IPC News

Iranian Dissidents and Their Critics, 11 March 2011

Raymond Tanter, President, Iran Policy Committee; Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan; former member of the National Security Council staff, Executive Office of the U.S. President and Personal Representative of the U.S. Secretary of Defense to Arms Control Talks in Europe

The facts and the law are turning against critics of an Iranian opposition organization that plays a major role in organizing nonviolent resistance against the Iranian regime—the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK). Critics fall back on nonfactual, nonlegal arguments, such as accusations the MEK is a cult and the organization lacks support among the Iranian people, to justify continuation of the terrorist designation of the MEK by the Department of State. But the cult and support claims are demonstrably false, as shown in the full article; and even if true, they are legally irrelevant to the terrorist designation of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. Consider the facts and the law as prelude to a discussion and refutation of nonlegal accusations about the MEK.


"When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When the law is on your side, argue the law. When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."

The Facts

The Iran Policy Committee did an empirical study of the allegations that the MEK engages in terrorism or conducts terrorist activities and hence should be designated as such on the U.S. State Department Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. The IPC examined three electronic databases: U.S. Government’s Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS); Department of Homeland Security-sponsored Global Database on Terrorism (GTD); and RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents (RDWTI).

Neither GTD nor RDWTI lists the MEK as a perpetrator of any terrorist incidents after 2001. The WITS lists the MEK as perpetrator of four such incidents in 2005, but other organizations claimed responsibility for three of these; also, language used in the descriptions, lack of direct allegations about the MEK, and absence of corroboration raise serious doubts about the credibility of all four claims. For the full study, including the data, click here.

With respect to the conduct of terrorism, the IPC study also analyzed State Department Administrative Records for its designation of the MEK and the Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism. Questions about source credibility and inconsistency in language plague these documents, particularly about MEK capability and intent: When the MEK is alleged to have conducted terrorism or terrorist actions, it had surrendered its weapons to U.S. military forces in Iraq, was under their protection, and its members had renounced violence; hence, it is highly unlikely the MEK had capability and intent to commit terrorism or terrorist actions. Even the State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2007, 2008, and 2009 dropped the CRT 2006 unsubstantiated allegation that the MEK has “capacity and will” to commit terrorist activities.

The Law

In its July 2010 ruling about the MEK appeal of its continued designation in January 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit found fault with the decisionmaking process of the Secretary of State. After reviewing the 2009 Administrative Record consisting of both classified and unclassified information, the Secretary denied an MEK petition to revoke its designation and published the decision in the Federal Register on 12 January 2009. See 74 Fed.Reg. at 1273-74

The Secretary held that “In considering the evidence as a whole, the MEK has not shown that the relevant circumstances are sufficiently different from the circumstances that were the basis for the 2003 re-designation,” and that “[a]s a consequence, the MEK continues to be a foreign organization that engages in terrorist activity…or terrorism …or retains the capability and intent to” do so. Id.; see 74 Fed.Reg. at 1273-74

The Court questioned both the credibility and sources of evidence used by the Secretary of state in her January 2009 decision to maintain the designation of the MEK, also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). The Court remanded with instructions to the Secretary to provide the MEK opportunity to review and rebut the unclassified portions of the record on which she relied.

Another aspect of the law is that allegations not only must be valid and based on credible sources; it is also the case that relevant facts must be for two years prior to a decision to continue a designation. Because none of the decade-old uncorroborated incidents occurred within two years of the January 2009 continued designation, they are legally extraneous.

As the statute makes clear, while the Secretary of State may invoke national security to lift an FTO designation, she cannot maintain a designation or reject a petition for revocation of a designation based on such a consideration. Indeed, the governing statute, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), 8 U.S.C. § 1189, authorizes the Secretary to designate an entity as an FTO upon making three specific findings—that the:

1. Organization is foreign;

2. Organization engages in terrorist activity…or retains the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism; and the

3. Terrorist activity or terrorism of the organization threatens the security of United States nationals or the national security of the United States.

All three conditions above must be met to form the basis for a designation. In other words, only after the Secretary finds as a matter of fact that an organization satisfies (1) and (2) does the Secretary have discretion in making the determination at (3)—whether the organization “threatens…the national security of the United States.”

Judicial deference afforded to executive branch judgments about national security does not extend to the factual conclusions in (1) and (2). Hence, national security alone cannot be the basis for designating or continuing the designation of an organization as an FTO.

Nonlegal Arguments


By frightening the Iranian population into believing the MEK is a cult that is worse than the regime, Tehran attempts to deflect public animosity and preserve its own survival. Such propaganda also targets liberal democracies, attempting to persuade them to hold off providing support to the MEK, in a typical case of, “Better the devil you know…”

In addition, the cult portrayal prompts western liberal democracies to seek out any regime opponents other than the MEK. As long as those opposition organizations appear “normal,” these governments may consider them as an alternative to the regime. Not easily finding such dissident groups, western governments may conclude that in the absence of viable opposition, Realpolitik dictates continuation of the status quo—continued efforts at rapprochement with the Iranian regime.

The cult accusation elicits particular resonance in the United States because it conjures up very negative images like Charles Manson, David Koresh, and Jim Jones. In the American lexicon, cults are associated with anti-social, weird, and self-destructive behavior. A cult is closed, insular, and imposes on its members a singular philosophy or ideology that typically is radically different from the thinking of mainstream society.

A cult often forcibly closes members off from the outside world to ensure compliance, and usually involves, too, the enforced and unnatural adulation of the group leader (virtually always a man). Cult attributes include “a small informal group,” “transitory,” “lacking a definite authority structure,” “somewhat spontaneous in its development,” “somewhat mystical and individualistically oriented,” and “driving its inspiration and ideology from outside predominant religious culture.”

In contrast, the MEK actively and consistently reaches out to the media, the public and democratic leaders around the world. Its ideology is Islamic, like the vast majority of Iranians, and its patterns of belief, organizational structure, and practices have been well-known, well-documented and well-scrutinized for years. MEK members, moreover, write, travel, and interact widely with the world to shine the spotlight on their cause.

Upon invitation of French Parliamentarians, IPC members made fact finding trips to France. During one trip, the IPC was able to interview a prominent French expert on cult affairs—Alain Vivian, France’s former Minister of Europe and chief of the inter-ministerial committee for fighting cults. Vivian informed the IPC that the MEK and its leadership do not qualify as a cult; and they do not have cultish behavior. He later testified under oath before a Paris court affirming the same position regarding opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, (NCRI)—parliament in exile of the Iranian resistance, of which the MEK is the largest unit.

Relevant to the cult accusation about the MEK is that its leaders supposedly compelled members to commit suicidal acts. Although Maryam Rajavi is highly respected and admired, IPC interviews of members of the MEK did not produce any evidence that could be termed “adulation” in their admiration of her.

Consider an accusation that Maryam Rajavi ordered immolation on her behalf when she was temporarily jailed and released because of lack evidence. The IPC conducted interviews of surviving family members. This research found no support for the claim the NCRI or MEK ordered immolation and no substantiation of the accusation that the motivation was for “adulation.” Rather, those who immolated themselves did so to protest France’s decision to detain 160 opposition figures, including Maryam Rajavi, as a part of a deal with Tehran. On the contrary, there is evidence that once she discovered the occurrence of immolations, she was appalled, immediately pleaded for them to end, and they ceased.

A court in Paris, after examining the relevant evidence and hearing witnesses on the tragic self-inspired immolations, ruled they were not the result of any coordination or psychological control but rather were spontaneous actions, and that no prior collective or coordinative orders had been given.  In a verdict issued on  18 November 2007, a three-judge panel at the 16th Branch of the Paris Court, presided over by Judge Jean-Claude Kross, ruled, “In view of the testimony by witnesses that these actions (self-immolations) were personal decisions and outside the framework of any collective and coordinated order and that they had been undertaken out of the fear of being deported to Iran, where they would have been facing definite torture and execution; considering that Maryam Rajavi...wrote a letter to the court that she had been opposed to the self-immolations and that she had been unaware of them until the afternoon of 18 June 2003; considering that regardless of any hypothesis….Mrs. Rajavi had been preoccupied with preventing the self-immolations which she had clearly opposed, the court believes that far more than Mrs. Rajavi’s public statements, which were obviously intended to assist French authorities to undertake all the necessary measures to prevent such a danger, her silence would have reflected her consent to such acts.”

Lack of Popular Support

Also consider the accusation that the MEK lacks popular support among the Iranian people. But this organization has received the majority of the regime’s website attention and is the entity the regime dislikes the most. By inference, Tehran fears the MEK the most. Despite this status in the eyes of the regime, some western officials question the MEK level of support inside Iran, claiming that it has too little popularity to warrant American backing.

Others argue that its support faded when the group went to Iraq and waged attacks against the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) from Iraq; hence, according to this logic, the Iranian people blame the organization as collaborating with the enemy. But if the MEK lacks internal support, why would the Iranian regime pay so much attention to it in comparison with all other opposition groups combined? It is reasonable to hypothesize that such attention derives from regime perception of the importance of the MEK as a threat to its own survival.

And how could the MEK be one of the largest, most organized and most dedicated Iranian opposition groups if it lacks support within Iran? It is also reasonable to argue that because of its size and commitment to regime change Tehran fears MEK support among the Iranian people and its capability to assist in triggering regime change. As such, iTehran has spared no effort to undercut and destroy the MEK.

To evaluate the capabilities of the MEK and other Iranian opposition groups, including organizations not espousing regime change, an IPC Task Force formed a research committee that included university students, volunteers, and IPC staff. To conduct an analysis of the clerical regime’s attitude toward the MEK and other dissident groups, the IPC research team performed a content analysis of statements referring to such organizations in the regime’s global news agency: the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

The IPC research committee conducted searches for the period 1 January-31 December 2005. This study provides insight into how the clerical regime in Tehran views opposition organizations. From the number of times regime sites mention a specific organization, the IPC hypothesized that dealing with that group is on the regime’s agenda. In this regard, it is remarkable to note that the MEK is the topic of discussion over 350% more often than all of the other organizations combined.

Likewise, if the MEK has little support within the Iranian population, its leadership would be unable to obtain secrets of Iran’s nuclear violations. According to the Washington Post, “An exiled opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, first publicly revealed the existence of Iran’s much larger uranium facility at Natanz in 2002. It highlighted Qom’s tunnels at a December 2005 news conference and later supplied details to UN officials, according to a spokesman for the group. Iran said the site was a closed military property, and no nuclear inspections were permitted.”

According to the New York Times, “Then, in late 2005, the Iranian opposition group [NCRI] held news conferences in Paris and London to announce that its spies had learned that Iran was digging tunnels for missile and atomic work at 14 sites, including an underground complex near Qum. The government, one council [NCRI] official said, was building the tunnels to conceal ‘its pursuit of nuclear weapons.’ The council further charged that Mr. Ahmadinejad and the tunneling association were providing civilian cover for military work and acquisitions.”

After the NCRI publicly revealed existence of Natanz enrichment facility in August 2002, this organization subsequently exposed:

  • Heavy water production facility at Arak, operational since 2006
  • Kalaye Electric Company, an enrichment centrifuge testing facility in Tehran
  • Nuclear facility at Lavizan-Shian that was razed to the ground purportedly to hide evidence from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
  • Extensive nuclear research facility at the Center for Readiness and New Defense Technology (known as Lavizan 2), built with equipment removed from the Lavizan-Shian site, kept off limits to IAEA since its revelation in 2004 by the NCRI
  • Extensive tunnels and hardened underground bunker sites near Tehran and elsewhere, built to hide Iran’s nuclear weapons program and missiles
  • Widespread use of Revolutionary Guards military complexes, such as Imam Hussein University for nuclear research and development
  • Extensive employment of national universities, such as Malek-Ashtar University for nuclear weapons research and development
  • A secret company in Tehran producing P1 (aluminum rotor) and P2 (steel rotor) centrifuges for uranium enrichment; P2 centrifuges enrich uranium much faster than the P1; P stands for Pakistan.
  • Covert military facility in the Khojir area in Tehran, where Iran is working on the development of nuclear warheads
  • Command and control center, known as Mojdeh site, for nuclear weapons development directly reporting to the Defense Minister
  • Covert nuclear enrichment site, named for two nearby towns—Behjatabad-Abyek site

Some Iran specialists claim that the MEK lost popularity once it aligned itself with Iraq during the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war in 1986. Though the argument may sound reasonable on its face, it lacks evidence and does not stand up under close scrutiny. To the contrary, there is evidence to suggest the organization may have broadened its support base in Iran, particularly since the 2009 presidential elections.

If the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War, which left millions of dead and wounded on the Iranian side alone, were appealing to the Iranian population, then the top Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) commanders would also be popular with the Iranian people. In this case, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a top commander of the IRGC during the War, would be very popular with Iranian youth.

However, the 2009 uprising following his contested election showed youth as well as the general public did not have a positive view about Ahmadinejad or the war.They were much more interested in the economy and political freedom than boasting about a costly war that brought death and destruction to the country.

During the 2009 presidential elections, “war heroes,” such as Ahmadinejad and former IRGC Commander Mohsen Rezaee did so poorly that the regime had "to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat." Even political figures, such as Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, have tried on a number of occasions to distance themselves from the war and get credit for their efforts to bring it to an end, tacitly blaming Ayatollah Khomeini for perpetuation of the conflict.

When the MEK made its final incursion into Iran in July 1988, there were reports the people supported them and welcomed their return to the country. Only after fierce airstrikes did Tehran manage to push the MEK back into Iraq and inflict heavy casualties on MEK fighters. Later, Tehran hanged dozens of local people in public in border cities for having supported the MEK.

In 1988, the Financial Times reported that Tehran’s officials arrested and executed people in one western Iranian town for cooperating with the MEK, stating, “In particular, many people are said to have been killed in the small town of Kerend, halfway between Kermanshah and the Iraqi frontier. This is the one place where the people are known to have welcomed the Mujahedin [MEK].” In addition, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, “Iran said that seven people were hanged in the western city of Bakhtaran (Kermanshah) on Monday for collaborating with the [MEK].”

Following the acceptance of a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war by Tehran in July 1988, several thousand political prisoners, mostly MEK members who had refused to denounce the organization and its leaders, were executed by the Iranian regime in a matter of few weeks. In this regard, The Sunday Telegraph reported, “More than 30,000 political prisoners were executed in the 1988 massacre—a far greater number than previously suspected.”

Such reports are evidence the MEK maintained its appeal in the country, despite moving its base to Iraq.

In late December 2010 and January 2011, the regime hanged a number of members of the MEK, who had been arrested and charged with participating in the anti-government demonstrations. During the post-election demonstrations in Iran, slogans promoted by the MEK and not endorsed by presidential candidates—Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi—have become main themes of chants in Iran, something that has remained unchanged throughout 2011.

In other words, MEK chants of “Death to Khamenei,” and “Death to the principle of Velayat Faqih,” dominate street demonstrations when they occur. Ayatollah Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, the Friday Prayer Leader of the Iranian City of Mashad, said:

“The Monafeqin [pejorative term for the MEK] directed the uprisings on Ashura [27 December 2009].  We have evidence to prove that. The slogans that the Monafeqin had posted on its sites since December 7 were the same slogans that the rioters were chanting on Ashura. Great Imam [Khomeini] said that the Monafeqin are ‘Mohareb’ [waged war on God] and if anybody inside the country cooperates and collaborates with the Monafeqin, he has joined them and is ‘Mohareb’ and his blood could be spilled with impunity.”[1]

Following the 14 February 2011 uprising, which was the most intense demonstration since 2009, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, the Friday prayer leader of Tehran, said: “The nature of the uprisings on February 14 were similar to the uprising on December 27, 2009, where people chanted ‘death to the principle of the Velayat-e Faqih (absolute clerical rule).’ Those who caused the Ashura uprising were the same ones who created the criminal uprising on February 14. The footprints of the MEK could clearly be seen in the February 14 uprising.”[2]

In conclusion, as facts and law turn against critics of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, they resort to nonlegal accusations, such as cult and lack of popular support, which are not true; even if true, they would not legally justify continuing the terrorist tag against the MEK.

[1] News Network (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), December 30, 2009 
[2] News Network (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), February 16, 2011
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