Iran sees less threat in exiled MKO militants

Some 100 members of the Iranian antiregime group have left a holding camp in Iraq in recent weeks. Iran says amnesty offer holds.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Here: Arash Sametipour, a former member of the anti-Iranian MKO, points to offices of the Nejat Society, which helps former militants reintegrate to Iran.
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Gholam Reza Sadeghi felt certain of his fate if he ever returned to Iran: torture and execution, given his years as a member of the antiregime Mujahideen-e Khalq, or "People's Holy Warriors."

But stuck in a crowded camp in Iraq with 3,400 other members of the MKO under US military guard, Mr. Sadeghi finally had had enough. He wanted out, and to see his son.

So he came back to the Islamic Republic, which imprisoned him for five years in the 1980s for participating in a group labeled "terrorist" by both Washington and Tehran. Yet some American officials view the MKO – disarmed but still intact – as a possible tool of regime change against Iran. And the MKO's continued presence in Iraq aggravates US-Iran tensions.

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What Sadeghi found was a soft-touch amnesty that he had never been told of in the MKO camp. His case could resonate with the 100 or so other Iranian militants who have been allowed to leave the camp in recent weeks, afraid to return to Iran and running into trouble in Kurdish northern Iraq and upon entering Turkey.

"Because I had been in prison, I expected to go back to prison, torture, and execution," says Sadeghi, who was detained for a week and then let go. "They said [the MKO] is not a threat. [They said,] 'We know you were a victim yourself, who thought you were doing something good for your country but were deceived by a cult.' "

The MKO (or MEK) in 2002 tipped off the world to Iran's secret uranium-enrichment program – with the help of Israel, many analysts have concluded. It now says the recent findings of a US National Intelligence Estimate were wrong and that Iran restarted a nuclear-weapons program in 2004. UN inspectors, however, say that much of the information the UN has received from the group in recent years has a political purpose and has been wrong.

No nation has taken the militants who left Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, some of them carrying US military letters for travel to Turkey. Documents of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees show that at one point in their saga nearly two weeks ago, 19 were turned back to Iraq by Turkey, dozens were picked up in Kurdish northern Iraq and some forced to return to the dangers of central Iraq, and 26 were missing.

The situation highlights the sensitivity of Camp Ashraf, which has been virtually off-limits to journalists since the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to some of the 340 former MKO members who have returned to Iran with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the MKO controls all aspects of life in the camp. Numbers have dropped: Only 12 returned to Iran in all of 2007, and three more in mid-January.

"We don't have the impression that these people are harassed or bothered, ... mainly because the families and the [Iranian] authorities want them to come back," says Andreas Schweizer, until recently the ICRC protection officer in Tehran. "We haven't heard of any problems so far."

Indeed, in 2005, when the Monitor followed up privately on the story of one returnee, his mother complained about the lack official reintegration help. There had been no government interference either, she said.

The MKO's checkered and violent history has kept it on the US and European terrorist list. The MKO killed several American military advisers and civilians in Iran in the 1970s, played a key role in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and supported the US Embassy seizure before breaking away and launching attacks that have killed scores of senior Iranian officials.

Exiled first to France and then expelled in 1986, the MKO was given safe haven, weapons, and cash from Saddam Hussein. Though he used it to fight Iran during the Iran-Iraq war – an act that soured most Iranians toward the group – and to help quell local uprisings in 1991, the MKO today portrays itself as a democratic Iranian government-in-waiting.

MKO coleader Maryam Rajavi, as quoted recently in the Opinion pages of the Monitor, claims substantial underground support in Iran, and said US labeling of Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group is a "clear testament and an indispensable prelude to democratic change in Iran."

But analysts dispute claims of broad support. "They are so discredited in Iran that I can't imagine they have any social basis," says Ervand Abrahamian, an Iran historian at the City University of New York and author of "The Iranian Mojahedin," a study of the MKO.

"I think you would find the current President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad more democratic than the Mujahideen," says Mr. Abrahamian. "Even in the early 1970s, it had turned into a cult organization…. The remaining members ... will do whatever [MKO leader Massoud] Rajavi tells them."

The State Department's terrorism report last year said the MKO maintains "the capacity and will to commit terrorist acts in Europe, the Middle East, the United States, Canada and beyond."

The report notes the MKO's "cult-like characteristics," such that "new members are indoctrinated in MEK ideology and revisionist Iranian history [and] required to ... participate in weekly 'ideological cleansings.' " Children are separated from their parents, it adds, and Mrs. Rajavi "has established a 'cult of personality.'.

The US rejected a secret 2003 Iranian offer to exchange top MKO leaders for several Al Qaeda personalities now held in Iran.

"The Islamic Republic's policy toward the MKO is very clear – there is nothing hidden," says a foreign ministry official who asked not to be named. "In our opinion they are a terrorist cult. When it comes to cults, only the leaders are responsible, and the rest are all victims themselves."

The MKO and some in Congress and the Pentagon have challenged the terrorist label. Senior Iranian officers have accused US forces in Iraq of using the MKO during interrogations of Iranians detained in Iraq. Western news reports also suggest that some MKO operatives may be conducting cross-border operations into Iran on behalf the US.

Indeed, such action seemed to be on offer to Sadeghi when US federal agents first questioned him in Camp Ashraf in 2003. After release from prison in Iran in the 1980s, he had fled to Canada in the 1980s, where the MKO found him and gave him a letter from leader Rajavi. "The letter said: 'You were one of us, and suffered in prison," recounts Sadeghi. "Now you are in Toronto living the good life. You forgot your brothers and sisters, you forgot freedom and democracy.'"

Sadeghi left his Canadian wife, broke custody rules by letting the MKO ship his son to his parents in Iran, and was moved by the MKO to Los Angeles. His visit to Iraq was meant to be short-term, but the MKO took his US passport and said they destroyed it, he says.

After US forces disarmed the group in 2003, the FBI met with each member. Sadeghi says he was told that the US planned to topple Iran's regime, that they wanted his help, and that they would ensure his return to the US. Sticking with the MKO would mean "never seeing the US again."

"I didn't believe [the FBI agent] was going to send me back to the US, or I would have jumped on it," says Sadeghi. Tired of daily MKO self-criticism sessions, he finally told the Americans he wanted to go to Iran. He had not seen his parents for 22 years; his son was 16 and full of resentment. "He asked me: 'Where were you? For 10 years, no call, no postcard,' " says Sadeghi, adding that his life was broken by the MKO. "For that, he hates me."

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