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Crazy, Cultish and Violent: When I Met an Iranian Terrorist Group

Working on Capitol Hill, it was difficult to avoid supporters of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, an organization that has killed Americans and Iranians.
 
 
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The flag of the MEK.
Photo Credit: Tijl Vercaemer/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

The first time I encountered the  Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian group recently  removed by the State Department from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, was in Los Angeles in 2008. I was working for  Amnesty International and I had organized an outreach event on human rights to the Iranian-American community.

When supporters of the MEK learned of the  event, they objected to one of the speakers because he believed the best way to curb Iran’s human rights abuses is through  engagement and interaction, not war. Supporters of the MEK proceeded to call my office line—and then my personal cell phone—so many times that I considered changing my number. Most of the messages were expletives filled accusations that I was an “agent for the Iranian government,” “an apologist for the mullahs,” and “a terrible Iranian.”
 
We proceeded with the event anyways.
 
Supporters of the MEK showed up early, filled up almost all of the seats and started shouting. One of the audience members, a  former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who had been tortured in Iran, stood up and said in Farsi that Amnesty had fought for his life and that they should be respectful of the speakers. But they continued to shout.
 
When they refused to lower their signs or stop yelling, over a dozen police officers intervened and insisted we cancel. The police feared the protesters would become violent. Before our first speaker could say even a word, I had to call it off. 

The group intrigued me and I started to probe their history, wanting to learn more.

It was the MEK’s deep involvement in terror including the  killing of six Americans in the 1970s that prompted President Bill Clinton to  designate the group a foreign terrorist organization in 1992.

Violence has always been a part of the MEK. The group was  founded in 1965 as an armed opposition to the Shah of Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it  assassinated Iran’s first president and prime minister and later assisted Sadaam Hussein in crushing the Kurdish uprising. In 2001 the MEK  claimedthat it renounced violence but its  record showed otherwise. According to a  report published by Human Rights Watch in May 2005, “The former (MEK) members reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.”

I was appalled by what I learned about the MEK and I managed to steer clear of the group in Washington DC. That changed in 2009 when I began working as a foreign policy aide to a member of the  House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Before I worked in Congress, I would have said that advocating for Palestine is the most challenging foreign policy topic on Capitol Hill. But after I worked in the House of Representatives, I realized it is harder to have a rational discussion of Iran than it is to have a rational discussion of Palestinian rights.

The MEK has always been smart to play off  other special interest groups. When I met with a prominent pro-Israeli lobby for the first time, a college age volunteer told me his group’s first priority was Iran, its second priority was Iran, and its third priority was Iran.

I realized in Congress that it was nearly impossible to speak about human  rights in Iran or about the humanitarian  effects of US sanctions without another member of Congress or a special interest group accusing you of being soft on terrorism.

I tried to avoid MEK supporters in Congress but it was difficult. Most days I found MEK supporters camped out in a basement room in the  Rayburn House Office Building, passing out flyers with graphic photos of human rights abuses in Iran, serving kabobs and  baghali polo. They understood that to attract and to sway staffers, the promise of exotic food could always draw a crowd. One time I received a text from a staffer that the “kabobs from this Iranian group are off the hook good” and that I should come by.

 
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