Why the State Department Let a Terrorist Cult Gather on its Doorstep

by | Jun 26, 2019


Watching the Trump administration’s push for war with Iran, news consumers may find it hard to be surprised by the lengths the US government is willing to go to in order to instigate war — or regime change at the very least — against the Islamic Republic. US citizens have been treated to lengthy lectures by the mainstream media, which laments the loss of an unmanned drone and a targeted Japanese oil tanker whose owner disputes Washington’s version of events.

Yet, it isn’t the Trump administration that solidified the US’s relationship with its strangest bedfellow in the battle against the Iranian government. That distinction goes to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton declassified the Mojahedin-e Khalq (People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK) as a terrorist organization in 2012. The Guardian described the move as a result of a “multimillion-dollar campaign.”

The campaign to bury the MEK’s bloody history of bombings and assassinations that killed American businessmen, Iranian politicians and thousands of civilians, and to portray it as a loyal US ally against the Islamic government in Tehran, has seen large sums of money directed at three principal targets: members of Congress, Washington lobby groups and influential former officials.”

The outlet continued:

Three top Washington lobby firms — DLA Piper; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; and DiGenova & Toensing — have been paid a total of nearly $1.5 million over the past year to press the US administration and legislators to support the delisting of the MEK and protection for its members in camps in Iraq.

Two other lobby groups were hired for much smaller amounts. The firms employed former members of Congress to press their ex-colleagues on Capitol Hill to back the unbanning of the MEK.”

Today, years after the group was removed from Washington’s terror list, it enjoys even more access to the halls of power, despite its dismal levels of approval in Iran, the country it claims to represent.

“The MEK has incredible influence in the White House and on the Hill. I frequently see them lobbying members of Congress and attending hearings with matching yellow jackets that say ‘Iranians support regime change,’ Lily Tajaddini, Iran Coordinator at CodePink, told MintPress News.

The group claims to want democracy, but it is abundantly clear that their ideal leader for the future of Iran is Maryam Rajavi, the woman who leads their cult. The contradiction was laid bare last week at a protest held by the group in Washington with chants of “Democracy and freedom, with Maryam Rajavi.”

A recent investigation by The Intercept revealed that the White House used an article by one Heshmat Alavi to justify its illegal withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Nuclear Deal). The only problem is that Alavi “is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK. This is not and has never been a real person {emphasis added),” according to one former member of the cult, whose story was corroborated by other former members.

As LobeLog reported:

This new scandal…involves a wide political and media class that has become so besotted with an unrealistic anti-Iran agenda that it has left the door open to an unchecked, unverified flow of MEK propaganda throughout American politics and the media. Thanks to these regime-change advocates, a foreign group funded by a foreign government has easily manufactured a false narrative aimed at sending American soldiers to die in a war with Iran that is against US national interests.”

That foreign government is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Even the US government’s own Voice of America outlet reports:

Observers have long been puzzled about how the group [MEK] managed to shell out $25,000 speaker fees to the likes of [former Speaker of the House Newt] Gingrich, [former Governor of New Mexico and US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill] Richardson, [former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Howard] Dean, former New York Mayor [and President Trump’s lawyer] Rudy Giuliani and others, given its small basis of support within the Iranian diaspora. It’s entirely possible that the Saudis have funded the MEK for years.”

And there is a consensus that Saudi Arabia is financing the group across the axis, with Russia’s SputnikNews reporting:

A former MEK member who oversaw the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of materials explained how the group has stayed financially afloat.

Massoud Khodabandeh explained that three tons of solid gold, a minimum of four suitcases of customized Rolex watches, and fabric that had been used to cover the Muslim holy site of Kaaba in Mecca were among the commodities shipped from Saudi Arabia to MEK operatives in Baghdad as part of the scheme.”

As MintPress News previously reported:

Testimony from a former high-ranking official from the Iranian militant opposition group…has confirmed that the group had been covertly financed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Gulf Kingdom…contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in gold and other valuables.”

Several fronts and bigtime backers

The MEK operates through several fronts, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC), inter alia.

The former is a “little-known advocacy group determined to install itself as the new government of Iran,” which “continues to build a powerful influence network in Washington and beyond,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The latter is a US-based lobbying group.

NCRI has “been hosting opulent events at the National Press Club and elsewhere, publicizing itself through national and international media, and meeting with dozens of current and former government officials, all with the end goal of toppling the current Iranian government and rising to power in its place,” the watchdog reports. CRP adds:

“The [C]ouncil of [R]esistance either submitted or was quoted in 51 media pieces between December 2018 and May 2019, according to FARA [law requiring registration of foreign lobbyists] filings.”

Meanwhile, some of the biggest names in American politics openly back the group. The ultra-hawkish Sen. Tom Cotton, who has advocated for a pre-emptive strike on Iran, has spoken at their events. National Security Advisor John Bolton promised the group at its 2017 conference in Albania that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran.” Richardson, Gingrich and Guiliani also gave speeches there.

Among other prominent supporters of the group: former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ); retired General and former Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army Jack Keane; Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH); Sen. John Boozman (R-AR); Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC); Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO); Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA); Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA); and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, among many, many more.

Chaos at the State Department

On Friday, some 500 MEK members demonstrated in front of the State Department building in Washington, equipped with stages, two large-screen TVs, and three confetti cannons. In between speeches, demonstrators chanted “Change, change, change / Regime change in Iran!”

They also chanted their support for MEK leader Maryam Rajavi — who is banned from entering the United Kingdom, yet bills herself as a progressive reformer despite her group’s terrorist past. “Rajavi yes / Mullahs no / They are terrorists, they must go!” MEK members chanted.

According to organizers, the MEK members flew in from “40 different states.”

One speaker opened the rally by proclaiming:

In one voice, we declare that the only solution is for the Iranian people to overthrow this regime and create a democratic nation. Our rally is timely, our message is clear. Thousands of Iranians are here to say it loud: ‘We call on the United States to support the Iranian uprisings for regime change.’”

He went on to call for more sanctions and for the designation of Iranian intelligence agencies as terrorist groups. The speaker continued:

With this comes the recognition of an alternative to the Iranian regime. Misses Maryam Rajavi and the NCRI have demonstrated leadership, a significant network, and the organizational capabilities to free Iran. And we support Misses Rajavi and her 10-point plan for a free, democratic, and non-nuclear Iran.

Let’s make sure that we are heard and on social media with the following hashtags: #MarchForRegimeChangeByIranians, #IStandWithMaryamRajavi, and #FreeIran.”


Some people who spoke were not included on the list of speakers, including representatives McClintock and Sherman. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX) also had statements read to the MEK crowd. Later, former US Ambassador to Bahrain Adam Ereli also spoke.

A handful of counter demonstrators with the anti-war women’s group CodePink showed up to rally against the MEK group. Tajaddini had organized the protest but stayed at a distance, noting:

They target me because I am Iranian. They have yelled sexist slurs at me and make false claims that I am paid by the regime inside of Iran solely because I do not support sanctions or war against Iran.”

Days prior, CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin had confronted MEK members as they attempted to lobby Congress. On Friday, MEK had pictures on hand of Benjamin meeting with Iranian officials during her participation in peace delegations printed out in an effort to intimidate her. They surrounded her, pushed her, and called her a terrorist.

Immediately after the State Department security personnel escorted Benjamin from the mob, she told MintPress News:

This is an example of the mentality among these people. They have no respect for democracy.

If it weren’t for the police, they would be hitting us and assaulting like they have done many times. They are a cult and a former terrorist group. They have been legitimized with the support of John Bolton and other people in the administration. They’re hated inside Iran.”

One of the MEK members who was captured on video being pushed away by police for being too aggressive towards Benjamin, told MintPress News that Benjamin and the other members of CodePink “have got money from the Iranian agent to participate here.” The accusation of spying for or being on the payroll of Iran is included in most public testimony of those targeted by the group. The MEK member continued:

We want just change of the regime, nothing more, but they are supporting the Iranian terrorist regime.

I hope that the Iranian terrorist regime [is] overthrown and the people can choose anybody they want to. For example, if they elect Maryam Rajavi.”

Maryam Rajavi is the de-facto leader of the MEK since her husband mysteriously disappeared. Rajavi addressed the protest remotely, on two occasions reminding her supporters that the US is their ally and accusing the Iranian government of having it backwards. She congratulated MEK members for their growing support in Washington and shared her vision of opening up markets in Iran. Despite originally billing itself as a Marxist organization, MEK is now staunchly capitalist — perhaps a necessary condition for alliance with the US According to the group:

The council accepts national capitalism and the bazaar [marketplace], private ownership and enterprise, as well as private investment.”

But it isn’t only about the benjamins, CodePink’s Tajaddini argues:

Many members in Congress and the White House have strong ties to the Israeli and Saudi lobby groups [that] support sanctions and a war with Iran. They also support the MEK because they are then able to say that Iranians support the US-led regime change.”

The Congressional Cult Caucus

Gov. Richardson opened his speech with red meat for the MEK: “We need a new regime. That regime is you, the MEK.” Richardson concluded by leading a chant of “M-E-K!”

Richardson’s interest in the outcome of United States policy in the Middle East isn’t just confined to his support for the MEK, for which he is rewarded generously. He is also involved in a US oil project in the Syrian Golan Heights, which are illegally occupied by Israel, via a company called Genie Energy Ltd. Given the transnational nature of pipelines, Genie Energy stands to benefit from both regime change in Syria and Iran. Other figures on the company’s advisory board include former Vice President Dick Cheney, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, investment banker Jacob Rothschild and former CIA Director James Woosley.

Former Sen. Robert Torricelli, who helped lobby the Clinton state department to drop the MEK from its terrorist list, cheered Rajavi’s sacrifices for the movement.

Rep. Brad Sherman, Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, assured the crowd that the Iranian government “may be on its last leg.” He said that he was sure that Iran’s military was watching the protest remotely. “So Rouhani, this is the future of Iran. Watch it on your video streams,” he said.

Rep. Tom McClintock told the crowd that “the gang of thugs that have appointed themselves the rulers of Iran — their claim on power is illegitimate and the time to topple them is approaching.”

Jack Keane, a retired four-star general and former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army, said Iran is “choking” on US sanctions and condemned Iran for its alleged support of Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hezbollah in Syria. He told the MEK to “keep up your fight, keep up your resistance.”

Sharing a bit of what appears to be insider knowledge with the cultists, the general told them “the United States will lead a coalition of nations to keep the shipping lanes open in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. That will unfold in the days ahead.”

Following the rally, the MEK marched to the White House, again calling for regime change.

MEKing history

Virtually every investigation into the so-called “People’s Mujahedeen” — whether by think tanks, NGOs, or the media — concludes that their support inside of Iran is virtually non-existent. The group participated in the revolution against the Shah but was not invited to the table as a new government was being formed. And so they rebelled, engaging in a campaign of terror marked with assassination attempts against Iranian, US and Jordanian officials. They bombed many businesses. Three US military officials were killed; as were three contractors, and that was prior to the revolution. Afterwards, MEK attacks would see as many as 70 high-ranking officials from other political parties killed. Suicide attacks and assassinations continued.

Eventually, the MEK sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war and was responsible for scores of Iranian casualties. This is largely credited as the reason the group is so widely despised in Iran.


In 1989, Maryam and Masoud Rajavi made divorce compulsory to advance the so-called “ideological revolution.” In 1992, the group conducted “near-simultaneous” raids on Iranian embassies in 13 countries. By August 2002, the group started holding press conferences in Washington highlighting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The next year, it bombed a UN compound in Iraq, causing the international body to vacate the country.

The RAND Corporation, a US government-funded militarist think tank, was asked by a Marine Corps major-general to provide a “rigorous analysis” of the group. The 133-page report states:

The MeK naturally sought out Iranian dissidents, but it also approached Iranian economic migrants in such countries as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates with false promises of employment, land, aid in applying for asylum in Western countries, and even marriage, to attract them to Iraq. Relatives of members were given free trips to visit the MeK’s camps. Most of these ‘recruits’ were brought into Iraq illegally and then required to hand over their identity documents for ‘safekeeping.’ Thus, they were effectively trapped.

During the more than four decades since its founding, the MeK has become increasingly adept at crafting and promoting its image as a democratic organization that seeks to bring down Iranian tyrants, both secular and religious. This profile has been especially effective in the United States and Europe, where, until recently, the MeK’s extensive fundraising activities have been very successful.”

In the internet era, the cult has managed to keep up with the times. A Channel 4 report found one defector whose job it was to run pro-MEK sockpuppet accounts pretending to be Iranian.

In a possible testament to the group’s effectiveness at manipulating narratives, one media outlet has released what it says is leaked audio of the head of MEK’s cyber unit speaking to a US-based supporter. “We did our best to blame the [Iranian] regime for the [oil tanker] blasts. The Saudis have called Sister Maryam [Rajavi’s] office to follow up on the results,” the MEK official tells him.

One leading NGO — Human Rights Watch — did even more digging into the cultish behavior of the group. It interviewed a number of former members, uncovering one case in which a man was “held in solitary confinement for eight-and-a-half years” for wanting to leave. Two people were killed in interrogations.

The level of devotion expected of members was [on] stark display in 2003 when the French police arrested Maryam Rajavi in Paris. In protest, ten MKO members and sympathizers set themselves on fire in various European cities; two of them subsequently died.”

The rights group also reported “mass divorces” as a result of leadership’s “ideological revolution.” MEK told members it would enhance their “capacity for struggle.” Celibacy is likewise mandatory.

Human rights abuses carried out by [MEK] leaders against dissident members ranged from prolonged incommunicado and solitary confinement to beatings, verbal and psychological abuse, coerced confessions, threats of execution, and torture.”

Today, the MEK is constructing a massive compound in Tirana, Albania. A former head of Albanian military intelligence told Channel 4 he thought they were trying to build “a state within a state.”

An aerial shot of the sprawling MEK compound in Tirana, Albania.

The outlet reported that Albania agreed to allow the camp to be set up in order to earn itself additional support from the United States. The report contains the story of one couple from Canada who say their daughter was kidnapped 20 years ago by the group and who traveled to Albania to find her. The MEK social-media troll said there was “forced public confession about any thoughts about sex,” every night. Another said he was tortured for 45 days. The journalist behind the report was repeatedly harassed by MEK and its Albanian private security on camera.

A separate report, in LobeLog, states:

“One journalist confessed to me he felt afraid in his own country when the MEK, accompanied by hired armed Albanian security personnel, followed him. In a public space, they photographed him and made verbal threats, demanding that he hand over his phone on which he had earlier filmed activity outside the MEK camp gate.”

These horrifying anecdotes are apparently of little concern to former Sen. Torricelli, who lobbied to have the group removed from the US terrorist list. “To those of you in Tirana, thank you for being who you are: the point of the spear in the effort for Iranian freedom,” he told the MEK crowd in D.C. on Friday.

Media downplay the MEK

It appears that the horror stories from MEK compounds from Europe to the Middle East are also of little concern to the D.C. press corps. Multiple journalists tweeted about the events in manners clearly designed to manufacture a pro-war consensus. Reuters’ White House reporter Steve Holland and Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC, offered no context on the group, thereby presenting the pro-regime change cultists as ordinary, concerned, Iranian-Americans.

NBC News White House Correspondent Kelly O’Donnell called the group “pro-democracy protesters seeking Iran regime change.” She eventually deleted the tweet without offering an explanation.

But despite the correspondent’s likely realization of the complete failure in her characterization, the report from NBC News that aired on its local affiliate made no mention of the MEK, yet somehow managed to regurgitate MEK’s inflated claim that it had “thousands” of protesters who attended, when it was clearly far less. The report even concluded with an unsourced claim:

I am told this march and rally was seen in Iran because of live coverage streamed over the internet. Reporting from the White House, Chris Gordon, News 4.”

The report was also tilted “US-Iran Tensions Trigger Protests in DC.” The headline gives the impression that the MEK was protesting in response to recent escalations, when its protest had in fact been long planned to mark the anniversary of a major protest held by the group in Tehran decades ago.

But when CodePink decided to have its own rally out in front of the White House — a feat organized in just three days — calling for an end to sanctions on Sunday, the media virtually ignored it save for a handful of independent reporters.

The MEK’s influence operation in the United States is monied and arguably successful. The cult has the backing of a number of Trump administration officials and allies, current and former members of Congress, and the establishment media. As they say, politics makes strange bedfellows. When it comes to the overthrow of a sovereign foreign government, it seems they are made even with those who are not allowed to keep bedfellows.

Reprinted with permission from MintPressNews.


  • Alexander Rubinstein

    Alex Rubinstein is an independent journalist who has shared live coverage of social movements in the United States including Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, Charlottesville, the inauguration protests against Pres. Trump, and from inside the besieged Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC. He currently lives in Mexico City.

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