An Iranian opposition group once listed by Britain and America as a terrorist organisation has been courting senior U.S. officials in the hope of establishing itself as Iran’s next government, and is now looking to the House of Lords in Britain for support, in the face of declining interest at the White House.
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MeK), held its Free Iran rally in Paris last month, an annual event that the group hosts in which it calls for regime change in Iran. Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, was one of the event’s keynote speakers. John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor and a longtime MeK supporter, spoke at last year’s rally.
Few grassroots movements are able to command such high-profile speakers at their events. The MeK is different. As an opposition group to Iran’s regime, it receives substantial funding, believed by some to originate from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a strategic ally of the United States. Bolton, who has given several talks hosted by the group, is estimated to have received over $180,000 for personal appearances. There has been speculation, too, about the attendees at MeK’s conferences. Claims that the group pays for the crowds at its events have surfaced online, and footage of bored Algerian, Polish and Czechs at MeK rallies has been played across Twitter and Facebook. MeK has also been accused of pumping vast sums into social media accounts manned by dummy supporters.
As worldwide interest in Iran has increased, so too has the desire to get to know Iran’s opposition groups. The internet has given organizations like MeK the oxygen they crave, but it has also made them vulnerable to inspection. Controversial information about the MeK has resurfaced, like this video showing two former high-ranking MeK officials giving evidence of the group’s ongoing money laundering and trafficking activities, to the European Parliament in 2016. Revelations like these, and mounting pressure from Iranians both inside and outside Iran, have led White House officials, including President Trump, to distance themselves from the group.
The tipping point for MeK came last Sunday, when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech at the Reagan Library in California entitled, “Supporting Iranian Voices.” MeK officials had made a public show online of the group’s invitation to the event. Three days before the talk, during a press briefing at the State Department, a senior official was asked by a journalist at the briefing, if the MeK had been invited to the talk. The official replied, “No, I don’t believe they are.” Their absence at the event confirmed what the group must have known for some time: it was losing its pull at the White House.
Historically, it has been easy for MeK to bend the ears of government officials in the West. A shared common interest in toppling the Iranian government, and handsome fees for appearances and shows of outward support, have thrown a veil over MeK’s dark past. With no other rival opposition organization able to match MeK’s financial muscle, their stance is often the only one heard on Capitol Hill. A lack of Iranian American officials within Congress has, too, allowed the group’s controversial past to remain largely uncovered in the Western world. The British government now finds itself in exactly the same place as the U.S. government did 12 months ago.
MeK has been quietly making the rounds in the House of Lords. A statement released in April 2018 by the British Committee For Iran Freedom (BCFIF), and signed by 100 peers, calls on the UK government and the international community to recognize MeK as a legitimate alternative to the current government in Iran. Former Committee Chair and Labour MP, Lord Corbett, spent a large part of his career supporting the organization, before he died six years ago. The BCFIF is aware of MeK’s past, though it’s unlikely the peers who signed the letter are fully informed.
The statement itself, which the Committee uses to justify its support for MeK, is riddled with factual errors which rewrite history to MeK’s advantage. The committee suggests that the uprisings in Iran were galvanized and led by MeK,though there is no evidence to support this view. There is, though, a general consensus among analysts that the protests which erupted across the country were uncoordinated and sparked by several different concerns, eventually leading to the participation of the Bazaaris, whose significant political and economic influence in the country reaches back decades.
The statement also claims that MeK has wide support from Iranians inside the country. There are conflicting reports on this, but the overarching view appears to be one against the organization playing a part in Iran’s political future. Many Iranians still remember MeK’s role in the political assassinations which took place after the revolution, and its involvement in the Iran-Iraq war.
The British Committee For Iran Freedom’s website does not feature the signed statement, nor does it offer details about its members or Chairman. A question mark also remains over whether the committee receives financial support from MeK, as it appears to be ramping up its efforts to place the group in the spotlight. Much like the White House, the UK government may see MeK as a pawn which can be dispensed with – or one it has no use for. That cabinet ministers never responded to BCFIF’s statement is perhaps the most telling sign of all.