WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Tuesday that he will nominate Gen. John P. Abizaid, a retired commander of forces in the Middle East, as his new ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a position that has taken on new sensitivity with the assassination of a Saudi journalist.
The selection, if confirmed by the Senate, will finally give the president a representative of his own in Riyadh at a time when the relationship with Washington has grown strained over the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who lived in the United States and wrote for The Washington Post.
General Abizaid, a Lebanese-American who speaks fluent Arabic and spent years in the Middle East, served as head of the United States Central Command with responsibility for the region and oversaw the early years of the Iraq war under President George W. Bush. Since 2016, he has served as special envoy to the Ukrainian military helping bolster its capacity against Russian aggression.
The nomination comes six weeks after Mr. Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to obtain paperwork needed for his coming wedding. A team of Saudi agents flew to Istanbul and killed him minutes after his arrival, then dismembered his body, according to Turkish officials.
After initially denying it, Saudi officials have acknowledged that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the consulate and that it was premeditated, but have continued to deny that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials, M.B.S., knew in advance or had any involvement in the operation. A recording shared by Turkish officials with the C.I.A. captured a member of the kill team instructing a superior over the phone to “tell your boss” that the operation had been carried out.
The lack of an ambassador in either Saudi Arabia and Turkey has been a point of contention since Mr. Khashoggi’s death, underscoring that many important diplomatic posts remain unfilled nearly two years into Mr. Trump’s administration, some because no one has been nominated and others because the Senate has not acted.
Mr. Trump has promised “severe punishment” if it were demonstrated that the Saudis were behind the killing, but he has resisted curbing arms sales as lawmakers in both parties have urged. His Middle East strategy to confront Iran and force Palestinians to make peace with Israel has relied largely on Saudi Arabia, a relationship cultivated by Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, with Prince Mohammed.
General Abizaid, 67, graduated from West Point, where his 1973 yearbook described him as “an Arabian Vince Lombardi” in that he “just couldn’t accept second place.” He spent 34 years in the Army, rising from infantry platoon leader to a celebrated four-star general. As a company commander in Grenada in 1983, he used a bulldozer to advance on a Cuban bunker, a moment later recreated in the Clint Eastwood movie “Heartbreak Ridge.”
As deputy head and then commander of the United States Central Command, he oversaw the early years of the Iraq war, including the quick defeat of the Baghdad government and the capture of Saddam Hussein. His deep understanding of the Middle East made him “our version of Lawrence of Arabia,” as John P. Hannah, Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser, once described him. He coined the phrase “long war” to describe the nation’s struggle with terrorists to make clear to Americans that it would not be a quick battle.But a Sunni insurgency grew on his watch, turning the war into a bloody quagmire. General Abizaid favored a strategy of turning over the war to Iraqi forces as early as possible and resisted sending more American troops when Mr. Bush opted to dispatch a “surge” of reinforcements in 2007 that helped turn around the war, at least for a time. As the surge began, General Abizaid retired, having served as head of Central Command longer than any of his predecessors.
General Abizaid remains highly regarded by both military and diplomatic veterans. Three people familiar with the selection said it had been in the works for months and one of the people said General Abizaid turned down the job twice before relenting.
“Excellent choice with experience in the kingdom, but he faces an unprecedented challenge dealing with a crown prince whose reputation is in tatters, probably irredeemably,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and former C.I.A. officer who wrote a recent book on Saudi Arabia and American presidents.
“He has deep knowledge of the area, thinks strategically and should be good,” said Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
Gerald M. Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen and the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016, said the selection showed that Mr. Trump continued to favor military officers for senior civilian positions.
“But Abizaid isn’t a bad choice and may have some influence with the Saudis,” he said. “The timing is also interesting after delaying for two years. It may indicate that the administration has finally figured out that the Kushner-M.B.S. channel isn’t sufficient for managing the relationship.”
Still, it was unclear how much leeway General Abizaid would have in managing the relationship rather than being a figurehead while Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed maintain their channel. “It’s a very conventional pick,” said Andrew Miller, the deputy director for policy at the Project for Middle East Democracy and a former State Department and White House official under President Barack Obama. “There’s a long history of retired military officers serving in that post.”
Image: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (2nd L) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump to dance with a sword during a welcome ceremony at Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Rather, the region’s greatest problems are internal, often exacerbated or even created by the U.S. government. Indeed, Washington is the region’s most destabilizing force: blowing up both Iraq and Libya, attempting to overthrow the Syrian government, pushing barely disguised regime change in Iran, and backing the Saudi regime’s reckless military intervention in Yemen and elsewhere. No other government has wreaked nearly as much havoc throughout the region.
Some Americans care much more about Israel than they do about U.S. energy supplies or regional stability. However, the radical Likud government also is playing the United States. Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower, capable of defending itself from all comers. Like its neighbors, the principal existential threat facing Israel is internal: if it seeks to forcibly maintain a growing Arab population as a subject labor force, then Israel may find it impossible to be both democratic and Jewish.
Fourth, Iran is in no position to dominate the Mideast. President Trump recently argued that “When I came into here, it was a question of when would [the Iranians] take over the Middle East?” But Iran faces severe domestic challenges. The Islamist elite lacks legitimacy, especially among a younger population which looks West. The economy is isolated and weak. The military as never recovered from the revolution which overthrew the Shah.
Indeed, Iran’s conventional military strength is anemic; Tehran’s military outlays ran about $16 billion last year, trailing both Saudi Arabia’s $77 billion and UAE’s $25 billion. The Islamic Republic is in no position to launch a blitzkrieg assault on its immediate neighbors, let alone more distant states such as well-armed Egypt.
Iran’s missile program, oft criticized by U.S. officials who control the world’s most powerful military, is a deterrent borne of weakness, ensuring deterrence as city-busting weapons targeting desert city-states. Saudi Arabia is the region’s most threatening aggressor, having invaded its poor neighbor, Yemen, used military forces to maintain Bahrain’s brutal Sunni monarchy over the majority Shia population, subsidized Egypt’s murderous al-Sisi dictatorship, underwritten radical jihadists in Syria, and kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister. Abu Dhabi, with a more effective military, has joined in many of these destructive interventions. Tehran is a piker in comparison.
Iran’s supposed empire of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen is a fantasy. The Bush administration empowered the Islamist regime by ousting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, but even so Baghdad is no puppet. Tehran enjoys influence in desperately dysfunctional Lebanon through Hezbollah, but at most that offers Iran a possible deterrent weapon against Israel. Tehran has never dominated Yemen and is assisting Houthi rebels mostly to bleed the aggressors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In Syria Iran has worked hard to preserve a long-standing ally under siege by Riyadh and others. These foreign-policy initiatives are largely defensive and, even if successful, have been economically ruinous.
The Saudi Crown Prince has admitted that “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.” So why does Riyadh, which candidate Donald Trump denounced for its military dependence on Washington, need U.S. defense subsidies formalized by treaty?
An Arab NATO cannot supply the region’s governments with what most desperately crave: political legitimacy. A gaggle of corrupt, authoritarian monarchies, highlighted by Saudi Arabia’s totalitarian absolute rule, plus one ostentatiously brutal dictatorship (Egypt), cannot appeal to disaffected young Arabs. To survive they must rely on repression. MESA would formally put the U.S. military at their service. So much for the president’s insincere rhetoric about human rights.
Today the Gulf states contract out most work, from gardening to medicine. They informally do the same with the military. MESA would make official their reliance on the U.S. armed services as their bodyguards—and certainly not for America’s benefit.
The Middle East has been a graveyard of U.S. expectations. Decades of military intervention have had counterproductive, often disastrous consequences. Washington has blown up Iraq and Libya with devastating impact and intervened in the Lebanese and Syrian civil wars with no good result. The United States has backed tyranny throughout the region, including in Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Failing to recognize that the illegitimate Gulfdoms need Washington more than Washington needs them, the United States has backed Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s monstrous war in Yemen. Even support for Israel, a democracy for its Israeli citizens but not millions of Arab subjects, has created blowback, encouraging violent terrorism against Americans at home and abroad.
It is a catastrophic record. Yet MESA would reinforce Washington’s failed strategy. The United States should step back and disengage from the Middle East. The original NATO has turned into a deadweight for America. A new Mideast alliance start badly and go downhill from there.
The Donald Trump administration’s quiet push for a Saudi-led “Arab NATO,” tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), is emblematic of an increasingly destabilizing and militarized US policy toward the Middle East.
The military alliance, pushed by Saudi Arabia to counter Iran, would include the six Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, with a summit provisionally scheduled for Washington on October 12-13.
However, this anti-Iran alliance risks plummeting the Middle East into further chaos, just as Iraq and Syria are beginning to recover from the past years of ravage by ISIS and various Salafi-Wahhabi terrorists sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Moreover, it would further expand ungoverned space in the region for terrorist actors to thrive.
While the US military-industrial complex and its Arab client states would profit from this venture to attack Iran, it would inflict further harm on European stability in the form of a new wave of refugees, as well as threaten Asian economy and security.
Iran, not Saudi Arabia, a natural anti-terror ally
Already, Southeast Asia is reeling from the relocation of ISIS from the Middle East, on the heels of decades of imported terrorism due to the relocation of US/Saudi-sponsored mujahideen (al-Qaeda) from Afghanistan. Thus despite the oft-repeated US mantra that Iran is the “largest state sponsor of terrorism,” this view is not largely shared by Asians.
In Asia, terrorism is of the Wahhabi strand, inadvertently making Iran a natural anti-terror ally.
As the late prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew noted, Wahhabi fanaticism is the root cause of terrorism in Asia, and “Americans … make the mistake of seeking a largely military solution.” In 2003 when Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek interviewed Lee regarding al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism in Iraq, he warned, “In killing terrorists, you will only kill the worker bees. The queen bees are the preachers who teach a deviant form of Islam in schools and Islamic centers, who capture and twist the minds of the young.”
As such, the notion of the US backing Riyadh, which has spent US$100 billion exporting Wahhabism, and helping to build a more militarily capable Saudi Wahhabi-led alliance, would likely be disconcerting for countries in Europe and Asia.
The perennial problem with US decision-makers is the inability to see things from other actors’ perspective. In denying agency to regional actors and failing to account for their interests and preferences, Washington’s misguided policies end up harming US long-term interests.
For example, in the Levant, Iran is actually thriving thanks to US sectarian policy of backing Salafi jihadists to overthrow governments. As Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote in a December 2017 article titled “Iran thrives in the Levant on weakened states threatened by Sunni radicalism,” paradoxically, “theocratic Iran became the protector of non-Sunnis and even secular Sunnis against jihadism.”
Balanche argued that the failure of the Arab nationalist development model and the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a geopolitical power led to a re-Islamization of Middle Eastern societies, “for which the Islamic State is arguably the supreme stage.” Thus for the minorities, the secular Syrian regime was a guarantee of protection of minorities and even secular Sunnis, so the Syrian population’s stronger support for President Bashar al-Assad became the unintended consequence of US policy to back the jihadi opposition.
Likewise, in Lebanon Balanche noted that “Syrian Islamist rebels pushed most of the Christians, however anti-Syrian, to Hezbollah’s side” and contributed to the election of Michel Aoun as Lebanese president in 2016, and likely also to the gains by Hezbollah and its allies in the parliamentary election this May. A Maronite Christian, Aoun saw a role for Hezbollah to defend Lebanon and protect minorities from radical Islam.
Balanche observed that the Syrian crisis “pushed into the Iranian camp those social categories that were pro-Western but have felt abandoned,” and as such the more the US/Saudi axis fuels sectarianism and anti-Iran fanaticism, the more they may provoke non-aligned countries in Asia to side with Iran.
China for one will support the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Russia camp in Syria, given the grave security threat it faces from the Chinese al-Qaeda that is based in Idlib and intermingled with Western-backed armed opposition, many of whom are from Asia.
India also sees a role for Iran to counter Saudi Wahhabism that is spreading domestically, and Asia Times contributor M K Bhadrakumar argues that Indian ties with Iran are a sovereign prerogative to support energy security rather than “America First.” The European Union and Japan are similarly pushing back on US imposition of Iran sanctions that harm their economy and scrambling to save the Iran nuclear deal.
With Imran Khan as the new prime minister of Pakistan, this may finally open a new chapter for improved India-Pakistan ties, and allow for a comprehensive regional strategy for peace and economic development in Afghanistan and South Asia.
Thus the US preference for military solutions in foreign policy and its push for a Saudi-led “Arab NATO” seem ill-fated, and may have the unintended consequence of galvanizing regional actors to coalesce against further war and destruction. The concept itself is already problematic, as Arab Gulf states are plagued with internal rivalry between Doha and Riyadh, and with Egypt and Jordan reaching out to reconcile with Syria in order to protect their own economies and domestic stability.
If the Trump administration truly wants to extricate the US from Mideast quagmires, plunging the region into further war and chaos is probably not the way forward. Training and equipping an Arab NATO to conduct regime change in Iran would likely meet the same failure as US efforts to train and equip “rebels” to conduct regime change in Syria.
Instead, as former White House official Professor Charles Kupchan has exhorted, “America First” means Washington should support dialogue and political settlements in the region, transitioning its role from the world’s policeman to one of an arbiter of great-power peace. And as Syria expert Joshua Landis has said, current US policy of keeping Syrians and Iranians poor in the hopes they will demand regime change will only usher in more wars, bitterness and extremism to the region.
Instead of blocking reconstruction aid to Syria and conducting “democracy by bombing” to contain Iran, the US should recognize a new security architecture in the northern Middle East and let the region stabilize and rebuild on its own.
Failing that, regional actors will conduct countermeasures to protect their legitimate security interests. For the first time, China, Russia, India and Pakistan will join four Central Asian republics to conduct war games under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The mission is counterterrorism, and should Washington and Riyadh proceed with the anti-Iran “Arab NATO,” they may find themselves confronting not just Iran, but a coalition of four nuclear powers in Eurasia.
How to explain the Trump administration’s fixation with Iran? The Islamic Republic is an economic wreck and in political disarray, and lacks an effective conventional military. It obviously cannot seriously threaten America.
Moreover, Tehran’s capabilities are dramatically overshadowed by Israel’s nuclear arsenal, Saudi Arabia’s lavishly appointed military, and the United Arab Emirates’ brutal war-making. The obvious response to Iran’s threats, which have been far exceeded by Riyadh’s reckless aggressiveness, is regional cooperation—and for Tehran’s neighbors to better treat their own oppressed populations, so the latter do not find Iran’s Islamist message appealing.
Yet President Donald Trump, who doesn’t like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, through which the Europeans have become embarrassingly dependent on America, wants to create an Arab NATO, provisionally named the Middle East Strategic Alliance. The organization’s leading member would be Saudi Arabia, another nation which candidate Trump criticized for taking advantage of the United States.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the latest UN General Assembly meeting to host prospective members while Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Tim Lenderking criss-crossed the Gulf promoting the idea. If all goes well, it will be introduced at a summit hosted by the United States in January.
At least the original NATO served a useful purpose. Western European countries had been wrecked by World War II and the Soviet Union turned Central and Eastern European states into dismal satellites. Soviet domination of Eurasia, though not sufficient to threaten American independence, would have presented the U.S. with a dangerous security environment for years if not decades.
The alliance’s chief shortcoming was allowing Europeans to treat America’s military commitment as welfare. NATO’s European members are capable of confronting Russia or any other presumed adversary. Yet after recovering economically, they continued to rely on Uncle Sam, dismissing ever more embarrassing pleas from Washington that they do more. They knew American officials would defend the continent, no matter what.
Today even countries claiming to be vitally threatened by Russia—Poland and the Baltic States—spend only about two percent of gross domestic product on their militaries. They expect the United States to swoop in at the last minute and save them if the worst happens. NATO is an alliance primarily in name rather than action. President Trump has repeatedly made this point, but his own officials have done their best to undermine his efforts.
Alas, an Arab NATO, whether called MESA or something else, would multiply the original NATO’s many infirmities. First, by its own terms the proposed organization would be bound to target its own members. A spokesman for the National Security Council declared that the alliance “will serve as a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East.”
However, virtually all the Gulf States have facilitated terrorist funding over the years. Saudi Arabia provided most of the 9/11 terrorists and spent some $100 billion in recent decades subsidizing intolerant Wahhabist thought, which acts as a precursor to terrorism. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have actively destabilized Yemen, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Contrary to Washington’s position, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar all maintain civil relations with Tehran. Taken literally, the administration would have MESA’s members engage in a war of all against all.
Second, there is little agreement on anything among the nations Washington expects to join the new group. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE want to rule over their neighbors, determined to impose their agenda through war, if necessary. They launched a murderous invasion on Yemen, pressed their neighbors to isolate Doha, and even planned to invade Qatar, but were blocked by Turkish military intervention and U.S. opposition.
Kuwait and Oman traditionally have acted as mediators between their larger neighbors. Facing grievous domestic economic and political challenges, Jordan looks inward. In Bahrain the Sunni monarchy is focused on suppressing the Shia majority. Egypt is a common hireling, because of poverty beholden to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the billions they have spent propping up the el-Sisi dictatorship.
Qatar’s independent course angered rigidly authoritarian Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially since it allowed media coverage of their crimes and the sanctuary for their political opponents. Even Lenderking admitted the obvious, that the intra-Gulf dispute poses a long-term impediment to the idea of MESA.
Nor do the presumed alliance members agree on the supposed threat of Iran, around which the Trump administration intends to center MESA. Lenderking cited Tehran as the “number one threat” to be confronted. However, though Riyadh and Abu Dhabi desire U.S. support against Iran, their priority is regional dominance rather than national defense. Bahrain’s thuggish monarchy is angry because Tehran has backed the Shia majority against the repressive Khalifa ruling family, not because Iran is threatening to attack. As noted earlier, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar treat Tehran with balance; Qatar shares a natural gas field. Egypt does not fear Iran, but does what it is paid to do. Jordan is far more worried about its domestic problems than Tehran.
Unfortunately, the only way a coalition of these states will “work” is if the United States browbeats the other members into accepting Saudi control, which would threaten to drag them into multiple conflicts orchestrated by Riyadh for Riyadh’s benefit. But most vulnerable to manipulation would be Washington, which would be expected to backstop the Saudis irrespective of their actions, such as the criminal destruction of Yemen.
In fact, turning policy over to the Saudi royals is an open invitation to region-wide war, incompetence, and corruption. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would use MESA to advance their own objectives and not those of America or other fellow members. With Bahrain and Egypt already on their payrolls, the Saudis and Emiratis would attempt to use the new U.S.-backed alliance to cow their more moderate Gulf neighbors.
Third, the Persian Gulf is not vital to America. It never really was, but at least during the Cold War the Soviet Union conceivably could have interfered with the industrial world’s energy consumption. Today sources of energy supplies have multiplied around the world, with America emerging as the world’s largest energy producer. No one imagines Moscow plotting, say, a thrust to the Gulf through Afghanistan.
The bodies of over 8,000 Syrians killed in bombing raids by the US-led coalition have been found in mass graves in Syria’s Raqqa after the rubble was partially cleared away, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Thursday.
“Last week, the Syrian government, in its letters addressed to the UN secretary general and the UN Security Council president, provided the tragic statistics on the victims of the coalition’s bombing raids in the city of Raqqa during its ‘liberation’ from ISIL (former name of the Islamic State terror group, outlawed in Russia – TASS),” she noted.
“The bodies of over 4,000 people were found while clearing away the rubble in two of the city’s residential neighborhoods left over from the airstrikes and also around the stadium and the zoo. Those were mainly women, the elderly and children. In addition, a mass grave where more than 2,500 people were buried was uncovered at a farm near a pediatric clinic and the National Hospital, while another burial site was opened near Al-Panorama where 1,500 bombing raids’ victims were buried.”
“The letters stressed that to date just two percent of the rubble had been cleared away in Raqqa, which had been literally razed to the ground,” Zakharova emphasized.
According to the diplomat, the statistics turned out to be in stark contrast with “the hysterical reaction expressed by the US and other Western countries with respect to protecting Syrians’ rights,” and “the information provided in recent reports by various Western NGOs on the situation in Raqqa.”
The Raqqa Governorate and its capital of the same name served as the main outpost for the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
The city of Raqqa was recaptured from the terrorists last October by predominately-Kurdish units, which form part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the US-led coalition.
Moscow and Damascus have drawn attention to the situation in Raqqa on numerous occasions. On November 29, Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya said that the US and its allies were trying “to hide the dire consequences of their military operation” to liberate the Syrian city.
For its part, Damascus sent a letter to the UN, which laid the blame for the bloody carnage on the US-led coalition, whose air raids claimed thousands of lives, while the city itself was razed to the ground.
Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi came to Albania to rescue their daughter. But in Tirana, the capital, the middle-aged couple have been followed everywhere by two Albanian intelligence agents. Men in sunglasses trailed them from their hotel on George W Bush Road to their lawyer’s office; from the lawyer’s office to the ministry of internal affairs; and from the ministry back to the hotel.
The Mohammadis say their daughter, Somayeh, is being held against her will by a fringe Iranian revolutionary group that has been exiled to Albania, known as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). Widely regarded as a cult, the MEK was once designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and UK, but its opposition to the Iranian government has now earned it the support of powerful hawks in the Trump administration, including national security adviser John Bolton and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
The couple have spent the past two decades trying to get their daughter out of the MEK, travelling from their home in Canada to Paris, Jordan, Iraq and now Albania. “We are not against any group or any country,” Mostafa said, sitting outside a meatball restaurant in central Tirana. “We just want to see our daughter outside the camp and without her commanders. She can choose to stay or she can choose to come home with us.” The MEK insists Somayeh does not wish to leave the camp, and has released a letter in which she accuses her father of working for Iranian intelligence.
“Somayeh is a shy girl,” her mother said. “They threaten people like her. She wants to leave but she is scared that they will kill her.”
Since its exile from Iran in the early 1980s, the MEK has been committed to the overthrow of the Islamic republic. But it began in the 1960s as an Islamist-Marxist student militia, which played a decisive role in helpingto topple the Shah during the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-American, MEK fighters killed scores of the Shah’s police in often suicidal street battles during the 1970s. The group targeted US-owned hotels, airlines and oil companies, and was responsible for the deaths of six Americans in Iran. “Death to America by blood and bonfire on the lips of every Muslim is the cry of the Iranian people,” went one of its most famous songs. “May America be annihilated.”
Such attacks helped pave the way for the return of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who quickly identified the MEK as a serious threat to his plan to turn Iran into an Islamic republic under the control of the clergy. The well-armed middle-class guerrillas, although popular among religious students and intellectuals, would prove to be no match for Khomeini’s organisation and ruthlessness.
Following the revolution, Khomeini used the security services, the courts and the media to choke off the MEK’s political support and then crush it entirely. After it fought back, killing more than 70 senior leaders of the Islamic republic – including the president and Iran’s chief justice – in audacious bomb attacks, Khomeini ordered a violent crackdown on MEK members and sympathisers. The survivors fled the country.
Saddam Hussein, who was fighting a bloody war against Iran with the backing of the UK and the US, saw an opportunity to deploy the exiled MEK fighters against the Islamic republic. In 1986, he offered the group weapons, cash and a vast military base named Camp Ashraf, only 50 miles from the border with Iran.
For almost two decades, under their embittered leader Massoud Rajavi, the MEK staged attacks against civilian and military targets across the border in Iran and helped Saddam suppress his own domestic enemies. But after siding with Saddam – who indiscriminately bombed Iranian cities and routinely used chemical weapons in a war that cost a million lives – the MEK lost nearly all the support it had retained inside Iran. Members were now widely regarded as traitors.
Isolated inside its Iraqi base, under Rajavi’s tightening grip, the MEK became cult-like. A report commissioned by the US government, based on interviews within Camp Ashraf, later concluded that the MEK had “many of the typical characteristics of a cult, such as authoritarian control, confiscation of assets, sexual control (including mandatory divorce and celibacy), emotional isolation, forced labour, sleep deprivation, physical abuse and limited exit options”.
After the US invasion of Iraq, the MEK launched a lavish lobbying campaignto reverse its designation as a terrorist organisation – despite reports implicating the group in assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists as recently as 2012. Rajavi has not been seen since 2003 – most analysts assume he is dead – but under the leadership of his wife, Maryam Rajavi, the MEK has won considerable support from sections of the US and European right, eager for allies in the fight against Tehran.
At the annual “Free Iran” conference that the group stages in Paris each summer, dozens of elected US and UK representatives – along with retired politicians and military officials – openly call for the overthrow of the Islamic republic and the installation of Maryam Rajavi as the leader of Iran. At last year’s Paris rally, the Conservative MP David Amess announced that “regime change … is at long last within our grasp”. At the same event, Bolton – who championed war with Iran long before he joined the Trump administration – announced that he expected the MEK to be in power in Tehran before 2019. “The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself,” he declared.
The main attraction at this year’s Paris conference was another longtime MEK supporter, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, now Donald Trump’s lawyer. “The mullahs must go. The ayatollah must go,” he told the crowd. “And they must be replaced by a democratic government which Madam Rajavi represents.” Giuliani also praised the work of MEK “resistance units” inside Iran, that he credited with stoking a recent wave of protests over the struggling economy. “These protests are not happening by accident,” he said. “They’re being coordinated by many of our people in Albania.” (Giuliani, Bolton and the late John McCain are among the US politicians who have travelled to Albania to show support for the MEK.)
Meanwhile, back in Albania, the MEK is struggling to hold on to its own members, who have begun to defect. The group is also facing increased scrutiny from local media and opposition parties, who question the terms of the deal that brought the MEK fighters to Tirana.
It would be hard to find a serious observer who believes the MEK has the capacity or support within Iran to overthrow the Islamic republic. But the US and UK politicians loudly supporting a tiny revolutionary group stranded in Albania are playing a simpler game: backing the MEK is the easiest way to irritate Tehran. And the MEK, in turn, is only one small part of a wider Trump administration strategy for the Middle East, which aims to isolate and economically strangle Iran.
Before the MEK could become a darling of the American and European right, it had to reinvent itself. Democracy, human rights and secularism would become the group’s new mantra – as its leader, Maryam Rajavi, renounced violence and successfully repositioned an anti-western sect as a pro-American democratic government-in-waiting.
The long march to respectability began with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The war toppled Saddam Hussein, the MEK’s patron and protector, but it brought the group into direct contact with US officials – who would soon be looking for additional ammunition against Iran.
The US had designated the MEK as a terrorist group in the late 1990s, as a goodwill gesture toward a new reformist government in Tehran. When George W Bush accused Saddam Hussein of “harbouring terrorists” in a 2002 speech that made the case for invading Iraq, he was actually referring to the MEK. But in the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, a row erupted inside the White House over what to do with the 5,000 MEK fighters inside their base at Camp Ashraf.
Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, argued that the MEK was on the list of terrorist organisations and should be treated as such. But Iran hawks, including then secretary of defence, Donald Rumsfeld, and vice-president Dick Cheney, argued that the MEK should be used as a weapon against the Islamic republic – the next target in the neoconservative roadmap for remaking the Middle East. (“Boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran,” was their half-joking refrain.)
Rumsfeld’s faction won out. Although the group was still listed as a terrorist organisation, the Pentagon unilaterally designated MEK fighters inside Camp Ashraf as “protected persons” under the Geneva conventions – officially disarmed, but with their security effectively guaranteed by US forces in Iraq. The US was protecting a group it also designated as terrorists.
There is no doubt that US hawks regarded the MEK as a weapon in the fight against Iran: as early as May 2003, the same month that Bush famously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, the New York Times reported that “Pentagon hardliners” were moving to protect the MEK, “and perhaps reconstitute it later as a future opposition organisation in Iran, somewhat along the lines of the US-supported Iraqi opposition under Ahmed Chalabi that preceded the war in Iraq”. In 2003, the Bush administration refused an offer, signed off by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to hand over MEK leaders in Iraq in exchange for members of the military council of al-Qaida and relatives of Osama bin Laden, who had been captured by Iran as they fled Afghanistan after September 11.
As the US occupation of Iraq collapsed into a nightmarish civil war, the American right increasingly blamed Iran for the country’s disintegration. Senior politicians openly called for bombing the Islamic republic, amid growing panic over Iran’s nuclear programme – the existence of which had first been exposed by the MEK in what the BBC called a “propaganda coup” for the group. (Several experts on Israeli intelligence have reported that Mossad passed these documents to the MEK.) By 2007, US news outlets were reporting that Bush had signed a classified directive authorising “covert action” inside Iran.
Between 2007 and 2012, seven Iranian nuclear scientists were attacked with poison or magnetic bombs affixed to moving cars by passing motorcyclists; five were killed. In 2012, NBC news, citing two unnamed US officials, reported that the attacks were planned by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency and executed by MEK agents inside Iran. An MEK spokesperson called this a “false claim … whose main source is the mullahs’ regime”.
It was around this time that the MEK began working to remake its image in the west. Groups associated with the MEK donated to political campaigns, blanketed Washington with advertisements and paid western political influencers fees to pen op-eds and give speeches – and to lobby for its removal from the list of designated terrorist organisations.
A stupendously long list of American politicians from both parties were paid hefty fees to speak at events in favour of the MEK, including Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich and former Democratic party chairs Edward Rendell and Howard Dean – along with multiple former heads of the FBI and CIA. John Bolton, who has made multiple appearances at events supporting the MEK, is estimated to have received upwards of $180,000. According to financial disclosure forms, Bolton was paid $40,000 for a single appearance at the Free Iran rally in Paris in 2017.
A handful of UK politicians have attended two or more of the MEK’s Paris events in the past three years, including the Conservatives Bob Blackman and Matthew Offord, and the Labour MPs Roger Godsiff and Toby Perkins. The Conservative MP and former minister Theresa Villiers has attended the past two annual Paris events. So has David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West – the MEK’s loudest champion in the UK parliament, who has also travelled to the US to speak at a rally in support of the group. (All of the MPs declined to reply to questions about their attendance.)
The other British attendees at this year’s Paris rally included three peers and five former MPs, including Mike Hancock, who resigned from the Liberal Democrats after admitting inappropriate behaviour with a constituent, and Michelle Thomson, who was forced to resign the SNP whip in 2015 in a controversy over property deals. The former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, was also there, carrying a petition in support of the MEK signed by 75 bishops, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
At this year’s event, flanked by union jacks and “#RegimeChange” signs, Villiers spoke of the importance of women’s rights, “paid tribute” to Maryam Rajavi – who is barred from entering the UK – and pledged support for her “just cause” in seeking to create “an Iran which is free from the brutal repression of the mullahs”. In a carefully stage-managed performance, Rajavi laid flowers and wrote a tribute in an enormous yearbook of MEK martyrs. “The time has come for the regime’s overthrow,” she said. “Victory is certain, and Iran will be free.”
One day after the conference, the MEK accused Tehran of plotting a bomb attack against the event, following the arrest of four suspects – including an unnamed Iranian diplomat – in Belgium, Germany and France. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rejected claims of Iran’s involvement and described the accusations as a “sinister false flag ploy”.
Even as the MEK successfully amassed political allies in the west, its security in Iraq eroded as US troops departed. Between 2009 and 2013, Iraqi security forces raided the MEK base at least twice, killing about 100 people. Nouri al-Maliki, then the prime minister of Iraq – whose ambassador to the US called the group “nothing more than a cult” – insisted it leave the country.
Daniel Benjamin, who was then the head of counter-terrorism at the state department, told me that the US decided to remove the MEK from the list of foreign terrorist organisations not because it believed it had abandoned violence, but to “avoid them all getting killed” if it remained in Iraq. After the MEK was no longer designated a terrorist group, the US was able to convince Albania to accept the 2,700 remaining members – who were brought to Tirana on a series of charter flights between 2014 and 2016.
The group bought up land in Albania and built a new base. But the move from Iraq to the relative safety of Albania has precipitated a wave of defections. Those with means have fled the country to the EU and the US, but around 120 recent MEK escapees remain in Tirana with no right to work or emigrate. I spoke to about a dozen defectors, half of whom are still in Albania, who said that MEK commanders systematically abused members to silence dissent and prevent defections – using torture, solitary confinement, the confiscation of assets and the segregation of families to maintain control over members. In response to these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The individuals who are described as ‘former members’ were being used as part of a demonisation campaign against the MEK.”
The testimony of these recent defectors follows earlier reports from groups such as Human Rights Watch, which reported former members witnessed “beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution and torture that in two cases led to death”.
The MEK grew out of Iran’s Liberation Movement, an Islamic-democratic “loyal opposition” established in 1961 by the supporters of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister ousted in a 1953 coup orchestrated by Britain and the US. The movement called for national sovereignty, freedom of political activity and the separation of mosque and state. The MEK cleaved to these traditions, but responded to the growing repression of the Shah throughout the 1960s and 70s by rejecting nonviolence.
At the time, the MEK, whose members were largely idealistic middle-class students, combined Islamism with Marxist doctrine. They reinterpreted the Qur’anic passages that undergirded their Shia faith as injunctions to socialise the means of production, eliminate the class system and promote the struggles of Iran’s ethnic minorities. Steeped in thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Régis Debray, they expressed solidarity with national liberation movements in Algeria, Cuba, Palestine and Vietnam. Quoting Lenin’s famous pamphlet, the MEK posed the question: “What Is to Be Done?” “Our answer is straightforward,” the MEK wrote: “Armed struggle.”
Rajavi was among 69 members of the MEK tried in 1972 by a military tribunal for plotting acts of terrorism. “The ruling class is on its deathbed,” he told the tribunal. When the prosecutor interrupted him to ask why he had acquired weapons, Rajavi replied: “To deal with the likes of you.”
Of the 11 members of the MEK central committee tried in 1972, nine were immediately executed and one remained in jail. When Rajavi emerged from prison in 1979, three weeks before the Iranian revolution, he was the undisputed leader of Iran’s most deadly underground rebel group.
The MEK played an important role in the 1979 revolution, seizing the imperial palace and doing much of the fighting to neutralise the police and the army. Two days after the revolution, Massoud Rajavi, who was 30, met the 77-year-old supreme leader. The two did not hit it off. “I met Khomeini,” Rajavi told a journalist in 1981. “He held out his hand for me to kiss, and I refused. Since then, we’ve been enemies.”
Khomeini saw the MEK as a threat to his power, barring Rajavi from running for president and casting his organisation as an enemy of Islam. Armed members of the newly created Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) disrupted MEK events, burned its literature and beat up its members. Without political power, the MEK relied on street protests. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians attended its rallies, which the courts soon banned.
In response, the MEK and the president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was also antagonistic to Khomeini, organised two days of protests across 30 cities – forcing Khomeini to go on television to reiterate the ban. The MEK, he said, were “waging war on God”. Other clerics warned that demonstrators would be shot on sight. On 20 June 1981, the MEK organised a mass protest of half a million people in Tehran, with the aim of triggering a second revolution. The clerics were true to their word: 50 demonstrators were killed, with 200 wounded. Banisadr was removed from office and a wave of executions followed.
Over the following months and years, the violence escalated. Khomeini rounded up thousands of MEK supporters – while his loyalists launched waves of mob violence against MEK members and sympathisers.
By December, the regime had executed 2,500 members of the MEK. The group counter-attacked with a spate of assassinations and suicide bombings against Friday-prayer leaders, revolutionary court judges and members of the IRGC. “I am willing to die to help hasten the coming of the classless society; to keep alive our revolutionary tradition; and to avenge our colleagues murdered by this bloodthirsty, reactionary regime,” wrote one MEK fighter, Ebrahimzadeh, who killed 13 IRGC and Ayatollah Sadduqi, a close advisor to Khomeini, by detonating a hand grenade in a suicide attack in July 1982.
By the mid-1980s, thousands of people labelled as MEK had been executed or killed in street battles by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This was the time when Rajavi accepted Saddam’s offer to fight Iran from the safety of Iraq. Over the next few years, Rajavi launched an “ideological revolution”, banning marriage and enforcing mandatory “eternal” divorce on all members, who were required to separate from their husbands or wives. He married one of the new divorcees, Maryam Azodanlu, who became, in effect, his chief lieutenant and took his name.
For Saddam, the MEK was a useful, but disposable, tool in his war against Iran. The MEK, however, was totally dependent on the Iraqi leader. In addition to cash and arms, he sent Iranian prisoners of war to Rajavi as new recruits. “The whole world was Camp Ashraf,” said Edward Tramado, one of these prisoners, remembering his indoctrination. “Nothing else had any meaning for me,” recalled Tramado, who now lives in Germany. “I was living in a delusional world. Even though I knew I had a mother who was waiting for me, my entire world had become what they had constructed for me.”
In July 1988, six days after the ceasefire that officially ended the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK launched a suicidal mission deep into Iranian territory, dubbed Operation Eternal Light. Once again, Rajavi predicted his actions would spark another revolution. “It will be like an avalanche,” Rajavi told the fighters he was about to send to their deaths. “You don’t need to take anything with you. We will be like fish swimming in a sea of people. They will give you whatever you need.”
The mission would end in a massacre: hapless MEK fighters were lured into an ambush by the Iranian army, which crushed them with minimal effort. One Iranian soldier who took part in the operation recently described it to me. Mehrad, who volunteered in 1987 at the age of 15, recalled that his division, which had fought against Iraqi soldiers on the southern front, was redeployed to the north in July 1988 to repel a new assault from Iraq. His division was sent to a location near the city of Kermanshah, about 111 miles (180km) from the border with Iraq. Mehrad and his fellow soldiers were surprised to hear that enemy soldiers had managed to make such a deep incursion into Iran. “We thought our army had given up,” he said.
When he arrived, Mehrad discovered that the enemy was the MEK – which had been led into a trap. “Their military strategy was very stupid,” he told me. “They just drove down the Tehran highway. It was like if the French army wanted to invade England and they just drove down the motorway from Dover to London.”
“We very quickly killed thousands of them,” Mehrad said. “There were piles of bodies on either side of the road. What was interesting to us was that many of them were women.” Some MEK took cyanide rather than be captured alive. The MEK subsequently claimed that 1,304 of its members were martyred, and another 1,100 returned to Iraq injured.
The survivors were tried on the spot and quickly executed; Mehrad watched as hundreds were hanged at gallows erected in the nearby town of Eslamabad. Khomeini then used the failed invasion as a pretext for the mass execution of thousands of MEK and other leftists in Iranian jails. Amnesty estimates that more than 4,500 people were put to death, and some sources say the numbers were even higher.
Eternal Light marked a major turning point for the MEK. Inside the barbed wire of Camp Ashraf, as the reality of indefinite exile sank in, a traumatised and grief-stricken membership turned against itself under the paranoid leadership of Rajavi. Several former members told me that after the bloody defeat, Massoud Rajavi cast himself as the representative of al-Mahdi, the 12th Imam who was “hidden” in the 9th century and who, according to Iranian Shia, will return alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to the world.
Outside Camp Ashraf, the MEK continued to stage cross-border attacks against Iran, and helped Saddam to crush uprisings against his rule after his defeat by the US in the 1990 Gulf war. In March 1991, Saddam deployed the MEK to help quell the armed Kurdish independence movement in the north. According to the New York Times, Maryam Rajavi told her fighters: “Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian revolutionary guards.” The MEK vehemently denies it participated in Saddam’s campaigns to put down the Shia and Kurdish rebellions, but an Iraqi human rights tribunal has indicted MEK leaders for their role in suppressing the uprisings.
Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government’s high representative in London, was a fighter for the Kurdish peshmerga in 1991. He told me that he remembers how the MEK arrived in the town of Kalar, about 93 miles (150km) south-east of Kirkuk, just after Saddam had lost control of the north of Iraq after the first Gulf war. “They came in Saddam’s tanks,” he said. “We thought they were returning peshmerga because the tanks were covered with portraits of Kurdish leaders … but they opened fire on the town … It was a big atrocity.”
In the next decade, the MEK continued to fight against Iran. In 1992, the group launched concurrent attacks on Iranian diplomatic missions in 10 countries, including Iran’s permanent mission to the UN in New York, which was invaded by five men with knives. The MEK also settled more personal scores. In 1998, an assassin killed Asadollah Lajevardi, the former warden of Evin prison who had personally overseen the executions of thousands of MEK members.
Back at Camp Ashraf, commanders would tell wavering members that if they escaped, they would face certain death at the hands of either Saddam or the Iranian authorities. “We were far away from the world,” one member, who only escaped the MEK after the move to Albania, told me. “We had no information. No television, no radio.” Instead, within the camp, they had “Mojahedin television”, which consisted of looped speeches by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, played “all day long”.
Rajavi told his followers that the failure of Eternal Light was not a military blunder, but was instead rooted in the members’ thoughts for their spouses; their love had sapped their will to fight. In 1990, all couples inside the camp were ordered to divorce – and women had their wedding rings replaced by pendants engraved with Massoud’s face. Spouses were separated, and their children were sent to be “adopted” by MEK supporters in Europe.
MEK commanders demanded that all members publicly reveal any errant sexual thoughts. Manouchelur Abdi, a 55-year-old who also left the MEK in Albania, told me that the confession sessions used to take place every morning. Even feelings of love and friendship were outlawed, he says. “I would have to confess that I missed my daughter,” he says. “They would shout at me. They would humiliate me. They would say that my family was the enemy and missing them was strengthening the hand of the mullahs in Tehran.”
Another recent defector, Ali (not his real name) showed me scars on his arms and legs from what he described as weeks of torture after he first joined the group in the early 1990s, including cigarette burns on his arms. When it was over, he said, he was taken to Baghdad to meet the leader. “They took us into a big hall. Massoud Rajavi was sitting there with a group of women,” Ali recalled. “[Rajavi said] ‘If any of you say one word to any one … One word, if any of this is exposed, reaches anyone else’s ears, or if you talk about leaving, you’ll be delivered to [Saddam’s] intelligence service immediately.’”
Batoul Soltani joined the MEK in 1986 with her husband and infant daughter. At first, her family was able to live together, but in 1990, she says she was forced to divorce and give up her five-year-old daughter and newborn son, who were sent abroad to be raised by MEK sympathisers. Soltani alleges that she was forced to have sex with Massoud Rajavi on multiple occasions, beginning in 1999. She says that the last assault was in 2006, the year that she escaped from Camp Ashraf and a time when Rajavi had not been seen in public for three years. When we spoke recently, Soltani accused Maryam Rajavi of helping Massoud to abuse female MEK members over the years. “[Massoud] Rajavi thought that the only achilles heel [for female fighters] was the opposite sex,” Soltani told me. “He would say that the only reason you women would leave me is a man. So, I want all of your hearts.”
Soltani, who was one of three women to speak about sexual abuse inside the MEK in a 2014 documentary aired on Iranian television, alleged that Rajavi had hundreds of “wives” inside the camp.
Another former female member, Zahra Moini, who served as a bodyguard for Maryam Rajavi, told me that women were threatened with punishment if they did not divorce their husbands and “marry” Massoud. “Maryam was involved in this sexual abuse, she used to read the vows to allow for the marriage to be consummated,” Moini said, in a telephone interview from Germany.
“Those who didn’t accept to marry would be disappeared. I was told that if I didn’t divorce [my husband], I would end up in Ramadi prison and I would have to sleep with the Iraqi generals every night.” (In response to questions about these allegations, an MEK spokesperson said: “The mullahs’ propaganda machine has been churning out sexual libels against the resistance and its leader for the past 40 years.”)
Two other female defectors, Zahra Bagheri and Fereshteh Hedayati, have alleged that they were given hysterectomies without their consent in the Camp Ashraf hospital, under the pretext they were being operated on for minor ailments. In the eccentric ideological language of the group, the women say the procedure was retrospectively justified to victims as representing “the peak” of loyalty to their leader.
Hedayati, who survived the massacres of Operation Eternal Light, joined the MEK as a 22-year-old in 1981 with her husband, who is still inside the group. “They said I had a cyst,” she told me. “But they also took out my womb. They told me that it meant that I had an even stronger connection to our ideological leader.” Hedayati, who left the group in Iraq and now lives in Norway, says she was never sexually abused, but was “brainwashed” by the group into divorcing her husband, and alleges that more than 100 other women were sterilised by MEK doctors. “I always ask myself why they did this to us,” Bagheri said. “Of course, to take away our futures.”
Between an escape attempt in 2001 and her exit from the MEK in 2013, Hedayati says she was subject to extraordinarily harsh treatment by her commanders. “They said I was a lesbian,” she says. “They spat on me, they beat me, they locked me up. I was put in jail, in solitary confinement.”
Albania ostensibly accepted the MEK members for humanitarian reasons – but the country’s leaders may have seen an opportunity to curry favour with the US government, which had seen its offers rejected by various other European states. “They were the only ones who would take them,” the former state department official Daniel Benjamin has said.
Olsi Jazexhi, a professor of history at the University of Durres critical of the government’s decision to accept the MEK fighters, says that Albanian politicians hoped the deal would lead the US to turn a blind eye to their own corruption. “The MEK is a card which gives them leverage with the United States,” he said. “They think that by taking the MEK, the Americans will leave their business alone.” (A secret US state department cable from 2009, published by WikiLeaks, said that the country’s three major parties “all have MPs with links to organised crime … Conventional wisdom, backed by other reporting, is that the new parliament has quite a few drug traffickers and money launderers.”)
For the Trump administration, the MEK is a valuable asset in the escalating regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This summer, Trump abruptly pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and announced new sanctions, triggering a currency collapse and four months of sporadic protests across Iran. The US has reimposed tough sanctions this week, targeting Iranian oil exports and banking. But Trump’s Middle East strategy has come under new scrutiny after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul – which has sparked a backlash against the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his allies in the Trump administration.
For most of its life in exile, the MEK was funded by Saddam. After his downfall, the group says it raised money from Iranian diaspora organisations and individual donors. The MEK has always denied it is financed by Saudi Arabia – but the former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, made waves when he attended the group’s 2016 rally in Paris and called for the fall of the Iranian regime.
“The money definitely comes from Saudis,” says Ervand Abrahamian, a professor at the City University of New York and author of the definitive academic work on the group’s history, The Iranian Mojahedin. “There is no one else who could be subsidising them with this level of finance.”
Analysts agree that the MEK lacks the capacity or support to overthrow the Iranian government – as even Bolton and Pompeo would surely concede. “They are probably smart enough to know that this group is not democratic and anyway has no constituency inside Iran,” said Paul Pillar, who served in the CIA for 28 years, including a period as the agency’s senior counter-terrorism analyst. Trump and his Iran hawks, Pillar said, are not concerned with replacing the current regime so much as causing it to crumble. “They are pursuing anything that would disrupt the political order in Iran so they and the president can cite such an outcome as a supposed victory no matter what comes afterwards.”
According to one recent MEK defector, Hassan Heyrani, the group’s main work in Albania involves fighting online in an escalating information war between Iran and its rivals. Heyrani, who left the MEK last summer, says that he worked in a “troll farm” of 1,000 people inside the Albanian camp, posting pro-Rajavi and anti-Iran propaganda in English, Farsi and Arabic on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and newspaper comment sections.
“We worked from morning to night with fake accounts,” he says. “We had orders daily that the commanders would read for us. ‘It is your duty to promote this senator, this politician, or journalist writing against Iran’ and we would say ‘Thank you, the Iranian people support you and Maryam Rajavi is the rightful leader’, but if there was a negative story on the MEK, we would post ‘You are the mercenaries of the Iranian regime, you are not the voice of the Iranian people, you don’t want freedom for Iran’.” An MEK spokesperson called these allegations “another lie” made up to support the Iranian foreign ministry.
According to Marc Owen Jones, an academic who studies political bots on social media, “thousands” of suspicious Twitter accounts emerged in early 2016 with “Iran” as their location and “human rights” in their description or account name, which posted in support of Trump and the MEK. These accounts, says Jones, were created in batches and would promote Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric using the hashtags #IranRegimeChange, #FreeIran and #IstandwithMaryamRajavi.
Albanian journalists say that the MEK, which has close contacts with senior politicians and the security services, operates with impunity within Albania. Ylli Zyla, who served as head of Albanian military intelligence from 2008 to 2012, accused the MEK of violating Albanian law. “Members of this organisation live in Albania as hostages,” he told me. Its camp, he said, was beyond the jurisdiction of Albanian police and “extraordinary psychological violence and threats of murder” took place inside.
Former members accuse the MEK of responsibility for the death in June of Malek Shara’i, a senior commander who was found drowned by police divers at bottom of a reservoir behind the group’s Albanian base. Shara’i’s sister, Zahra Shara’i, said that his family had received news from former members that Malek was about to escape, and says the MEK was responsible for his death. “I am their enemy and I will not rest until I get my revenge,” she told the Guardian from Iran. The MEK said that Shara’i drowned while attempting to save another member from drowning. The Albanian police said the death was not suspicious.
While defectors with private means have been smuggled out of the country into the EU, many former members live hand-to-mouth in Tirana. The Albanian state has not granted refugee rights to the MEK or its defectors, and a UN monthly stipend of 30,000 lek (£215) lapsed on 1 September. “They’re stuck,” says Jazexhi, who has worked to support the defectors. “They don’t know the languages, they don’t know the laws, they don’t know what democracy is. They are used to dictators. We tell them that they shouldn’t be afraid.”
Migena Balla, the lawyer representing Mostafa and Robabe Mohammadi, the couple in Tirana fighting for the release of their daughter Somayeh, believes that pressure has been put to bear on both the police and the judiciary to ensure the MEK does not “create political problems”. “Politics is interfering in the judicial system,” she says. “When I went to the police station to register their complaint the police officers actually ran away. They are scared of losing their jobs.”
The MEK has not taken kindly to the presence of the Mohammadis in Albania. They accuse Mostafa – and any former member who has spoken out against the MEK – of being a paid agent of the “mullah regime”. On 27 July, Mostafa was hospitalised following an assault by four senior members of the MEK, which was captured on video by his wife. The attackers, who shouted “Terrorist!” at Mohammadi, were briefly detained by Albanian police. But, after a phalanx of MEK members arrived at the police station, the men were promptly released.
The MEK has published letters, purportedly written by Somayeh, accusing her father of being an Iranian intelligence agent. A nervous-looking Somayeh recently gave a video interview inside the MEK base saying that she wishes to remain a member of the group.
The Mohammadis have responded with open letters to their daughter and to Albanian politicians, calling for an unsupervised meeting with their daughter. “I am your mother Mahboubeh Robabe Hamza and I want to meet with you,” Robabe wrote to Somayeh. “I am the woman who fed you at my breast, I held you in the crook of my arm. You are my flesh and blood … I love you more than my life … I’m getting old, I am getting tired, but life is not worth living without seeing you.”
Arron Merat was a Tehran correspondent for the Economist between 2011 and 2014. He has covered Iran for the Guardian, the Sunday Times and Vice News. He tweets at @a_merat
The HPC has meanwhile been sharply criticized for not having being “better prepared” for the summit.
A splinter faction of the Taliban, led by Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, said on Sunday the recent Moscow meeting on peace in Afghanistan was a “lie”.
But officials from Afghanistan High Peace Council (HPC) said Friday’s Moscow meeting was an important platform towards building peace in Afghanistan and that the peace facilitating body is optimistic about starting direct talks with the Taliban.
This comes two days after a meeting in Moscow where representatives of the Taliban and envoys from 11 countries, including the US, exchanged views on the prospects of peace in the country.
A delegation from Afghanistan’s High Peace Council (HPC) also attended the meeting.
Inaugurating the meeting, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he hoped the Moscow summit would pave the way for direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban.
Lavrov said Afghanistan should not become a competition field between powerful countries once again.
He also said Daesh, with support of foreign countries, wants to find a footprint in Afghanistan and from there expand its activities to Central Asia and further. Lavrov said the countries that attended the Moscow meeting want to help Afghanistan eradicate such a threat.
Meanwhile, Niazi said: “Moscow meeting is nothing except a lie like other meetings held by the Afghan government, they only deceive the poor and the oppressed people.”
“This delegation (HPC delegation) rushed to the discussions without any information; the HPC finalized its decision to participate only two days before the conference; this delegation was not fully prepared to attend the meeting,” said political analyst Nasrallah Stanekzai.
Meanwhile, sources within the HPC have confirmed that the body only decided to attend two days before the summit.
“The delegation which attended the meeting was very weak; the Taliban described Afghanistan at the summit as an invaded country, but the delegation were not able to react,” said one politician Najibullah Kabuli.
But HPC’s Assadullah Barakzai defended the decision and said: “If there is peace and security in Afghanistan, there is no longer a need for the US’ presence and also the Afghan people are not in need of support of the US.”
In the meantime, President Ashraf Ghani met with US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on Saturday night and was briefed on the envoy’s schedule over the next week, which will see him visit a number of countries in the region.
Ghani thanked Khalilzad for the work he’s doing to bring about peace and discussed issues around his second trip to the region, the statement added.
Khalilzad was in the region last month – stopping first in Kabul before visiting four other countries and meeting with the Taliban in Qatar.
After wrapping up his trip he returned to Kabul and briefed government on his meetings. He also called on the Afghan Government and the Taliban to establish official negotiating teams.
The US State Department said last week, Khalilzad, along with a delegation, will visit Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar between November 8 and 20.
On Sunday meanwhile, members of Afghanitan’s Meshrano Jirga (lower house of parliament) accused Russia of exploiting the Moscow summit for its own benefit.
They said that Russia by holding such a meeting wants to legitimize its secret ties with the Taliban.
“The Afghan government should play its own political and diplomatic roles at such meetings,” said a senator Gul Ahmad Aazami.
“Taliban appeared in this meeting from a powerful position, but the Afghan delegation appeared in a very weak and vague position,” said senator Ghairat Baheer.
“We saw weakness from the delegation in this meeting,” said senator Farhad Sakhi.