Several events in the last few months, especially in the context of the process of re-examining some major topics of Washington’s foreign policy – including the relationship with Iran – brought to the attention the Mojahedine e-Khalq (MKO)[1], a controversial anti-Tehran regime group with a complex history dating from the ‘970s.
Recent developments
The annual meeting of the MKO held in July 2016 in Paris surprised many observers by its important international attendance.
Among the foreign supporters of MKO who took part, there were former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, former Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero, former U.S. Congress speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. The gala was hosted by Linda Chavez, a former Reagan administration official.
The most significant presence, however, was that of former Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID) Chief, prince Turki al-Faisal, who currently chairs the Board of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. Although the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not new, Prince Turki al-Faisal’s speech to the group surprised because it was marked by the spectacle of the Iranian exiles chanting, in Arabic: “Al Shaab Yureed Isqat al-Nitham!” (“The People Demand the Fall of the Regime!”), at which Turki al-Faisal responded “I, too, want the fall of the regime.”[2] The open call for regime change in Tehran from a Saudi royal, struck Iranian journalists and activists as a turning point. It was also deeply ironic, given that the chant was used in the pro-democracy protests across the Middle East in 2011 that Saudi Arabia fought so hard to repress.
In this context, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, an advisor to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, declared that there is no doubt about the Saudi security bodies’ relations with the MKO. According to other Iranian officials, Saudi Arabia increased its financial support for MKO up to 800 percent in the past two years.
Also in July 2016, several weeks after the annual MKO rally, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with NCRI/MKO leader Maryam Rajavi in Paris, talking allegedly on the latest regional developments. The Abbas-MKO meeting was seen in Iran as a signal of a reestablishment of a Fatah-MKO coalition, which fought together against Iran during the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war.
MKO activities are closely followed by the authorities in Tehran, which promptly cautioned, internally and internationally, against the group being used for anti-government movements.
a) A report of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Intelligence, released on 13 January 2017[3], admitted that Iranian young people become more attracted by the MKO, which seeks the removal of the Velayat-e faqih regime in Iran. The report also mentioned the most important methods to confront MKO: “Introducing and fully identifying the (MKO) organization… to prevent, in this way, people and new members from joining the organization which would lead to increased damage to the system.” It added, “Strengthening the borders and increasing the country’s defense power: By this action, we can prevent entry of the MEK members into the country… and so we will be able to avert and ward off the enemies of the system (regime) outside the borders.”
In another research, published in December 2016, the Intelligence Ministry also emphasized that the intellectual (thought) danger of an unarmed Mojahedine is much more of a threat than an armed Mojahedine.
b) The January 31 2017 visitto Tehran of the French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (with 60 representatives of French companies) – which also marked the arrival in Tehran of the first Airbus A321 plane that Iran purchased from the European aviation giant after the conclusion of the nuclear deal – was also an opportunity for the Tehran authorities to criticize the MKO activities in France. During a meeting with the French official, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said that “Any support for this terrorist group will send unfriendly messages to the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The security official also highlighted the importance of countering terrorism, saying adoption of double standards in war against terrorism will just lead to spread of violence.
c) According to a January 2017 declaration of Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, president of the Supreme National Defense University of Iran, extremist Islamic movements (labeled by him as takfiri) look for intelligence aid from the MKO as a scheme to impede Iran’s regional influence. Such movements, he said, intend to get intelligence help from MKO to carry out operations inside Iran, and seek to establish contact with all anti-Iranian groups.
The declaration recalls earlier unconfirmed reports (possibly leaked by the Iranian secret services) that circulated in 2014 and revealed a possible contact between MKO and Daesh, facilitated by the Central Intelligence Agency and Israeli Mossad. According to the reports, there have been personal contacts between the husband-and-wife leadership of the MKO, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, and the senior leadership of Daesh. These contacts have been authorized by the Daesh self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Daesh and MKO have also jointly approached the Baluchi terrorist group Jundallah, which operates in western Pakistan, on conducting joint operations against Iran.
According to these reports, Iranian intelligence was aware of contacts between MKO and Daesh units fighting in the western environs of Baghdad and in some cases has witnessed MKO and Daesh guerrillas.
From revolution to terrorism: MKO’s early years
The recent events prompted many analysts to recall the complex history and development of the MKO, which began in the early ‘970s, even before the Islamic revolution.
MKO was founded on 5 September 1965 by six students at Tehran University, former members of the “Freedom Movement of Iran”, which opposed the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, considering him corrupt and oppressive, and who considered the Liberation Movement too moderate.
In its first five years, the group primarily engaged in ideological work, promoting a kind of radical, political Islam based on the Marxist approach of history and politics. Its main source of inspiration was the Islamic text Nahj-al Balagha, a collection of analyses and aphorisms attributed to Imam Ali.[4] While the group never used the terms “socialist” or “communist” but always called themselves Muslims, they adopted some elements of Marxism to “modernize” their interpretation of radical Islam, arguing that a true Muslim, especially a true Shia Muslim must also, by definition, be a revolutionary.
In October 1975, MKO underwent an ideological split when some of its founding members, including MKO leader Massoud Rajavi, were imprisoned. The others formed a new organization that followed only Marxist, ideals, expressed in a Manifesto on Ideological Issues. In this book the central leadership declared that “after ten years of secret existence, four years of armed struggle, and two years of intense ideological rethinking, they had reached the conclusion that Marxism, not Islam, was the true revolutionary philosophy.” On 7 December 1978, a few months before the Iranian Revolution, the Marxist Mojahedine renamed themselves “Peykar” (“Organization of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class”, a name inspired by the left-wing group that Lenin founded in St. Petersburg in 1895).
Anti-American attacks
In the ‘970s, several anti-American attacks were attributed to the MKO, including a failed attempt on 30 November 1970 to kidnap the U.S. Ambassador to Iran, Douglas MacArthur II. In May 1972, U.S. Air Force general Harold Price was targeted and survived a MKO attack that was later described by the CIA’s former Chief of Station in Tehran George Cave as the first instance of a remotely detonated improvised explosive device. Lt. Col. Louis Lee Hawkins, of the U.S. Army, was shot to death in front of his home in Tehran by two men on a motorcycle on June 2, 1973. Also in 1973, ten major American-owned buildings were bombed, including those of the Plan Organization, Pan-American Airlines, Shell Oil Company, Hotel International, and Radio City Cinema. In 1975, a car carrying U.S. Air Force officers Col. Paul Shaffer and Lt. Col. Jack Turner was trapped between two cars carrying armed men. They told the Iranian driver to lie down and then shot and killed the Americans. Six hours later a woman called reporters to claim the MKO carried out the attack as retaliation for a previous death of prisoners at the hands of Iranian authorities. In August 1976, three American employees of Rockwell International were killed. William Cottrell, Donald Smith and Robert Krongard had been working on the Ibex system for gathering intelligence on the neighboring USSR.
MKO later claimed that the assassinations and bombings were carried out by the Marxist splinter group “Peykar”, who “hijacked” the name and were not under the control of imprisoned leaders such as Massoud Rajavi.
From supporters to enemies of the Islamic Revolution
MKO supported the Iranian Revolution in its early phase. In August 1979, Massoud Rajavi was the MKO candidate for the head of the newly founded Council of Experts, but lost the election. MKO also supported the November 1979 occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
While MKO denied the U.S. government claims that it also supported the hostage-taking raid on the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, according to a 2011 State Department report on terrorism, “though denied by the MKO, analysis based on eyewitness accounts and MKO documents demonstrates that MKO members participated in and supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and that the MKO later argued against the early release [of] the American hostages.”
MKO began to directly oppose the new government of the Islamic Republic, refusing to participate in the public referendum called by Ayatollah Khomeini on December 2, 1979. The topic of the referendum was the proposed constitution for an Islamic government and Khomeini warned that abstaining or voting “no” would amount to aiding and abetting the United States, and desecrating the martyrs of the Islamic Revolution.
In January 1980, when Massoud Rajavi announced his candidacy for the presidency, he was banned, since he was regarded by Ayatollah Khomeini as ineligible. Experts say MKO’s ideology (a blend of Marxism, feminism, and Islamism), as well as its popular support in the initial post-revolutionary period put it at odds with the new clerical regime. After Khomeini attacked the MKO as elteqati (eclectic), contaminated with Gharbzadegi (“the Western plague”), monafeqin (hypocrites) and kafer (unbelievers), thousands of the Mojahedine were arrested and executed.
From February 1980, concentrated attacks against MKO and other leftist organizations began, targeting the meeting places, bookstores, and newsstands of the organizations and driving the left underground in Iran. Hundreds of MKO supporters and members were killed from 1979 to 1981, and some 3,000 were arrested. Ultimately, the organization called for a massive half-a-million-strong demonstration under the banner of Islam on June 20, 1981, to protest Iran’s new leadership, which was also attacked.
Following the 21 June 1981 impeachment of Iran’s president Abolhassan Banisadr, close to the MKO, who was suspected of being connected to the CIA[5], on July 29 the MKO leaders fled Iran for Paris, where they established the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI).
At the same time, the MKO began a series of terrorist attacks in an attempt to topple the Iranian government, beginning with the bombing of the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party during a meeting of party leaders, on 28 June 1981. A number of 74 persons were killed, including Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, the head of the judicial system[6], 4 cabinet ministers, 27 members of the Majlis and several other government officials. On August 30, another bomb planted by an MKO operative, most likely Massoud Kashmiri, killed President Mohammed Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar. Through these attacks, MKO was seen in Iran as transforming itself into a terrorist organization, acting inside the country and producing political, and not only political damages.
From France to Iraq, at war with Iran
From 1981, MKO operated mainly in France, until 1986, when tension arose between Paris and Tehran over the “Eurodif” nuclear stake[7] and the French citizens taken hostages by Iran-controlled Hezbollah in Lebanon. After French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac struck a deal with Tehran for the release the hostages in Lebanon, the MKO was forced to leave France and relocated to Iraq.
With asylum granted and financial support from the Saddam Hussein regime, Massoud Rajavi formed in 1987 the National Liberation Army (NLA), the military wing of the MKO, with himself as commander in chief.
The NLA used Iraq as a base to launch multiple attacks across the border into Iran. Near the end of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, a NLA military force of 7,000 MKO members, armed and equipped by Saddam’s Iraq went into action. On July 26, 1988, six days after the Ayatollah Khomeini had announced his acceptance of the UN brokered ceasefire resolution, the NLA advanced under heavy Iraqi air cover, crossing the Iranian border, and seized and razed to the ground the Iranian town of Islamabad-e Gharb. They also briefly captured the Iranian border towns of Mehran and Karand and claimed to have killed 40,000 Iranians in their assault. There were also accusations about NLA using chemical weapons against Iranians.
As it advanced into Iran, Iraq ceased its air support and Iranian forces cut off NLA supply lines and counterattacked under cover of fighter planes and helicopter gunships. On July 29, the NLA announced a voluntary withdrawal back to Iraq.
Because of this operation, MKO was and still is considered by many Iranians as a traitor and a state-sponsored terrorist group for its alliance with Saddam during the Iran–Iraq War.
In Iraq, MKO also helped the Saddam Hussein regime to crush the Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite uprisings that came in the context of the 1991 Gulf War, a move that led to the further diminishing of its support not only in Iran but also in Iraq.
MKO’s campaign against Iran continued throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, including multiple targeted attacks on high-ranking Iranian officials considered “agents of the regime,” with the group being accused of a rate of three assassinations per day in the 1980s. The group demonstrated its global reach in April 1992, when it organized coordinated attacks – in a single day – on diplomatic missions in ten countries, including the Iranian Mission to the United Nations in New York. (The MEK said that the attacks were retaliation for Iranian air strikes on the group’s base outside Baghdad.) The Iranian government blames the MKO for the deaths of more than 17,000 Iranians over the past decades.
From Camp Ashraf to Albania
During the 2003 intervention in Iraq, U.S. troops disarmed the MKO and posted guards at its bases. The U.S. military also protected and gave logistical support to the MKO which was considered as a high value source of intelligence on Iran. However, after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. also bombed the MKO camps. It was later alleged that the U.S. bombings were part of an agreement between the Iranian regime and Washington. In the agreement Tehran offered to oust some al-Qaeda suspects if the U.S. came down on the MKO.
Following the invasion, the group voluntarily disarmed and its members confined themselves to Camp Ashraf, about 100 kilometers west of the Iranian border and 60 kilometers north of Baghdad. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared the MKO personnel in Ashraf “protected persons” under the Geneva Convention, a designation that ran against the recommendations of the U.S. Department of State, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross[8].
Also, defectors from this group were housed separately in a refugee camp and protected by U.S. Army military police, U.S. Marines (2005–07), and the Bulgarian Army (2006–2016).
In 2006, after complaints that the U.S. had provided protection so that it could use the MKO as leverage against Iran, a plan was put in place for Bulgaria to work to secure Camp Ashraf and begin dismantling the group.
The situation of the MKO further complicated in 2009, when eleven Iranians were killed and over 500 were injured in a raid by Iraqi security on the Camp Ashraf. Later on, the Iraqi authorities announced that the group would no longer be able to base itself on Iraqi soil and stated that the members of the organization would have to make a choice, either to go back to Iran or to go to a third country.
In 2012, MKO moved from Camp Ashraf to Camp Hurriya in Baghdad (also known as Camp Liberty), but had to move back after being attacked on 9 February 2013. Since then, the United States has been working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on a resettlement project. It was finished on September 9, 2016, when the remaining MKO members were relocated to Albania.
At the beginning of 2014[9], Romanian Foreign Ministry employees mentioned, on their blogs, unconfirmed information that the U.S. and the Romanian government were negotiating the deployment of about 3,000 MKO members on the territory of Romania. In the case of the Romanian leadership’s consent, the members of the group would be compactly settled near the city of Craiova.
Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used a visit to Albania on February 14, 2016 to thank the government for resettling the MKO members. Over the previous two years, Albania had taken in about 1,000 MKO members and had committed to resettling an additional 2,000, said a senior State Department official. The U.S. assistance included a donation of $20 million to the UN refugee agency to help resettle the MKO. The U.S. also provided Albania with security and economic development assistance, to help the country build up its physical capacity to house the refugees.
In this process, it was reported that in August 2016, a group of 155 MKO members, which was transported to Albania by a U.S, passenger plane, might have included MKO leader Massoud Rajavi. The group was supposedly to be located in a place called “Mojgan camp”. According to Iranian sources, MKO had already a base in the Albanian capital of Tirana and previously acquired land and properties in the country.
In his farewell remarks on January 19, 2017, outgoing U.S. Secretary of state John Kerry mentioned that the relocation of MEK members was “one of the things that I am very proud of”.
Connections with Israeli intelligence
The Israeli intelligence services became interested in MKO since the early 1980s. Iran’s intervention in Lebanon, which led to the rise of the Hezbollah, was correctly assessed by the Israelis as a security threat. Israeli intelligence already maintained ties with monarchist remnants and former SAVAK officers, but the first physical contact between the Mojahedine e-Khalq and Israeli intelligence officers occurred in December 1988.
The meeting was initiated because of a credible Israeli threat to bomb Iraqi nuclear installations. The Israelis had made similar threats before and in June 1981 had carried them out. Therefore the Iraqis were taking the latest threats seriously and MKO was effectively being used by the Iraqi intelligence services as a point of contact with the Israelis.
The meeting took place in Great Britain, with the MKO represented by a team of four men from the security branch of the organization who reported directly to Ibrahim Zakeri, the former head of MKO intelligence. The MKO team was told that they were to meet mid-ranking officials of the Israeli foreign ministry, but they presumed this was a code word for Mossad. In fact the Israeli team was from SHABAK (Shin Bet), the Israeli counter-intelligence organization, apparently sent to investigate a security breach at the Israeli embassy in London. Later on, the operation was controlled by Mossad.
The meeting in December 1988 revolved around the threat posed to Iraqi nuclear installations. While there is no evidence that the MKO and the Israelis decided to forge a relationship at that meeting, it must have been a success, because Israel never carried through with the threat to bomb Iraqi nuclear sites.
MKO and the Israelis were not to have another meeting for more than seven years. A combination of factors dissuaded the Israelis from responding to the MKO approaches, mainly their assessment that the Persian Gulf War of 1991 would bring up the collapse of the Iraqi regime and MKO would face extermination from the Shia and Kurdish victors.
The second meeting took place in May 1996 in a MKO safe house, also in Great Britain, on the outskirts of Manchester. The safe house was under the supervision of Akram Damghanian, who at that time, was seconded to the security branch of the organization. The head of MKO security, Ibrahim Zakeri, was in Manchester in early May 1996 ostensibly to audit his own security team.
This time, the Mojahedine had been told directly that they were going to meet Mossad. The Israeli team again comprised four men. The planner was Shabtai Shavit, a former director of Shin Bet who was later co-opted by Mossad. The meeting set the foundation for the intelligence cooperation between Mossad and MKO which generated, in time, several controversial operations, mainly the launching of the information regarding the Iranian nuclear capabilities (the so-called ‘laptop documents’), the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists and the Burgas (Bulgaria) airport attack in 2012.
The ‘laptop documents’
The political consensus formed in the United States in the early 2000s that Iran was covertly pursuing a nuclear-weapons program under the cloak of a civilian nuclear-power program has been based largely on a set of top-secret Iranian military documents describing such a covert program during 2002-03. The documents have been referred to as the ‘laptop documents,’ (because they were said to have been on a laptop computer belonging to one of the participants in the program) but they included documents in both electronic and paper form.
The documents portrayed three main activities: a pair of “flow sheets” showing a process for uranium conversion, a set of experiments on “exploding bridgewire” (EBW) technology similar to that used on the early designs for the U.S. atomic bomb, and studies on the redesign of the re-entry vehicle, or nose cone, of the Shahab-3 missile to accommodate what appeared to be a nuclear weapon.
International news media have portrayed the documents as credible evidence of a covert Iranian nuclear-weapons program. However, senior officials of the IAEA believed that the documents were “fabricated by a Western intelligence organization.” Mohamed El-Baradei, who at the time was the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear monitoring agency, told later American journalist Seymour Hersh that he had been informed that the information was supplied by the Mossad.
In time, evidence has continued to accumulate that the ‘laptop documents’ were fabricated by Israel’s foreign intelligence agency (Mossad) and they did not come from an Iranian participant in the alleged project, as the media were led to believe, but transmitted to German intelligence by the MKO.
A confirmation of the operation was included in the popular book Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service, by Michel Bar-Zohar and Nisham Mishal, first published in Hebrew in 2010, and then in English in 2012, in which the authors not only acknowledge that it was indeed the MKO that delivered the documents, but also suggest that at least some of the documents came from the Mossad. They begin by establishing that MKO was fronting for the Mossad in its revelation in August 2002 of Iran’s first enrichment facility at Natanz. The CIA, they write, “appeared to believe that the Mossad and the British MI6 were feeding MEK intelligence they had obtained, using the Iranian opposition as a hopefully credible source”.  And they explicitly confirm CIA’s suspicions. “According to Israeli sources,” they write, “It was, in fact, a watchful Mossad officer who had discovered the mammoth centrifuge installation at Natanz.”
As for the ‘laptop documents’, the Israeli authors make it clear that western intelligence had indeed obtained the documents from the MKO and suggest that MKO got them from somewhere else. “The dissidents wouldn’t say how they had gotten hold of the laptop,” they write, and they frame the question of the origins of the documents in terms of CIA suspicions. “[T]he skeptical Americans suspected that the documents had been only recently scanned into the computer,” they write. “They accused the Mossad of having slipped in some information obtained from our own sources – and passing it to the MEK leaders for delivery to the West.” Bar-Zohar and Mishal steer clear of any suggestion that the Mossad fabricated any documents, but their account leaves little doubt that they are convinced that the Mossad should be credited for the appearance of the documents.
The authors also suggest that Mossad was behind information later released by MKO on Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian physics professor said to be shown in the ‘laptop documents’ as the man in charge of that purported Iranian nuclear weapons research program. The MKO disclosed such personal details as Fakhrizadeh’s passport number and his home telephone number. The Mossad chroniclers noted that “This abundance of detail and means of transmission leads one to believe that, again, «a certain secret service» ever suspected by the West of pursuing its own agenda, painstakingly collected these facts and figures about the Iranian scientists and passed them to the Iranian resistance.”
Attacks against Iranian nuclear scientists and facilities
MKO, working with Mossad, has also been accused for carrying out the assassinations, between 2007 and 2012, of five top Iranian scientists: Ardeshir Hosseinpour on January 15, 2007; Massoud Ali-Mohammadi on January 12, 2010; Majid Shahriari on November 29, 2010; Darioush Rezaei-Nejad on July 23, 2011; Mostafa Ahamdi Roshan on January 11, 2012. The accusations came in 2012, from the Iranian government, which also mentioned that MKO was working with Kidon, the assassination unit within the Mossad.
At the same time, US officials, who spoke to NBC News on condition of anonymity, declared that MKO was being financed, trained, and armed by the Israeli secret service to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Former CIA case officer in the Middle East, Robert Baer, argued that MKO agents trained by Israel were the only plausible perpetrators for such assassinations.
The assassinations were based on the false premise that Iran had a nuclear weapons program that could be disrupted by killing the scientists and technicians involved. Two comprehensive studies by the American government’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted in 2007 and 2012 determined that no such program existed and that Iran did not take any serious steps to initiate such research.Israel was also aware that there was no program.
Intelligence experts argued that even though MKO was the likely perpetrator of the attacks, the technical aspects of the operation were beyond its capabilities. First of all, it was necessary to identify the scientists who were to be targeted, no simple task as the Iranian government and atomic energy agency would have taken steps to restrict such information. After identifying the targets it would have been necessary to engage in extensive surveillance. That would require time, training, and money to support the activity. Moreover, the bombs were highly sophisticated and designed to kill all the occupants of the vehicle.
Only a major foreign intelligence service would have had the capability to penetrate secure government communications to learn who the scientists were and where they lived, in order to plan and execute such an attack. Both CIA and Mossad would have had such capability and both were in contact with MKO, a relationship that was and still is particularly close in the case of the Israelis.
Unconfirmed reports in the Israeli press and elsewhere mentioned that Israel and MKO were also involved in an explosion that destroyed the Iranian missile research and development site at Bin Kaneh, 30 miles outside Tehran on November 12, 2011.  Among those killed was Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, director of missile development for the Revolutionary Guard, and a dozen other researchers. So important was Moghaddam that Ayatollah Khamenei attended his funeral.
Also in 2011, Israel and the United States were accused of being behind a cyber-attack against Iranian facilities with the sophisticated computer virus called Stuxnet that reportedly disrupted and spied on Iran’s nuclear program.
Ronen Bergman, an Israeli commentator and author of “Israel’s Secret War with Iran”, noted that the attacks had three purposes, the most obvious being the removal of high-ranking scientists and their knowledge, but also forcing Iran to increase security for its scientists and facilities and to spur “white defections” of the scientists working in such risky projects. According to Dr. Uzi Rabi, director of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, the supposed accidents could all be part of “psychological warfare” conducted against Iran. He also said the ultimate goal of the covert operations was “to damage the politics of survivability … to send a message that could strike fear into the rulers of Iran.”
According to a CBS News report, in March 2014, sources close to the Israeli services revealed that they felt pressure from the Obama Administration – more than a hint – to stop carrying out assassinations inside Iran. In addition to the signals from the Obama Administration that the U.S. did not want Israel to continue the assassinations, Mossad officials concluded that the campaign had gotten too dangerous. They did not want their best combatants – Israel’s term for its most talented and experienced spies – captured and hanged.
The Burgas airport attack
In the context of the terrorist attack on 18 July 2012 at the Burgas airport (Bulgaria)[10], when six people, including five Israeli tourists, were killed, some experts mentioned the possibility that it might have been an “Israeli false flag operation” designed to put the blame on Iran-coordinated Hezbollah and consequently to influence the designation of this group as terrorist by the European Union.
Soon after the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran, and then Hezbollah. The Israeli government claimed that “the immediate perpetrators were Hezbollah members… operating under the perpetual Iranian aegis both in all overseas operations as well as in their activities in support of the al-Assad family.” In February 2013, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, the Bulgarian interior minister, said there was “well-grounded” evidence that Hezbollah was behind the attack and Europol also pointed out that forensic evidence and intelligence sources pointed to Hezbollah’s involvement in the blast. Both Iran and Hezbollah have denied any involvement. On 5 June 2013, the new Bulgarian Foreign Affairs Minister Kristian Vigenin stated that: “There is no conclusive evidence for the implication of Hezbollah in the July 2012 bombing in Burgas.” However, two weeks later a Bulgarian representative to the European Union revealed that investigators discovered new evidence that implicated Hezbollah and in July 2013, the newly appointed Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetlin Yovchev stated: “there are clear signs that say Hezbollah is behind the Burgas bombing.” Also in 2013, partly in response to the bombing, the EU unanimously voted to list the military branch of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. On 18 July 2014, Bulgaria announced that they identified the bomber as dual Lebanese-French citizen named Mohamad Hassan El-Husseini.
Hezbollah rejected the charges, despite the fact that it took the responsibility for many terrorist attacks previously.
Counterterrorism experts noted that MKO operatives might have been used in such an operation because of their Iranian identities, being known that Israel and the U.S. previously trained MKO and the profile of the attack was similar to the bombings in Mumbai, Bangkok and Tbilisi that happened in the same year. Another hypothesis was that the bus was attacked by Hezbollah targeting Mossad instructors who trained MKO members in Bulgaria.
The speculations were fuelled by the disclosures that MKO was financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service to carry out the deadly attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists.
According to Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and also a senior fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, author of the book, “A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism” if the accounts of the Israeli-MKO operations are accurate, the operations are close to terrorism.
“In theory, states cannot be terrorist, but if they hire locals to do assassinations, that would be state sponsorship,” said Byman, “You could argue that they took action not to terrorize the public, the purpose of terrorism, but only the nuclear community.  An argument could also be made that degrading the program means that you don’t have to take military action and thus, this is a lower level of violence and that really these are military targets, where normally terrorist targets are civilians.” But ultimately, Byman said, there is a “spectrum of responsibility” and that Israel is ultimately responsible.
Richard Silverstein, a longtime journalist in the Middle East with sources in the Israeli intelligence community, stressed that MKO’s relationship with Mossad was “one of the worst-kept secrets of the war between Israel and Iran.” The alleged Mossad-MKO relationship is also tied to the Iran strategy of the CIA, which allegedly passed money to MKO through Mossad. As an example, Silverstein pointed to $400 million allocated by President George W. Bush in 2007 for CIA and Special Forces operations to undermine Iran’s nuclear program and leadership.
MKO in the U.S.: Listed, delisted and becoming a “peaceful opposition group”
MKO’s relationship with the U.S. represents a remarkable turnaround for a group that was once held responsible for a string of bombings and assassinations inside Iran that killed at least six Americans, including the deputy chief of the U.S. military mission to Iran and a senior Texaco executive. In 1997, the State Department designated the group a “foreign terrorist organization,” a move that imposed strict financial sanctions against MKO. MKO’s leadership has long denied any involvement in the killings or the seizure of the embassy. The group’s relationship with Washington improved dramatically after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. MKO gave up its weapons and formed a warm relationship with senior American commanders, who gave the group formal promises of protection.
MKO’s ties with the U.S. intelligence developed after the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003, when operations inside Iran were launched in an effort to substantiate the Bush Administration’s fears that Iran was building the nuclear bomb at one or more secret underground locations. According to Robert Baer, a retired CIA agent who worked throughout the Middle East in his career, he was asked in 2004 by a private American company to return to Iraq to help MKO collect intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
Funds were covertly passed to a number of dissident organizations, for intelligence collection and, ultimately, for anti-regime activities. Directly, or indirectly, MKO ended up with resources like arms and intelligence.
Trained while being a  “foreign terrorist organization”
The United States put the MKO on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 1997 and in 2002 the European Union, pressured by Washington, added MKO to its terrorist list. Since 2004, the group was considered by the U.S. as “non-combatants” and “protected persons” under the Geneva Convention because most members had been living in a refugee camp in Iraq for more than 25 years.
There have been reports that the United States has directly aided MKO in the past, providing assistance that would have been illegal given the group’s terrorist designation. In April 2012, journalist Seymour Hersh reported that the U.S. Special Operations Command (JSOC) provided communications and weapons training to MKO members in the Nevada desert, sometime from 2005 to 2007, considerably improving the group’s capabilities inside Iran. “The MEK was a total joke,” a Pentagon consultant told Hersh, “and now it’s a real network inside Iran. How did the MEK get so much more efficient? Part of it is the training in Nevada. Part of it is logistical support in Kurdistan, and part of it is inside Iran. MEK now has a capacity for efficient operations that it never had before.”
According to the report, the training ended sometime before President Obama took office. A retired four-star general said, “They got the standard training, in commo, crypto [cryptography], small-unit tactics, and weaponry—that went on for six months… They were kept in little pods.”
Since MKO was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, secrecy was essential in the Nevada training. According to a former senior American intelligence official, MKO were trained in Nevada under the cover of the Energy Department because the D.O.E. owned the land in southern Nevada. The site in Nevada was being utilized at the same time for advanced training of élite Iraqi combat units.
According to Massoud Khodabandeh, an official with MKO before defecting in 1996 and turning into an enemy of the group, the training in Nevada also involved communication intercepts. The United States, he said, at one point found a way to penetrate some major Iranian communications systems. At that time, he said, the U.S. provided MKO operatives with the ability to intercept telephone calls and text messages inside Iran, which MKO operatives translated and shared with American signals intelligence experts.
According to Seymour Hersh, MKO members were trained in intercepting communications, cryptography, weaponry and small unit tactics at the Nevada site until President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
The “delisting” process
In the same period, MKO began a lobbying campaign to be removed from the list by promoting itself as a viable opposition to the mullahs in Tehran. In 2008, the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied MKO’s request to be delisted, but in 2011, several U.S. senior military, intelligence and political personalities called for the MKO to be removed from its official State Department foreign terrorist listing, on the grounds that they constituted a viable opposition to the Iranian government.
In April 2012, Seymour Hersh reported some names of former U.S. officials paid to speak in support of MKO: former CIA directors James Woolsey and Porter Goss; New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean; former FBI Director Louis Freeh and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, were under investigation by the Treasury Department for accepting as much as $150,000 from MEK to lobby for delisting in speaking engagements.
MKO was delisted as a terrorist group in the United Kingdom in June 2008, followed by the Council of the European Union on January 26, 2009, after what the group called a “seven-year-long legal and political battle.” Delisting allowed MKO to pursue tens of millions of dollars in frozen assets and lobby in Europe for more funds. It also removed the terrorist label from its members at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
On 28 September 2012, the U.S. State Department formally removed MKO from its official list of terrorist organizations. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that the decision was made because MKO had renounced violence and had cooperated in closing their Iraqi paramilitary base.
The “delisting” unfroze MKO’s U.S. assets and allowed it to transact with U.S. entities. The NCRI opened a Washington, DC, office in April 2013.
The decision was condemned by other Iranian opposition groups, which considered that it “opens the door to Congressional funding of the MKO to conduct terrorist attacks in Iran” and “makes war with Iran far more likely.”
Reinventing itself as a viable alternative for Iran
After its delisting from the FTO list, MKO has become a permanent fixture in Washington, particularly among Iran hawks. Its increasing clout coincided with a flow of money from the group to American politicians.
MKO has poured millions of dollars into reinventing itself as a moderate political group ready to take power in Iran if Western-backed regime change ever takes place. To that end, the Iranian exiles paid a long list of former United States officials speaking fees of between $10,000 and $50,000 for favorable speeches, like the one former U.S. Congress speaker Newt Gingrich delivered in July 2016 in Paris, at MKO’s political wing annual “Free Iran” gala. “Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,000 to speak for 20 minutes,” said a State Department official quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. “They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say.” Pro-MKO individuals and organizations also reportedly donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of several sitting members of the U.S. Congress.
From 2009 to 2015, the MEK reportedly spent more than $330,000 on political contributions. Since being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, MKO’s influence on Capitol Hill spread from the fringes of Congress to include more mainstream and respected Republicans and Democrats.
MKO and NCRI operate a well-funded, highly sophisticated network of advocates in the United States, enlisting in recent years the support of dozens of high-profile officials from both political parties.
Consequently, MKO became one of the most powerful lobbies and probably the most unusual. It has used a combination of political instinct and seemingly huge amounts of money to persuade many prominent lawmakers and former officials from the Bush and Obama administrations that it has broad support within Iran and could help turn the country into a democracy. Along the way, it’s gone from being seen as a group responsible for the deaths of at least six Americans to one that is a vital partner in the effort to overthrow Iran’s theocratic regime.
A controversial ideology and impact
The debate over MKO’s legitimacy as a peaceful Iranian resistance group has attracted both critics and supporters over the years. The group’s advocates assert that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright listed MKO as a foreign terrorist group in October 1997 as part of an effort to open dialogue with moderates in Tehran.
Other Western backers believe the group serves as a strategic counterweight to the clerical regime in Iran, since MKO have historic ties in the area that can help tilt the balance against radical Sunnis and counter an extremist “Shia arc” of Tehran and its counterpart in Damascus.
MKO critics question the group’s motives and commitment to nonviolence and human rights, their reservations being noted by the State Department in the delisting process in 2012.
A cult-like ideology
Feminism and allegiance to the Rajavi family are pillars of MKO’s ideology, which was founded on both Islam and Marxism, though the group has denied its affiliation with the latter. Because of the group’s loyalty to the Rajavi couple, some analysts described MKO as a cult.
MKO has long been led jointly by Massoud and Maryam Rajavi[11], and is reputedly the largest militant Iranian opposition group committed to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. It is also considered to be the only army in the world with a commander corps composed mostly of women.
Maryam Rajavi, born in 1953 to an upper-middleclass Iranian family, was elected in 1993 as “Iran’s future president” and, according to the group’s website, expects to oversee a six-month democratic transition in Iran “once the mullahs are toppled.” Based out of Paris, she also serves as the group’s chief international ambassador.
Her husband, Massoud Rajavi, disappeared following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; his whereabouts and current status are unknown. The last time Rajavi was heard of was in 2003 when he issued a statement on Ashura Day.
While some reports mentioned that he was most probably killed, other said Massoud Rajavi was detained in a cell adjacent to that of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and others said he was under house arrest in Iraq. There were also reports that he was at the U.S. Naval Forces 5th fleet in Bahrain and that he was seen at the U.S. Army headquarters in Qatar. He was also rumored several times to have been arrested by Jordanian security. Unconfirmed news from several sources in Tehran reported his death on 26 August 2010.
In October 2015, at a hearing before the US Senate committee on Armed Forces, MKO lobbyist, retired Colonel Wesley Martin claimed that Rajavi was wounded in an attack and he was in France.
At the MKO’s rally in Paris in July 2016, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud mentioned in his speech the “late” Massoud Rajavi in two different occasions using the word “marhoom,” which means “late” in both Arabic and Persian. When asked to comment, MKO continued to deny Massoud’s death, stating that Faisal’s comments were “misinterpreted.”
Many experts on the group describe it as a cult that exerts tremendous power over the daily lives of its followers. Researchers who visited the MKO in Camp Ashraf said MKO members are cut off from the outside world, their access to outside newspapers or TV stations is limited and gender segregation and celibacy are enforced. MKO required its followers to attend regular sessions where they were forced to admit whether they had sexual thoughts. Those that admitted to them were publicly humiliated, while those that denied having them were derided as liars and criticized anyway.
In June 2014, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry condemned the group for its “violent and non-democratic inspirations,” “cult nature,” and “intense campaign of influence and disinformation.”
Propaganda, as efficient as armed struggle
Throughout its history, MKO pursued a dual strategy of using armed struggle and propaganda to achieve its goals. Its prolific international propaganda machine aims to present them as a democratic alternative to the current Iranian government. As part of its public propaganda campaign, the MKO distributes numerous publications, reports, books, bulletins, and open letters to influence the media and Western parliamentarians. The organization owns a free-to-air satellite TV network named Vision of Freedom (Sima-ye-Azadi), launched in 2003 in England.
MKO is also active on social media, most notably Twitter. However, according to digital research by the UK-based Small Media Foundation, although the MKO is taking social media sites seriously as a platform for broadcasting news and propaganda, they lack the supporter network necessary to make a significant impact within the Iranian Twittersphere. The group also organizes “rent-a-crowd” protests worldwide. However, despite the group’s financial and logistical abilities, such mobilizations are unlikely and implausible because all demonstrators cannot be bought in exchange for exhausting rallies and public figures attending may face “vituperation” for supporting the group.
Impressive but doubtful financement
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was MKO’s primary financier, paying the group for fighting against Iran, as well as for strikes against Kurdish and Shia rebels in Iraq. According to several estimates, the Iraqi regime was paying MKO as much as $30 million a month for at least 10 months, some of it allegedly run-off from the UN’s failed Oil-for-Food program.
In 2003, before the European Union took MKO off of its terror watch list, Maryam Rajavi and some 160 other MKO members were arrested by counter-terrorism police in a small town outside Paris. Authorities confiscated around $8 million in cash, which was believed to be some of the last remaining funds of Saddam Hussein.
Additionally, according to several MKO defectors, during the Iran-Iraq War, MKO leader Massoud Rajavi allegedly took control of all of his members’ assets, possessions and even their passports so they couldn’t leave Camp Ashraf.
Other than funds provided by foreign states (Iran accused Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia), MKO was also accused for raising money through fraud and money laundering, According to a 2004 FBI report, money raised by MKO’s Los Angeles and Washington D.C. “cells” was “transferred overseas through a complex international money laundering operation that uses accounts in Turkey, Germany, France, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.”
Front groups and organizations
In recent years, the group claims to rely on the largesse of wealthy Iranian expatriates in the United States and Europe, and others opposed the clerical regime in Tehran.
At one point, MKO was operating charities through the “Committee for Human Rights and Iran Aid”, which claimed to raise money for Iranian refugees persecuted by the Islamic regime, but was later revealed to be a front for MKO’s military arm, the National Liberation Army.
Almost all of the former U.S. officials who supported MKO’s delisting were not paid by MKO, but by Iranian-American cultural organizations like the Iranian American Community of North Texas and the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri. According to experts, money from benefactors and pledge drives in Europe was sent to individuals in the United States, then onto front groups and finally given to American politicians.
MKO’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) is also used for financial purposes. The NCRI is a coalition of five groups dominated by MKO. The Paris-based MKO leader Maryam Rajavi is NCRI’s president-elect for a transitional period with a “mandate to oversee the peaceful transfer of power to the Iranian people following the regime’s overthrow.” It aims to establish a “secular democratic republic in Iran”.
The MKO says that the NCRI has evolved into a 540-member parliament-in-exile, with a specific platform that emphasizes free elections, gender equality and equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. It also claims that NCRI also advocates a free-market economy and supports peace in the Middle East.
Not so popular as an opposition group
Because of MKO’s cult-like organization under leader Maryam Rajavi, its support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and its participation in Saddam Hussein’s crackdowns on Iraqi Shia and Kurds, the group has been described as a repressive cult despised by most Iranians and Iraqis.
According to an October 1994 report by the U.S. Department of State, other Iranian opposition groups do not cooperate with MKO because they view it as “undemocratic” and “tightly controlled” by its leaders. Due to its anti-Shah stance before the revolution, it is not close to the Monarchist opposition. Iran’s deposed president, Abolhassan Banisadr, also distanced himself from the group in 1984, denouncing its stance during the war with Iraq. Other exiled groups question the MKO’s claim that it would hold free elections after taking power in Iran.
Others believe Western support for MKO distracts from, or undercuts the efforts of more mainstream Iranian opposition groups like the Green Movement, which assembled millions of peaceful protestors in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.
While the current regime is not Iranians’ first choice for a government, MKO is not remotely seen as an alternative, since the group fought for the enemy during the Iran-Iraq War. The people’s discontent with the Iranian government at that time did not translate into their supporting an external enemy that was firing Scud rockets into Tehran, using chemical weapons and killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians, including many civilians. Consequently, MKO is considered as being viewed negatively by many Iranians.
According to an analysis published by Foreign Affairs magazine[12], the most important issue that the new U.S. administration will face in the Middle East will be the rise of the strength and prestige of what is known as the “axis of resistance,” the power bloc led by Iran that includes Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Palestine.
From the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which first opened the door to greater Iranian regional influence, to the more recent fall of Mosul to Daesh in 2014, these changes enabled Iran and its partners, including Russia, to build a new regional political and security architecture from the ground up. Since 2015, Iran has also been amplifying its anti-Saudi Arabia rhetoric, which was another policy change within the axis of resistance.
Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in September 2015 has also significantly altered the standing and power of the axis. Moscow exploited the decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East and the strengthening of Iran and its allies, especially following the Iranian nuclear agreement. Russia is now an important regional actor – from its participation in an intelligence sharing base in Baghdad (comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah), to its improved bilateral relations with Iran (providing Tehran with the all-important S-300 air missile defense system).
In response to the axis’ growing power, particularly the unexpected survival of the regime in Syria, several states in the Middle East have shifted their policy to accommodate its rise. A significant development was the fact that the leadership at Egypt’s al-Azhar, the world’s leading Sunni seminary and academic institution, repudiated the dominant Saudi discourse on sectarianism (the excommunication of Shiites) and strongly defended Shiism as a mainstream Muslim denomination.
Growing Iranian power means that there is a real risk of the axis expanding across Shiite-majority Bahrain and into the Shiite eastern Arabian Peninsula where the main Saudi oilfields rest, or consolidating its position in Yemen and the Bab al-Mandab. However, the regional security order on which the United States has traditionally based its policies to contain and isolate Iran has unraveled, thus rendering obsolete and counterproductive Washington’s previous methods of containing and balancing Iran.
While a radical shift in the Administration’s policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran was promised – which according to political analysts, would be welcome, not only by the American public, but also by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and America’s moderate Arab allies – relying on the MKO in this process is seen as going into uncharted territory.
Analysts even warned that if the goal of the new U.S. Administration is to contain, weaken, and roll back the influence of the Islamic Republic, an outreach to the MKO is a move that may have a contrary effect, to rally Iranians around the flag and strengthen the current regime.
Moreover, while a dialogue with the MKO would not be a radical departure from current U.S. policy, any indication that the United States backs MKO’s goal of regime change in Tehran would confirm suspicions among hard-liners in Iran that the United States seeks the Iranian government’s overthrow, and increase hostility between Tehran and Washington.
[1] The official name of the Mojahedine e-Khalq is The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, abbreviated as PMOI, MKO or MEK. The group’s armed wing is called The National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA) and its political wing is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of exile organizations which is considered as being only “nominally independent” from MKO. In this analysis, the abbreviation MKO will be used, unless one of the other abbreviations is used in quoted material.
[2] As shown on al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned satellite news channel.
[3] As presented by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)
[4] Ali ibn Abi Talib was a cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and ruled the Islamic caliphate from 656 to 661. He was the only person born in the sacred sanctuary of the Kaaba in Mecca and the first young male who accepted Islam. While Sunnis consider Ali the fourth and last of the Rashidun (rightly guided) caliphs, Shias consider Ali as the first Imam after Muhammad. Shias also believe that Ali and the other Shia Imams (the members of the Ahl al-Bayt, Muhammad’s household) are the rightful successors of Muhammad. This disagreement split the Ummah (Muslim community) into the Sunni and Shia (cf. Wikipedia)
[5]According to the Tehran authorities, the CIA was attempting to infiltrate the MKO by recruiting the first president of Iran, Abolhassan Banisadr, while he was still in Paris in January 1979, when CIA agent Vernon Cassin offered him $5,000 a month to act as a “consultant” for a U.S. company.
[6] Who was believed to be the second-most influential figure in Iran at the time after Khomeini.
[7] Eurodif (European Gaseous Diffusion Uranium Enrichment Consortium), a subsidiary of the French company AREVA, was formed in 1973 by France, Belgium, Italy Spain and Sweden, to operate the Tricastin uranium enrichment plant in Pierrelatte (France). In 1974, The Shah of Iran lent $1 billion (and another $180 million in 1977) for the construction of the factory, in order to have the right to buy 10% of the production.In 1975, Sweden’s 10 per cent share in EURODIF was transferred to Iran, which established, with France, the Sofidif (Société franco–iranienne pour l’enrichissement de l’uranium par diffusion gazeuse). In 1986, Eurodif manager Georges Besse was assassinated, allegedly part of a terrorist Iranian campaign to blackmail France after pulling out of the agreement between Eurodif and Iran.
[8] The decision was controversial because it appeared that the United States selectively chose to apply the Geneva Conventions to a designated terrorist organization and, further, to grant it special status. That designation expired after Iraq regained full sovereignty in January 2009.
[9] and as quoted in U.S. plan to transfer 3,000 terrorists to Romania (Mojahedin Khalq, MKO, MEK, Rajavi cult), 03.01.2014, retrieved from
[10] The bus attacked by a suicide bomber was carrying forty-two Israelis, mainly youths, from the airport to their hotels, after arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv.
[11] Maryam Rajavi joined the resistance as a student in Tehran in the early 1970s and, at the behest of her husband, assumed joint control of the group in 1985.
[12] Payam Mohseni, Hussein Kalout: Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises, 24.01.2017, Foreign Affairs

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