Is France moving against the MEK?

On October 30, a volley of tweets attributed to Alexis Kohler, chief of staff of the French President Emmanuel Macron, announced that France, taking into account the “negative consequences” of the presence of the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) on the French soil, will restrict its activities in the country. On November 5, however, the Élysée Palace disowned the tweets as fake, and the Twitter handle supposedly belonging to Kohler was suspended.

The incident raises a number of questions: Who was behind these tweets? What did they seek to achieve? Why did it take almost one week to take Kohler’s fake profile down? And what does it say about the French cyber-warfare capabilities? That aside, the news itself may not necessarily be groundless.

NCRI is an umbrella for the Mujahedeen-e Khalk, or MEK, also known as MKO, and People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI), an organization of Iranian dissidents in exile that seeks to overthrow the Islamic Republic. It was on the European Union list of terrorist organizations until 2009 and on the U.S. list until 2012. Its presence in France harks back to 1981. The French government granted asylum to MEK’s then-leader Massoud Rajavi, exiled from Iran after losing a bloody power struggle against Ayatollah Khomeini, his former ally and the leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979. Ever since, the MEK’s presence in France was a source of friction in relations between Paris and Tehran.

Every year the group organized rallies in the Paris suburb of Villepinte, attended by a wide array of well-known and reportedly well-paid speakers, mostly former and current officials from the United States, European and Arab states. These speakers included, among others, former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton (before he assumed that position) and former New York City mayor and personal lawyer to President Donald Trump Rudy Giuliani. Their role was to provide legitimacy to the MEK and its “president-elect” Maryam Rajavi as the alternative to the current Islamic regime in Iran. 

In July 2018, just as the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was to embark on a trip to Paris to work on saving the faltering nuclear agreement, known as Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action, or JCPOA, reports emerged about a bomb plot against the MEK gathering, allegedly hatched by the agents of Iranian intelligence. The case was never conclusively resolved. There remains some possibility that the “plot” was in reality a false flag operation concocted by the MEK and its foreign allies designed to sabotage diplomacy between the EU and Iran at a critical time. Reportedly, French intelligence has not entirely discarded the latter theory.  Certainly, such a plot would only benefit those who seek to push the EU to join Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

This helps explain why the French authorities did not allow the annual MEK gathering in summer of 2019, ostensibly for “security concerns.” It is likely that the real motivation behind the decision, however, was the desire of Paris to explore diplomatic opportunities in its relations with Tehran. In the race to save the nuclear agreement, French President Emmanuel Macron emerged as the most energetic of the Western leaders, engaging with both Iran and United States in pursuit of de-escalation and new negotiations. In this context, the last thing Paris needed was some incident involving MEK on French territory.

There is another reason why Paris would want to curtail MEK activities: its efforts to release two French academics currently in Iranian jails – Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal. French sources point to a precedent in 1986, when the French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac struck a deal with Tehran for the release of French hostages held prisoners by the Hezbollah in Lebanon. As a price, the MEK was forced to leave France and relocated to Iraq then. Similar dynamics may be at play now.

If asked to leave, the destination for remaining MEK cadres in France would be Albania, which already hosts around 3,000 members, following the U.S. and U.N.-brokered resettlement from their former base in Iraq.  A complete eviction from France would be a serious setback for the MEK. Its continued relevance was fully premised on its ability to visibly project power and connections on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Persian Gulf. Annual public rallies were a medium to build up the lobby for the group. Being forced to trade Paris for Tirana, a capital of an impoverished Balkan nation, geographically far removed from both main Western capitals and Iran itself, is a patent downgrade. To this should be added the waning fortunes of the MEK’s champions in the U.S.: Bolton was fired, Giuliani is too busy dealing with his own legal troubles to continue lobbying for the MEK, and Trump himself is fighting for political survival amid the specter of an impending impeachment.

True, the MEK is still capable of performing such stints as recent gatherings in the French Senate and the European Parliament (EP) in Strasbourg. The EP in particular is an attractive platform for the MEK, since, unlike national parliaments, it represents MPs from 28 member states. Thus, a bigger diversity of views and sensitivities is present and more outlets for MEK efforts are available. But even there, its influence is on the wane. The MEK’s success to win recruits for its cause hinged on its ability to be all things to all people: for example, women rights defenders to the left, and promoters of better relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia to the right. However, the group committed a major strategic blunder by funding Vox, the Spanish extreme right party. This led some of the MEK’s supporters on the left to sever ties. Moreover, the MEK never managed to gain any foothold in official EP bodies dealing with Iran – its foreign affairs committee and its delegation for relations with Iran. In any case, small acts in parliaments reflect the group’s desperate attempts to remain relevant, and are no match for ambitious rallies the MEK was able to organize in previous years in France.

Throughout its history, the MEK showed remarkable resilience, and due to its chameleonic nature and deep pockets, managed to navigate the turbulent waters of Middle Eastern politics. It may be premature to write an obituary for the MEK just yet. But the French steps to curtail its activities, particularly if and when they’ll eventually lead to the group’s expulsion from France, are definitely contributing to its decline.