The wild, wild story of Iran’s ex­iled dis­si­dents

They fought for the Ira­nian revo­lu­tion – and then for Sad­dam Hus­sein. The US and UK once con­demned them. But now their op­po­si­tion to Tehran has made them favourites of Trump White House hard­lin­ers.

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - By Ar­ron Merat

Mostafa and Rob­abe Mo­ham­madi came to Al­ba­nia to res­cue their daugh­ter. But in Ti­rana, the cap­i­tal, the mid­dleaged cou­ple have been fol­lowed by two Al­ba­nian in­tel­li­gence agents. Men in sun­glasses trailed them from their ho­tel on Ge­orge W Bush Road to their lawyer’s of­fice; from the lawyer’s of­fice to the min­istry of in­ter­nal af­fairs; and from the min­istry back to the ho­tel.

The Mo­ham­madis say their daugh­ter, So­mayeh, is be­ing held against her will by a fringe Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion­ary group that has been ex­iled to Al­ba­nia, known as the Peo­ple’s Mu­ja­hedin of Iran, or MEK (Mu­ja­hedin-e Khalq). Widely re­garded as a cult, the MEK was once des­ig­nated as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion by the US and UK, but its op­po­si­tion to the Ira­nian govern­ment has now earned it the sup­port of pow­er­ful hawks in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton and the sec­re­tary of state, Mike Pom­peo.

So­mayeh Mo­ham­madi is one of about 2,300 mem­bers of the MEK liv­ing in­side a heav­ily for­ti­fied base that has been built on 34 hectares of farm­land in north-west Al­ba­nia. Her par­ents have spent the past two decades try­ing to get their daugh­ter out of the

MEK, trav­el­ling from their home in Canada to Paris, Jor­dan, Iraq and now Al­ba­nia. “We are not against any group or any coun­try,” Mostafa said, sit­ting out­side a meat­ball restau­rant in cen­tral Ti­rana. “We just want to see our daugh­ter out­side the camp and with­out her com­man­ders.” The MEK in­sists So­mayeh does not wish to leave the camp, and has re­leased a let­ter in which she ac­cuses her fa­ther of work­ing for Ira­nian in­tel­li­gence.

“So­mayeh is a shy girl,” her mother said. “They threaten peo­ple like her. She wants to leave but she is scared that they will kill her.”

Since its ex­ile from Iran in the early 1980s, the MEK has been com­mit­ted to the over­throw of the Is­lamic repub­lic. But it be­gan in the 1960s as an Is­lamist-Marx­ist stu­dent mili­tia, which played a de­ci­sive role in help­ing to top­ple the Shah dur­ing the 1979 Ira­nian revo­lu­tion.

Anti-cap­i­tal­ist, anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist and anti-Amer­i­can, MEK fight­ers killed scores of the Shah’s po­lice in of­ten sui­ci­dal street bat­tles dur­ing the 1970s. The group tar­geted US-owned ho­tels, air­lines and oil com­pa­nies, and was re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of six Amer­i­cans in Iran. “Death to Amer­ica by blood and bon­fire on the lips of ev­ery Mus­lim is the cry of the Ira­nian peo­ple,” went one of its most fa­mous songs.

Such at­tacks helped pave the way for the re­turn of the ex­iled Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, who quickly iden­ti­fied the MEK as a se­ri­ous threat to his plan to turn Iran into an Is­lamic repub­lic un­der the con­trol of the clergy. Fol­low­ing the revo­lu­tion, Khome­ini used the se­cu­rity ser­vices, the courts and the me­dia to choke off the MEK’s po­lit­i­cal sup­port and then crush it en­tirely. Khome­ini or­dered a crack­down on MEK mem­bers and sym­pa­this­ers. The sur­vivors fled the coun­try.

Sad­dam Hus­sein, who was fight­ing a bloody war against Iran with the back­ing of the UK and the US, saw an op­por­tu­nity to de­ploy the ex­iled MEK fight­ers against the Is­lamic repub­lic. In 1986, he of­fered the group weapons, cash and a vast mil­i­tary base named Camp Ashraf, only 50 miles from the bor­der with Iran.

For al­most two decades, un­der their em­bit­tered leader Mas­soud Ra­javi, the MEK staged at­tacks against civil­ian and mil­i­tary tar­gets across the bor­der in

Iran and helped Sad­dam sup­press his own do­mes­tic en­e­mies. But af­ter sid­ing with Sad­dam – who in­dis­crim­i­nately bombed Ira­nian cities and rou­tinely used chem­i­cal weapons in a

Iso­lated in­side its Iraqi base, un­der Ra­javi’s grip, the MEK be­came cult-like

war that cost a mil­lion lives – the MEK lost nearly all the sup­port it had re­tained in­side Iran. Mem­bers were now widely re­garded as traitors.

Iso­lated in­side its Iraqi base, un­der Ra­javi’s tight­en­ing grip, the MEK be­came cult-like. A re­port com­mis­sioned by the US govern­ment, based on in­ter­views within Camp Ashraf, later con­cluded that the MEK had “many of the typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics of a cult, such as au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol, con­fis­ca­tion of as­sets, sex­ual con­trol (in­clud­ing manda­tory di­vorce and celibacy), emo­tional iso­la­tion, forced labour, sleep depri­va­tion, phys­i­cal abuse and lim­ited exit op­tions”.

Af­ter the US in­va­sion of Iraq, the MEK launched a lav­ish lob­by­ing cam­paign to re­verse its des­ig­na­tion as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion – de­spite re­ports im­pli­cat­ing the group in as­sas­si­na­tions of Ira­nian nu­clear sci­en­tists as re­cently as 2012. Ra­javi has not been seen since 2003 – most an­a­lysts as­sume he is dead – but un­der the lead­er­ship of his wife, Maryam Ra­javi, the MEK has won con­sid­er­able sup­port from sec­tions of the US and Euro­pean right, ea­ger for al­lies in the fight against Tehran.

In 2009, the UK delisted the MEK as a ter­ror group. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­moved the group from the US ter­ror list in 2012, and later helped ne­go­ti­ate its re­lo­ca­tion to Al­ba­nia.

At the an­nual “Free Iran” con­fer­ence that the group stages in Paris each sum­mer, dozens of elected US and UK rep­re­sen­ta­tives – along with re­tired politi­cians and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials – openly call for the over­throw of the Is­lamic repub­lic and the in­stal­la­tion of Maryam Ra­javi as the leader of Iran. At last year’s Paris rally, the Con­ser­va­tive MP David Amess an­nounced that “regime change … is at long last within our grasp”. At the same event, Bolton – who cham­pi­oned war with Iran long be­fore he joined the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion – an­nounced that he ex­pected the MEK to be in power in Tehran be­fore 2019.

The main at­trac­tion at this year’s Paris con­fer­ence was an­other long­time MEK sup­porter, for­mer New York mayor Rudy Gi­u­liani, now Don­ald Trump’s lawyer. “The mul­lahs must go. The ay­a­tol­lah must go,” he told the crowd. “And they must be re­placed by a demo­cratic govern­ment which Madam Ra­javi rep­re­sents.”

Mean­while, back in Al­ba­nia, the MEK is strug­gling to hold on to its own mem­bers, who have be­gun to de­fect. The group is also fac­ing in­creased scru­tiny from lo­cal me­dia and op­po­si­tion par­ties, who ques­tion the terms of the deal that brought the MEK fight­ers to Ti­rana.

It would be hard to find a se­ri­ous ob­server who be­lieves the MEK has the ca­pac­ity or sup­port within Iran to over­throw the Is­lamic repub­lic. But the US and UK politi­cians loudly sup­port­ing a tiny rev­o­lu­tion­ary group stranded in Al­ba­nia are play­ing a sim­pler game: back­ing the MEK is the eas­i­est way to ir­ri­tate Tehran. And the MEK, in turn, is only one small part of a wider Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion strat­egy for the Mid­dle East, which aims to iso­late and eco­nom­i­cally stran­gle Iran.

Be­fore the MEK could be­come a dar­ling of the Amer­i­can and Euro­pean right, it had to rein­vent it­self. Democ­racy, hu­man rights and sec­u­lar­ism would be­come the group’s new mantra – as its leader, Maryam Ra­javi, re­nounced vi­o­lence and suc­cess­fully repo­si­tioned an anti-western sect as a pro-Amer­i­can demo­cratic govern­ment-in-wait­ing.

The long march to re­spectabil­ity be­gan with the US in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003. The US had des­ig­nated the

MEK as a ter­ror­ist group in the late 1990s, as a good­will ges­ture to­ward a new re­formist govern­ment in Tehran. When Ge­orge W Bush ac­cused Sad­dam Hus­sein of “har­bour­ing ter­ror­ists” in a 2002 speech that made the case for in­vad­ing Iraq, he was re­fer­ring to the MEK.

But in the early days of the US oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq, a row erupted in­side the White House over what to do with the 5,000 MEK fight­ers in­side their base at Camp Ashraf.

Con­doleezza Rice, the US sec­re­tary of state, ar­gued that the MEK was on the list of ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions and should be treated as such. But Iran hawks, in­clud­ing then sec­re­tary of de­fence, Don­ald Rums­feld, and vicepres­i­dent Dick Cheney, ar­gued that the MEK should be used as a weapon against the Is­lamic repub­lic.

Rums­feld’s fac­tion won out. Al­though the group was still listed as a ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Pen­tagon uni­lat­er­ally des­ig­nated MEK fight­ers in­side Camp Ashraf as “pro­tected per­sons” un­der the Geneva con­ven­tions – of­fi­cially dis­armed, but with their se­cu­rity ef­fec­tively guar­an­teed by US forces in Iraq. The US was pro­tect­ing a group it also des­ig­nated as ter­ror­ists.

As the US oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq col­lapsed into a night­mar­ish civil war, the Amer­i­can right in­creas­ingly blamed Iran for the coun­try’s dis­in­te­gra­tion. Se­nior politi­cians openly called for bomb­ing the Is­lamic repub­lic, amid grow­ing panic over Iran’s nu­clear pro­gramme. By 2007, US news out­lets were re­port­ing that Bush had signed a clas­si­fied di­rec­tive au­tho­ris­ing “covert ac­tion” in­side Iran.

Be­tween 2007 and 2012, seven Ira­nian nu­clear sci­en­tists were at­tacked with poi­son or mag­netic bombs af­fixed to cars by pass­ing mo­tor­cy­clists; five were killed. In 2012, NBC news, cit­ing two un­named US of­fi­cials, re­ported that the at­tacks were planned by Is­rael’s for­eign in­tel­li­gence agency and ex­e­cuted by MEK agents in­side Iran. An MEK spokesper­son called this a “false claim … whose main source is the mul­lahs’ regime”.

It was around this time that the MEK be­gan work­ing to re­make its im­age in the west. Groups as­so­ci­ated with the MEK do­nated to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, blan­keted Wash­ing­ton with ad­ver­tise­ments and paid western po­lit­i­cal in­flu­encers fees to pen op-eds and give speeches – and to lobby for its re­moval from the list of des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions.

A stu­pen­dously long list of Amer­i­can politi­cians from both par­ties were paid hefty fees to speak at events in favour of the MEK, in­clud­ing Gi­u­liani, John McCain, Newt Gin­grich and for­mer Demo­cratic party chairs Ed­ward Ren­dell and Howard Dean – along with mul­ti­ple for­mer heads of the FBI and CIA. John Bolton, who has made mul­ti­ple ap­pear­ances at events sup­port­ing the MEK, is es­ti­mated to have re­ceived up­wards of $180,000.

A hand­ful of UK politi­cians have at­tended two or more of the MEK’s Paris events in the past three years, in­clud­ing the Con­ser­va­tives Bob Black­man and Matthew Of­ford, and the Labour MPs Roger God­siff and Toby Perkins. The Con­ser­va­tive MP and for­mer min­is­ter Theresa Vil­liers has at­tended the past two an­nual Paris events. So has David Amess, the Con­ser­va­tive MP for Southend West – the MEK’s loud­est cham­pion in the UK par­lia­ment, who has also trav­elled to the US to speak at a rally in sup­port of the group. (All of the MPs de­clined to re­ply to ques­tions about their at­ten­dance.)

At this year’s event, flanked by union jacks and “#RegimeChange” signs, Vil­liers spoke of the im­por­tance of women’s rights, “paid trib­ute” to Maryam Ra­javi

– who is barred from en­ter­ing the UK – and pledged sup­port for her “just cause” in seek­ing to cre­ate “an Iran which is free from the bru­tal re­pres­sion of the mul­lahs”.

One day af­ter the con­fer­ence, the MEK ac­cused

Tehran of plot­ting a bomb at­tack against the event, fol­low­ing the ar­rest of four sus­pects – in­clud­ing an un­named Ira­nian diplo­mat – in Bel­gium, Ger­many and France. Iran’s for­eign min­is­ter, Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, re­jected claims of Iran’s in­volve­ment and de­scribed the ac­cu­sa­tions as a “sin­is­ter false flag ploy”.

Even as the MEK amassed po­lit­i­cal al­lies in the west, its se­cu­rity in Iraq eroded as US troops de­parted. Be­tween 2009 and 2013, Iraqi se­cu­rity forces raided the MEK base at least twice, killing about 100 peo­ple.

Daniel Ben­jamin, who was then the head of coun­tert­er­ror­ism at the state depart­ment, told me that the US de­cided to re­move the MEK from the list of for­eign ter­ror­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions not be­cause it be­lieved it had aban­doned vi­o­lence, but to “avoid them all get­ting killed” if it re­mained in Iraq.

The group bought up land in Al­ba­nia and built a new base. But the move from Iraq to the rel­a­tive safety of Al­ba­nia has pre­cip­i­tated a wave of de­fec­tions. Those with means have fled the coun­try to the EU and the US, but around 120 re­cent MEK es­capees re­main in Ti­rana with no right to work or em­i­grate. I spoke to about a dozen de­fec­tors, half of whom are still in Al­ba­nia, who said that MEK com­man­ders sys­tem­at­i­cally abused mem­bers to si­lence dis­sent and pre­vent de­fec­tions – us­ing tor­ture, soli­tary con­fine­ment, the con­fis­ca­tion of as­sets and the seg­re­ga­tion of fam­i­lies to main­tain con­trol over mem­bers. In re­sponse to th­ese al­le­ga­tions, an MEK spokesper­son said: “The in­di­vid­u­als who are de­scribed as ‘for­mer mem­bers’ were be­ing used as part of a de­mon­i­sa­tion cam­paign against the MEK.”

The tes­ti­mony of th­ese re­cent de­fec­tors fol­lows ear­lier re­ports from groups such as Hu­man Rights Watch, which re­ported for­mer mem­bers wit­nessed “beat­ings, ver­bal and psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse, co­erced con­fes­sions, threats of ex­e­cu­tion and tor­ture that in two cases led to death”.

The MEK grew out of Iran’s Lib­er­a­tion Move­ment, an Is­lamic-demo­cratic “loyal op­po­si­tion” es­tab­lished in 1961 by the sup­port­ers of Mo­ham­mad Mos­sadegh, the prime min­is­ter ousted in a 1953 coup or­ches­trated by Bri­tain and the US. At the time, the MEK, whose mem­bers were largely ide­al­is­tic mid­dle-class stu­dents, com­bined Is­lamism with Marx­ist doc­trine. They rein­ter­preted the Qur’anic pas­sages that un­der­girded their Shia faith as in­junc­tions to so­cialise the means of pro­duc­tion, elim­i­nate the class sys­tem and pro­mote the strug­gles of Iran’s eth­nic mi­nori­ties.

The MEK played an im­por­tant role in the 1979 revo­lu­tion, seiz­ing the im­pe­rial palace and do­ing much of the fight­ing to neu­tralise the po­lice and the army. Two days af­ter the revo­lu­tion, Mas­soud Ra­javi, who was 30, met the 77-year-old supreme leader. The two did not hit it off. “I met Khome­ini,” Ra­javi told a jour­nal­ist in 1981. “He held out his hand for me to kiss, and I re­fused. Since then, we’ve been en­e­mies.”

Khome­ini saw the MEK as a threat to his power, bar­ring Ra­javi from run­ning for pres­i­dent and cast­ing his or­gan­i­sa­tion as an enemy of Is­lam. Khome­ini rounded up thou­sands of MEK sup­port­ers – while his loy­al­ists launched waves of mob vi­o­lence against MEK mem­bers and sym­pa­this­ers. By the mid-1980s, thou­sands of peo­ple la­belled as MEK had been ex­e­cuted or killed in street bat­tles by the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran.

This was the time when Ra­javi ac­cepted Sad­dam’s of­fer to fight Iran from the safety of Iraq. Over the next few years, Ra­javi launched an “ide­o­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion”, ban­ning mar­riage and en­forc­ing “eter­nal” di­vorce on all mem­bers, who were re­quired to sep­a­rate from their hus­bands or wives. He mar­ried one of the new di­vorcees, Maryam Azo­danlu, who be­came, in ef­fect, his chief lieu­tenant and took his name.

For Sad­dam, the MEK was a use­ful, but dis­pos­able, tool in his war against Iran. In July 1988, six days af­ter the cease­fire that of­fi­cially ended the Iran-Iraq war, the MEK launched a sui­ci­dal mis­sion deep into Ira­nian ter­ri­tory, dubbed Oper­a­tion Eter­nal Light. Once again, Ra­javi pre­dicted his ac­tions would spark an­other revo­lu­tion. “It will be like an avalanche,” Ra­javi told the fight­ers he was about to send to their deaths. “You don’t need to take any­thing with you. We will be like fish swim­ming in a sea of peo­ple. They will give you what­ever you need.”

The mis­sion would end in a mas­sacre: hap­less MEK fight­ers were lured into an am­bush by the Ira­nian army, which crushed them with min­i­mal ef­fort. Khome­ini then used the failed in­va­sion as a pre­text for the mass ex­e­cu­tion of thou­sands of MEK and other left­ists in Ira­nian jails. Amnesty es­ti­mates that more than 4,500 peo­ple were put to death, and some sources say the num­bers were even higher.

Eter­nal Light marked a ma­jor turn­ing point for the MEK. In­side the barbed wire of Camp Ashraf, as the re­al­ity of in­def­i­nite ex­ile sank in, a trau­ma­tised and grief-stricken mem­ber­ship turned against it­self un­der the para­noid lead­er­ship of Ra­javi.

Out­side Camp Ashraf, the MEK con­tin­ued to stage cross-bor­der at­tacks against Iran, and helped Sad­dam to crush up­ris­ings against his rule af­ter his de­feat by the US in the 1990 Gulf war. In March 1991, Sad­dam de­ployed the MEK to help quell the armed Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence move­ment in the north. Ac­cord­ing to the New York

Times, Maryam Ra­javi told her fight­ers: “Take the Kurds un­der your tanks, and save your bul­lets for the Ira­nian rev­o­lu­tion­ary guards.” The MEK ve­he­mently de­nies it par­tic­i­pated in Sad­dam’s cam­paigns to put down the Shia and Kur­dish re­bel­lions, but an Iraqi hu­man rights tri­bunal has in­dicted MEK lead­ers for their role in sup­press­ing the up­ris­ings.

In 1992, the group launched con­cur­rent at­tacks on Ira­nian diplo­matic mis­sions in 10 coun­tries, in­clud­ing Iran’s per­ma­nent mis­sion to the UN in New York, which was in­vaded by five men with knives. The MEK also set­tled more per­sonal scores. In 1998, an as­sas­sin killed Asadol­lah La­je­vardi, the for­mer war­den of Evin prison who had per­son­ally over­seen the ex­e­cu­tions of thou­sands of MEK mem­bers.

Back at Camp Ashraf, com­man­ders would tell wa­ver­ing mem­bers that if they es­caped, they would face cer­tain death at the hands of ei­ther Sad­dam or the Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties. Ra­javi told his fol­low­ers that the fail­ure of Eter­nal Light was not a mil­i­tary blun­der, but was in­stead rooted in the mem­bers’ thoughts for their spouses; their love had sapped their will to fight. In 1990, all cou­ples in­side the camp were or­dered to di­vorce – and women had their wed­ding rings re­placed by pen­dants en­graved with Mas­soud’s face. Spouses were sep­a­rated, and their chil­dren were sent to be “adopted” by MEK sup­port­ers in Europe.

MEK com­man­ders de­manded that all mem­bers pub­licly re­veal any er­rant sex­ual thoughts. Manouchelur Abdi, a 55-year-old who also left the MEK in Al­ba­nia, told me that the con­fes­sion ses­sions used to take place ev­ery morn­ing. Even feel­ings of love and friend­ship were out­lawed, he says. “I would have to con­fess that I missed my daugh­ter,” he says. “They would shout at me. They would hu­mil­i­ate me.”

An­other re­cent de­fec­tor, Ali (not his real name) showed me scars on his arms and legs from what he de­scribed as weeks of tor­ture af­ter he first joined the group in the early 1990s.

Ba­toul Soltani joined the MEK in 1986 with her hus­band and in­fant daugh­ter. At first, her fam­ily was able to live to­gether, but in 1990, she says she was forced to di­vorce and give up her five-year-old daugh­ter and new­born son, who were sent abroad to be raised by

MEK sym­pa­this­ers. Soltani al­leges that she was forced to have sex with Mas­soud Ra­javi on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions, be­gin­ning in 1999. She says that the last as­sault was in 2006, the year that she es­caped from Camp Ashraf and a time when Ra­javi had not been seen in pub­lic for three years. When we spoke re­cently, Soltani ac­cused Maryam Ra­javi of help­ing Mas­soud to abuse fe­male MEK mem­bers over the years. “[Mas­soud] Ra­javi thought that the only achilles heel [for fe­male fight­ers] was the op­po­site sex,” Soltani told me. “He would say that the only rea­son you women would leave me is a man. So, I want all of your hearts.”

Soltani, who was one of three women to speak about sex­ual abuse in­side the MEK in a 2014 doc­u­men­tary aired on Ira­nian tele­vi­sion, al­leged that Ra­javi had hun­dreds of “wives” in­side the camp.

An­other for­mer fe­male mem­ber, Zahra Moini, who served as a body­guard for Maryam Ra­javi, told me that women were threat­ened with pun­ish­ment if they did not di­vorce their hus­bands and “marry” Mas­soud. “Maryam was in­volved in this sex­ual abuse, she used to read the vows to al­low for the mar­riage to be con­sum­mated,” Moini said, in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Ger­many.

“Those who didn’t ac­cept to marry would be dis­ap­peared. I was told that if I didn’t di­vorce [my hus­band], I would end up in Ra­madi prison and I would have to sleep with the Iraqi gen­er­als ev­ery night.” (In re­sponse to ques­tions about th­ese al­le­ga­tions, an MEK spokesper­son said: “The mul­lahs’ pro­pa­ganda ma­chine has been churn­ing out sex­ual li­bels against the re­sis­tance and its leader for the past 40 years.”)

Two other fe­male de­fec­tors, Zahra Bagheri and Fereshteh He­day­ati, have al­leged that they were given hys­terec­tomies with­out their con­sent in the

Camp Ashraf hospi­tal, un­der the pre­text they were be­ing op­er­ated on for mi­nor ail­ments. In the ec­cen­tric ide­o­log­i­cal lan­guage of the group, the women say the pro­ce­dure was ret­ro­spec­tively jus­ti­fied to vic­tims as rep­re­sent­ing “the peak” of loy­alty to their leader.

He­day­ati, who sur­vived Oper­a­tion Eter­nal Light, joined the MEK as a 22-year-old in 1981 with her hus­band, who is still in­side the group. “They said I had a cyst,” she told me. “But they also took out my womb. They told me that it meant that I had an even stronger con­nec­tion to our ide­o­log­i­cal leader.” He­day­ati, who left the group in Iraq and now lives in Nor­way, says she was never sex­u­ally abused, but was “brain­washed” by the group into di­vorc­ing her hus­band, and al­leges that more than 100 other women were ster­ilised by MEK doc­tors.

Al­ba­nia os­ten­si­bly ac­cepted the MEK mem­bers for hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons – but the coun­try’s lead­ers may have seen an op­por­tu­nity to curry favour with the US govern­ment, which had seen its of­fers re­jected by var­i­ous other Euro­pean states. “They were the only ones who would take them,” the for­mer state depart­ment of­fi­cial Daniel Ben­jamin has said.

For the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, the MEK is a valu­able as­set in the re­gional con­flict be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran. This sum­mer, Trump pulled out of the Iran nu­clear agree­ment and an­nounced new sanc­tions, trig­ger­ing a cur­rency col­lapse and four months of spo­radic protests across Iran. The US has reim­posed sanc­tions this week, tar­get­ing Ira­nian oil ex­ports and bank­ing. But Trump’s Mid­dle East strat­egy has come un­der new scru­tiny af­ter the mur­der of the jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Is­tan­bul – which has sparked a back­lash against the crown prince, Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, and his al­lies in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

For most of its life in ex­ile, the MEK was funded by Sad­dam. Af­ter his down­fall, the group says it raised money from Ira­nian di­as­pora or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­ual donors. The MEK has al­ways de­nied it is fi­nanced by Saudi Ara­bia – but the for­mer Saudi in­tel­li­gence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, made waves when he at­tended the group’s 2016 rally in Paris and called for the fall of the Ira­nian regime.

“The money def­i­nitely comes from Saudis,” says Er­vand Abra­hamian, a pro­fes­sor at the City Uni­ver­sity of New York and au­thor of the de­fin­i­tive aca­demic work on the group’s his­tory, The Ira­nian Mo­ja­hedin. “There is no one else who could be sub­si­dis­ing them with this level of fi­nance.”

An­a­lysts agree that the MEK lacks the ca­pac­ity or sup­port to over­throw the Ira­nian govern­ment – as even Bolton and Pom­peo would surely con­cede. “They are prob­a­bly smart enough to know that this group is not demo­cratic and any­way has no con­stituency in­side

Iran,” said Paul Pil­lar, who served in the CIA for 28 years, in­clud­ing a pe­riod as the agency’s se­nior coun­tert­er­ror­ism an­a­lyst. Trump and his Iran hawks, Pil­lar said, are not con­cerned with re­plac­ing the cur­rent regime so much as caus­ing it to crum­ble. “They are pur­su­ing any­thing that would dis­rupt the po­lit­i­cal or­der in Iran so they and the pres­i­dent can cite such an out­come as a sup­posed vic­tory no mat­ter what comes af­ter­wards.”

Ac­cord­ing to one re­cent MEK de­fec­tor, Has­san Heyrani, the group’s main work in Al­ba­nia in­volves fight­ing on­line in an es­ca­lat­ing in­for­ma­tion war be­tween Iran and its ri­vals. Heyrani, who left the MEK last sum­mer, says that he worked in a “troll farm” of 1,000 peo­ple in­side the Al­ba­nian camp, post­ing proRa­javi and anti-Iran pro­pa­ganda in English, Farsi and Ara­bic on Face­book, Twit­ter, Tele­gram and news­pa­per com­ment sec­tions. An MEK spokesper­son called th­ese al­le­ga­tions “an­other lie” made up to sup­port the Ira­nian for­eign min­istry.

Ac­cord­ing to Marc Owen Jones, an aca­demic who stud­ies po­lit­i­cal bots on so­cial me­dia, “thou­sands” of sus­pi­cious Twit­ter ac­counts emerged in early

2016 with “Iran” as their lo­ca­tion and “hu­man rights” in their de­scrip­tion or ac­count name, which posted in sup­port of Trump and the MEK. Th­ese ac­counts, says Jones, were cre­ated in batches and would pro­mote Trump’s anti-Iran rhetoric us­ing the hash­tags #IranRegimeChange, #FreeIran and #Is­tand­with­MaryamRa­javi.

Al­ba­nian jour­nal­ists say that the MEK, which has close con­tacts with se­nior politi­cians and the se­cu­rity ser­vices, op­er­ates with im­punity within Al­ba­nia.

Ylli Zyla, who served as head of Al­ba­nian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence from 2008 to 2012, ac­cused the MEK of vi­o­lat­ing Al­ba­nian law. “Mem­bers of this or­gan­i­sa­tion live in Al­ba­nia as hostages,” he told me. Its camp, he said, was be­yond the ju­ris­dic­tion of Al­ba­nian po­lice and “ex­tra­or­di­nary psy­cho­log­i­cal vi­o­lence and threats of mur­der” took place in­side.

For­mer mem­bers ac­cuse the MEK of re­spon­si­bil­ity for the death in June of Malek Shara’i, a se­nior com­man­der who was found drowned by po­lice divers at bot­tom of a reser­voir be­hind the group’s Al­ba­nian base. Shara’i’s sis­ter, Zahra Shara’i, said that his fam­ily had re­ceived news from for­mer mem­bers that Malek was about to es­cape, and says the MEK was re­spon­si­ble for his death. “I am their enemy and I will not rest un­til I get my re­venge,” she told the Guardian from Iran. The MEK said that Shara’i drowned while at­tempt­ing to save an­other mem­ber from drown­ing. The Al­ba­nian po­lice said the death was not sus­pi­cious.

While de­fec­tors with pri­vate means have been smug­gled out of the coun­try into the EU, many for­mer mem­bers live hand-to-mouth in Ti­rana. The Al­ba­nian state has not granted refugee rights to the MEK or its de­fec­tors, and a UN monthly stipend of 30,000 lek

(£215) lapsed on 1 Septem­ber.

Mi­gena Balla, the lawyer rep­re­sent­ing Mostafa and Rob­abe Mo­ham­madi, the cou­ple in Ti­rana fight­ing for the re­lease of their daugh­ter So­mayeh, be­lieves that pres­sure has been put to bear on both the po­lice and the ju­di­ciary to en­sure the MEK does not “cre­ate po­lit­i­cal prob­lems”. “Pol­i­tics is in­ter­fer­ing in the ju­di­cial sys­tem,” she says. “When I went to the po­lice sta­tion to regis­ter their com­plaint the po­lice of­fi­cers ac­tu­ally ran away. They are scared of los­ing their jobs.”

The MEK has not taken kindly to the pres­ence of the Mo­ham­madis in Al­ba­nia. They ac­cuse Mostafa – and any for­mer mem­ber who has spo­ken out against the MEK

– of be­ing a paid agent of the “mul­lah regime”. On 27 July, Mostafa was hos­pi­talised fol­low­ing an as­sault by four se­nior mem­bers of the MEK, which was cap­tured on video by his wife. The at­tack­ers, who shouted “Ter­ror­ist!” at Mo­ham­madi, were briefly de­tained by Al­ba­nian po­lice. But, af­ter a pha­lanx of MEK mem­bers ar­rived at the po­lice sta­tion, the men were re­leased.

The MEK has pub­lished let­ters, pur­port­edly writ­ten by So­mayeh, ac­cus­ing her fa­ther of be­ing an Ira­nian in­tel­li­gence agent. A ner­vous-look­ing So­mayeh re­cently gave a video in­ter­view in­side the MEK base say­ing that she wishes to re­main a mem­ber of the group.

The Mo­ham­madis have re­sponded with open let­ters to their daugh­ter and to Al­ba­nian politi­cians, call­ing for an un­su­per­vised meet­ing with their daugh­ter. “I am your mother Mah­boubeh Rob­abe Hamza and I want to meet with you,” Rob­abe wrote to So­mayeh. “I am the woman who fed you at my breast, I held you in the crook of my arm. You are my flesh and blood … I love you more than my life … I’m get­ting old, I am get­ting tired, but life is not worth liv­ing with­out see­ing you.” •

For the Trump White House, the MEK is a valu­able as­set in re­gional con­flict


Newt Gin­grich and Maryam Ra­javi in France, 2018


Maryam Ra­javi in Ti­rana, 2017


Mas­soud and Maryam Ra­javi in 1985

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