Originally published in the International Policy Digest, written by Amb. Adam Ereli, August 1, 2020
Iran is at a crossroads. Over the past two and a half years, the Islamic Republic has witnessed three nationwide uprisings. Last November, the second of these resulted in what may have been the worst crackdown on dissent since the regime’s massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988.
Both crackdowns targeted the same group, which has remained the single greatest threat to the mullahs’ hold on power since shortly after the 1979 revolution. The People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mujahedin-e-Khalq or MEK, comprised most of the victims of 1988’s “summer of blood,” and it has been expressly identified by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as the driving force behind the recent uprisings. His warnings no doubt helped to justify the killing of 1,500 peaceful protesters last November, as well as the imposition of multiple death sentences in the ensuing months.
Iran’s latest political violence shows that the theocratic regime’s efforts to stamp out dissent have failed and that its fear of the MEK remains undiminished. The massacre of political prisoners, the killings in November, and state-sponsored terrorist attacks on its political opponents outside Iran all demonstrate that Iran’s clerical rulers will stop at nothing in their efforts to destroy the MEK. But the mullahs’ hostility is the greatest testimony to the opposition group’s effectiveness and the credible threat that it poses to the clerics’ hold on power.
The Supreme Leader and his death squads are terrified of a movement powerful enough to organize domestic protests that normalize internal demands for regime change. Their greater concern is the MEK’s campaign to create a stable government that could serve as an alternative to the current regime. An increasing number of Iranians are coming to believe that a more representative government is not only possible, but imperative. Such sentiment is anathema to a state that has lost legitimacy and rules by fear.
Ever since coming to power, Iran’s clerical leaders have claimed that the MEK is a cult that lacks meaningful support inside Iran. If that is the case, how can they logically claim that the group is responsible for the ongoing protests in Iran? Why would Tehran spend massive sums of money and decades of political energy on demonizing a movement that allegedly has only a marginal impact? Why would the regime risk its already heavily damaged relations with the international community by using its embassies and diplomats in 2018 to execute terrorist attacks on the MEK in Europe?
That year saw the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from a number of European countries after operatives were found to be spying on potential targets and attempting to bomb a gathering of the Iranian opposition in Paris. Another plot earlier in 2018 targeted a community of 3,000 MEK dissidents in Albania, which has welcomed the group’s members who were previously living in Iraq and under near-constant threat from Iran-backed terrorists there.
In addition to the clandestine use of force to silence the MEK, Iran’s rulers have conducted extensive and sophisticated information operations to discredit the group. Over the past several years, Iran’s state-run media has produced a total of 19 movies, series, and documentaries — some of them consisting of up to 28 segments of 30-45 minutes each – that demonize the MEK. In 2018 alone, 18 major books were published by the regime against the MEK.
No opposition group is perfect, and there are plenty of critics who question the MEK’s tactics and politics. But the greatest testament to the MEK’s effectiveness as a counterweight to the depredations of the Islamic Revolution is the obsessive and long-standing animosity that Iran’s leaders have demonstrated towards it.
For those of us in the West who have spent their careers confronting the regional cancer that Iran represents, the MEK’s staying power both at home and abroad offers a welcome opportunity to change Iran for the better. New realities on the ground call for a new approach, and for that reason, the MEK is deserving of support.
Adam Ereli is a former US ambassador and an advisor at Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is currently the founder and principal of The Ibero American Group, a strategic advisory firm based in Washington, DC. Ambassador Ereli is a proven leader and innovator in the fields of foreign government relations, business development, commercial advocacy, public diplomacy, media relations and crisis communications. As a diplomat for 24 years with the US Department of State, he established a network of close relationships at the senior levels of government and business in the United States and the Middle East.