Owen Bennett-Jones writes: The story of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, also known as the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK), is all about the way image management can enable a diehard enemy to become a cherished ally. The MEK is currently campaigning to be officially delisted in the US as a terrorist organisation. Once off the list it will be free to make use of its support on Capitol Hill in order to become America’s most favoured, and no doubt best funded, Iranian opposition group.
The last outfit to achieve something similar was the Iraqi National Congress, the lobby group led by Ahmed Chalabi that talked of democracy and paved the way for the US invasion of Iraq by presenting Washington with highly questionable ‘evidence’ of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links with al-Qaida. Then, as George Bush took the US to war, all that remained for the INC and its leaders was to sit back and prepare for government. Many in Washington believe that, for better or worse, the US will go to war with Iran and that the MEK will have a role to play. But first they will have to persuade Hillary Clinton to take the group off the US’s official terrorist list. Some of Clinton’s officials are urging her to keep the MEK on it but some of the big beasts in Washington are angrily demanding that she delist. After an exhaustive inter-agency process the MEK file is now in her in-tray. Recent State Department statements indicate that she is likely to delist the group.
Formed in the 1960s as an anti-imperialist, Islamist organisation with socialist leanings, dedicated to the overthrow of the shah, the MEK originally stood not only for Islamic revolution but also for such causes as women’s rights – an appealing combination on Iran’s university campuses. It went on to build a genuine popular base and played a significant role in overthrowing the shah in 1979. It was popular enough for Ayatollah Khomeini to feel he had to destroy it; throughout the 1980s he instigated show trials and public executions of its members. The MEK retaliated with attacks on senior clerical leaders inside Iran.
Fearing for their lives, MEK members fled first to Paris and later to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, desperate for allies in the war with Iran, provided them with millions of dollars of funding as well as tanks, artillery pieces and other weapons. He also made land available to them. Camp Ashraf became their home, a citadel in the desert, 80 kilometres north of Baghdad and an hour’s drive from the Iranian border. Since the 1970s, the MEK’s rhetoric has changed from Islamist to secular, from socialist to capitalist, from pro-revolution to anti-revolution. And since Saddam’s fall it has portrayed itself as pro-American, peaceful and dedicated to democracy and human rights. Continual reinvention can be dangerous, however, and the new, pro-Iranian Iraqi government is under pressure from Tehran to close down Camp Ashraf, which has grown over three decades to the size of a small town. And it’s not just Iran. Many Iraqis too bear grudges against the MEK, not only for having worked alongside Saddam Hussein but also for having taken part in his violent suppression of the Kurds and Shias. [Continue reading…]