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The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran

The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran
The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, popularly known by its Persian initials, MEK is an Iranian opposition organization based around the personality cult of the Rajavi family. Founded on September 5, 1965, it sought to fuse Marxism with Shia Islamism.

MEK participated in armed resistance against the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, committing a series of attacks against Western and Iranian government targets. A large portion of its membership and leadership were either killed or arrested by the Iranian security service during the 1970s, and the more hardcore Marxist faction split from the organization. After the Shah fled in 1979, the imprisoned members of the group were released, and it was reorganized under the leadership of Massoud Rajavi. However, after a falling out with the newly established government of Ruhollah Khomeini, the organization returned to a strategy of armed struggle, beginning a campaign of bombings and assassinations. This led to a crackdown against the organization which both forced its leadership into exile and helped consolidate the group behind Massoud Rajavi. After a period of exile in France, the organization moved its headquarters to Iraq, where it had formed a strategic alliance with the regime of Saddam Hussein and became based on Camp Ashraf. 

During its exile in Iraq, the organization continued to be active within Iran itself, continuing to commit attacks against the Khomeini government. With the support of the Iraqi government, MEK forces armed and equipped by the Iraqi government launched several attacks on Iran, managing to hold significant amounts of territory. Shortly after a ceasefire had been announced by the Iranian and Iraqi governments, MEK forces launched the last major military operation of the war, advancing nearly 100 miles into Iranian territory. However, without the support of the Saddam government, the Islamic Republic of Iran was quickly able to retake the territory, and push MEK forces back into Iran. In retaliation, the Iranian government executed thousands of prisoners affiliated with the MEK. The group continued an active campaign against the Iranian government, although diverting its focus on attacks against regime targets abroad. The Iranian intelligence services would likewise attempt to assassinate prominent members of the MEK in exile when presented with the opportunity. 

After the overthrow of the Iraqi government by US forces in 2003, the MEK lost their primary political patron in Baathist Iraq. Massoud Rajavi also disappeared from the public eye during this period, although it is unknown whether he went into hiding or died. The Iranian media has reported that he died in US custody sometime in 2020. However, even though they were a group on the US government's list of foreign terrorist organizations, Donald Rumsfeld designated them as “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions after the occupation of Iraq. Elements of the American government supportive of overthrowing the Iranian government by force, such as Dick Cheney argued that they should be used against the Islamic Republic. After intense lobbying, the group was de-designated as a terrorist organization by the US, and the American government brokered a deal that allowed the MEK to move from Iraq to Albania, which remains their primary base of operations. Maryam Rajavi, the wife of Massoud Rajavi, has since taken over leadership of the organization, and has become the group’s de-facto leader.

It is unknown who is providing the funding for the group since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, with many analysts suspecting it is receiving support from Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US or some combination of the three. What is well known is that the MEK is well-financed, and extremely influential among policymakers who are openly hostile to the Iranian government. It is said to have provided nearly a million dollars to help finance the European election campaign of Alejo Vidal-Quadras Roca and his party, VOX. The group is also able to provide speaking fees upwards of 50,000 dollars for politicians who speak at their events. Members of the US Congress that are on the foreign relations committee also received significant donations from people associated with the group. John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, has openly supported the MEK being the ones to take over the government in Iran after the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The group has even managed to publish articles on several mainstream news sites by creating a fake persona claiming to be an Iranian opposition activist with close links to sources within the country. 

The group still actively opposes the Iranian government, although it has not claimed credit for any assassinations since being removed from the terror watch list. However, the Iranian government has alleged that it has taken part in the assassination campaigns against Iranian nuclear scientists with the support of Israel. The Islamic Republic is also said to be participating in campaigns of assassination against supporters of the MEK, with the group most recently alleging that the attempted murder of Alejo Vidal-Quadras was backed by Iran based on reports from Spanish media. What is clear is that the organization continues to have significant financial backing, which will allow it to continue to be influential among policymaking circles given its ability to buy support from politicians.