US congressmen and senators and a clutch of British Lords and backbench MPs, condemned the assault on Ashraf in lobby meetings and local press columns. Human Rights Watch demanded an independent probe into the massacre and Amnesty International protested against the use of live fire against unarmed residents. Al-Jazeera – that media engine of Middle East and Arab Street protest – largely ignored Ashraf as it gazed upon besieged Benghazi and raucous Sanaa. The BBC filed a terse report on their website and quickly moved on. Eventually, columns in the New York Times and Guardian – plus as a rather spurious spread in the Daily Mail – began to leak details of Iraqi brutality and ask awkward questions about Nouri al-Maliki and his friends in Tehran. Finally, one long week later, details from the scene proved sufficiently gruesome to prompt Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to conclude: “I am well aware that this is a contentious group, with a complicated history, but leaving them to fester in Camp Ashraf was never going to be a solution.”
II: Rajavi Cultists
Camp Ashraf is the only remaining MEK enclave in Iraq. It was once the central hub of a potent military apparatus and still serves as the seat of a self-appointed government-in-exile. It retains a parliamentary chamber and a large parade ground that, during the good years, hosted Soviet-style military displays. Residents would tend vegetable gardens and grow eucalyptus and poplar trees; they maintained sports facilities and organised film shows on Thursday evenings. The camp is decorated with beatific portraits of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, the organisation’s absent leaders. This vast complex – as it stands today, under attack by the new authorities in Iraq – owes its existence to Saddam Hussein. It was Saddam’s security forces who first built camps to house the fugitive Mujahedeen as they fled Khomeini’s marauding Revolutionary Guard death squads; in return for shelter, the MEK operated as an arm of the Ba’ath security state. They fought for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war and worked as mercenaries for him thereafter, assassinating Khomeinists and other regime officials, planting bombs in Iranian cities and mosques, and helping to suppress the Kurdish uprisings of 1991.
This was a dismal tale of military failure, ideological dissipation, and co-option by an alien and criminal regime. Rather than concede defeat, the Rajavis learnt a lesson or two from Saddam and Khomeini, transforming the MEK into a sinister cult of personality. This feat was achieved within the secret, hermetic world of the Iraqi camps, but eventually consumed the entire network of cadres and allies as far away as France and the US. The Rajavi method was psychologically warped, cruel, totalitarian. Their “ideological revolution” demanded dehumanising levels of commitment from their members, who were compelled to sever all personal relationships and take vows of celibacy. Conspicuous displays of devotion to the leading couple and self-flagellation in the Mao style became de rigueur. They retained devotion and conformity through techniques of intense mental and physical abuse; informers and enforcers demolished the individual will of members, kept them away from all outside connections and prevented them from leaving the organisation. During the 1990s, the Jonestown-like conditions intensified as hundreds of dissidents and deserters disappeared into the cells of Ashraf and Abu Ghraib. Facing a terminal collapse of morale after their failure to hurt or even rattle the hated Ayatollahs, the Rajavis had quickly turned to Ba’athist terror tactics.
Outside Iraq, they learnt the dark and fluid arts of political persuasion. Swapping their outdated Islamo-Marxist baggage for secular, democratic platitudes, the Rajavis contrived to obscure their modus operandi in Iraq and attract soft-minded and seducible politicians and lawyers to their cause. In this, they succeeded, and even excelled. By the mid-90s, they had built an extensive network of government contacts and media connections in Europe and America. These links proved critical when the US State Department designated the MEK a terrorist organisation in 1997. Without delay, a powerful alliance of senators, congressmen and lawyers endorsed and promoted their vigorous propaganda drive against proscription. Meanwhile, the Rajavis operated through proxy organisations designed to obscure operational connections to militants still bearing arms in Iraq. This tactic was breathtakingly transparent, but worked surprisingly well: the MEK remained on Saddam’s payroll until the second US invasion of Iraq, even as the PMOI and National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) petitioned on their behalf in Western capitals.
III: MEK in the UK
The MEK lobby machine is low-key, semi-clandestine, but persistent and effective. It does not always declare itself openly, as such; it speaks for Iranian freedom and decries Western appeasement of the mullahs, appealing for action on behalf of the “real resistance movement of Iran” – and this final appeal, with its obscure partisan attachment, is the indicator, the code. Any reference to a “resistance movement of Iran” whether “real” or merely “legitimate” is suspect: it never refers to the diffuse, disorganised Greens, or to the lacklustre Monarchists or Los Angeles exiles, or even the persecuted trade unionists, but always and only the MEK. You can, therefore, learn to decode their statements and screeds quickly. In Parliament, or Congress, in the Western media and the courts of Europe, a relentless and obtuse campaign is at work, and can be traced.
Late last year, for example, Conservative MP David Amess presented an Early Day Motion to the House of Commons on behalf of the MEK. Motion 1143 – co-signed by 208 MPs, including such eminent parliamentarians as Charles Kennedy, Jon Cruddas, Simon Hughes and Frank Field – was, ostensibly, a protest at the conditions in Camp Ashraf. Amess duly condemned “the inhumane siege of Ashraf residents, in particular serious medical restrictions and their psychological torture with 140 loudspeakers.” However, the real focus of EDM 1143 turned out to be the legal status of the PMOI, and concluded with the preposterous demand that “the US administration follow the UK in de-listing the PMOI.” Amess, in other words, successfully exploited parliamentary procedure and the ignorance or naivety of fellow MPs to promote a narrow and dangerous sectarian agenda – an agenda occluded by the patina of human rights. How many MPs realised that they were signing MEK propaganda is impossible to know, as Amess and his Commons colleagues Brian Binley and Win Griffiths are dogged and crafty in their ideological allegiance. But there it was, on the parliamentray record: the raw, uncredited MEK script.
The exact basis of this allegiance, whether it be corruption or ignorance or romance or misplaced idealism is, in this case, quite mysterious. The MEK is relatively small and has no popular base in Iran; even the regime’s sternest internal opponents despise the MEK because of their appalling alliance with Saddam. Their principal front at Westminster is the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, a cross-bench coalition of lackeys who seek to “shape [UK] policy on Iran in favour of a firm approach towards Iran’s theocratic regime and support […] their legitimate resistance movement”. The BPCIF lobby for political recognition and material support for the MEK from the highest levels of government to help Rajavi and her paramilitaries overthrow and replace the Ayatollahs. This vision is occasionally articulated by Con Coughlin and Christopher Booker, who both push pro-MEK policies in the Telegraph, and by Joshua Rozenberg, who publicised the PMOI’s battles in the British and European courts as the paper’s legal editor. Melanie Phillips, Rozenberg’s wife, is also a declared fan, having paid tribute to the “warm, attractive, and above all courageous” PMOI in the Spectator in 2008.
After the recent assault on Ashraf, the BPCIF hosted a special briefing for the PMOI in the House of Commons. Opening the meeting, Chairman Lord Corbett of Castle Vale accused the Iraqis of trying to “eras[e] the camp from the face of the earth” in “a Gestapo-style massacre,” before introducing a presentation by “medical practitioner” Hoda Husseini. Husseini, part of a small army of articulate and attractive female PMOI activists, dazzled and appalled her easy crowd with photographs of charred and mutilated corpses, the sickening result, she claimed, of “automatic Kalashnikov machine guns with live, tracer and armour-piercing bullets as well as sonic grenades [fired] directly at the heads and chests of the civilian population.” It was after attending a very similar PMOI-hosted Commons briefing that Melanie Phillips rallied to the cause in 2008. These briefings connect Lords, MPs, lawyers and journalists to the MEK, PMOI and NCRI hierarchies as well as the rank-and-file activists with their Rajavi vigils and desperate protests outside Iranian embassies across Europe. Through these connections and forums the MEK feed their propaganda material and bogus democratic platform to sympathetic columnists, parliamentarians and lawmakers, who then spread and recycle it through affiliated websites, syndicated or local newspaper columns, or on parliamentary record. In this way, the MEK campaign continues in all its persistence and obscurity, as the organisation notches up the necessary victories, slowly but surely.
IV: Fighting Through Law
“…a nasty terrorist organisation that has to be contained”
Jack Straw on the PMOI in 2005.
These victories have been legal victories. The PMOI was proscribed in the UK by Home Secretary Jack Straw in 2001 – a measure the dependable Lord Corbett, reaching for the obligatory Nazi analogy, described as “an act of appeasement not seen since the Munich Agreement with Hitler’s Germany.” The EU banned them a year later, freezing their assets across Europe. This provoked a war of attrition waged by legal proxies in European and British courts. Straw held the government line for as long as possible but it was a futile gesture, as the PMOI had already won the war of words (or legalese). The group achieved their first legal breakthroughs in October 2007, when separate rulings in the European Court at Luxemburg and the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission in London challenged the legal proscription of the PMOI in the EU and UK. Subsequent government appeals against these rulings, led by Jacqui Smith, were challenged and defeated by PMOI lawyers, and the group was finally de-listed in the UK in June 2008. The EU once more followed the UK precedent and unfroze their assets in 2009 – a sum worth $9 million held in French bank accounts alone.
The MEK won these cases for two reasons: defeat and reinvention. Their military capitulation was finally sealed by regime change in Iraq in 2003. US General Ray Odierno negotiated the surrender of all their weapons and personnel, neutralising the movement as a military force. Maryam Rajavi (Masoud has not been seen since 2003) turned this final physical defeat to her advantage and disarmament became an important component in the PMOI’s legal defence. It helped legitimise the ideological reinvention that they had tried to achieve through propaganda, lobbying and spurious academic publications (for example, Enemy of the Ayatollahs, written by NCRI director Mohammed Mohadessin and published by Pluto press in 2004). That they remained a totalitarian sect haunted by allegations of abuse and torture had no relevance to their legal status.
Victory in the courtroom has led to solvency and a shift in focus. The MEK remains outlawed in the US and its Iraqi base is vulnerable; the fate of Ashraf is now an urgent appeal as well as a propaganda coup. The opportunity to launch a human rights campaign as a reformist wave surges through the region, threatening both Saudi and Iranian dominance, is too good to squander. It is tempered, however, by the real possibility of their physical destruction in the Middle East if Ashraf is dispersed. Proxy MEK websites condemn Iraqi perfidy, report desperate protests outside Iranian and Iraqi embassies in Western capitals, and publish ludicrous peons to Maryam Rajavi, who can apparently mesmerise Western politicians as fully as her own followers. (The PMOI website quotes an unctuous Patrick Kennedy comparing Rajavi to Nelson Mandela, hailing her as “the mother of a free Iran” – a more appropriate comparison might be Willie, not Nelson, Mandela.)
But while Rajavi seduces officials and raises funds in European and American cities, her sacred cult continues to dominate MEK camps and cadres: in this, nothing has changed. One MEK escapee recently described conditions inside Ashraf to RFE/RL journalist Golnaz Esfadniart, detailing a familiar, grim litany of detention, death threats, enforced celibacy, a cult of martyrdom and devotion to the Rajavi leadership. “I haven’t had any contact with my family for 25 years,” he claimed, “My family thought I was dead. Using the telephone, mobile phone, internet, even listening to the radio is forbidden.” The MEK remains an organisation that is both dangerous and irrelevant. This should be obvious. But when John Bolton offers them support in front of Congress and receives applause and acclaim for it, the slow-burning, emotional efficiency and duplicity of their campaign becomes apparent. There is already a vast and heterogeneous grass-roots opposition in Iran and in exile; it does not advocate violence or employ totalitarian methods. It is huge and has time and technology on its side. Its colour is Green.