Crazy, Cultish and Violent: When I Met an Iranian Terrorist Group
The flag of the MEK.
Photo Credit: Tijl Vercaemer/Wikimedia Commons
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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.
The group intrigued me and I started to probe their history, wanting to learn more.
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.