Inside the messy Iranian diaspora groups lobbying Capitol Hill

An Iranian political-militant group previously on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations now has an outsized influence in Washington.

On a grey December day on a patch of grass near the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, a small group of protesters stood chanting.

Waving flags and carrying posters with photographs of people who died in Iran over the past three months of anti-regime demonstrations, the protesters called for revolution and “regime change in Iran by the people of Iran.” The photographs of the regime’s victims outnumbered the people demonstrating on the Capitol grounds.

A bipartisan group of senators welcomed the event’s organizers into the Kennedy Caucus Room the next day for a briefing. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez attended, as did Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, Cory Booker, and Alex Padilla. Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis, Roy Blunt, and John Boozman also attended the event. All the lawmakers made public comments.

But the group organizing the event, the Organization of Iranian American Communities, is tied to a shadowy Iranian diaspora group with a troubled past. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), is an Iranian political-militant organization that was previously on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Experts say the Iranian diaspora tends to fall into several loose categories: political opposition groups like the monarchists led by the late shah’s U.S.-based son, backers of advocacy group the National Iranian American Council, smaller human rights organizations, and organizations linked to the MEK.

All these different factions are doing outreach on Capitol Hill. The MEK-linked groups are the most visible.

During the Iranian revolution, the MEK members had Marxist-Leninist leanings and were blamed for the death of U.S. personnel. Several sources described the MEK as a cult. It has also been accused of human rights violations.

The MEK's longtime leader, Massoud Rajavi, vanished from the public eye in 2003. It is unclear whether Rajavi is alive or dead. His wife, Maryam Rajavi, now runs the organization from its compound, Camp Ashraf-3, in Albania. Members of the MEK are allegedly asked to pledge loyalty to the Rajavis. Maryam Rajavi addressed the senators via video link during the Dec. 8 briefing.

“I would argue that it’s very adequately described as a cult,” said Sina Toossi, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, describing the MEK. “It’s an organization that is widely loathed by Iranians. The major opposition voices who have gained a lot of prominence in this protest movement routinely condemn the MEK and distance themselves from it.

“They’re also authoritarian. People want to move on from the Islamic Republic’s authoritarianism. They don’t want another cult of personality and this anti-democratic, sketchy cult,” Toossi said.

In an email to National Journal, Majid Sadeghpour, a representative of the Organization of Iranian American Communities, described it as a “non-partisan and independent all-volunteer organization” that “advocates for a democratic, secular and non-nuclear Iranian republic.”

He added that the organization’s community supports Rajavi’s 10-point plan for the future of Iran and the MEK’s National Council of Resistance of Iran, an organization the group formed when it went into exile in the 1980s.

During Iran’s revolution in 1979, the MEK supported the Islamists who overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But the group soon split from the Islamic clerics and went into exile in France. Its members later fought on the side of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, making them wildly unpopular among Iranians.

But after the U.S. took the MEK off the terror list in 2012, it quickly developed a vast network of supporters among influential people in U.S. politics, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton. The National Council of Resistance of Iran has an address on Pennsylvania Avenue and has registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Groups like the Organization of Iranian American Communities and its local offshoots began springing up across the United States. Pompeo spoke at an event organized by the OIAC in Washington on Dec. 17.

Experts say the group pays tens of thousands of dollars for speeches at its events. It also pays people to show up and sit in the audience of its conferences and attend rallies. Yet no one knows precisely where the money comes from. Experts say the group received funding from Saddam Hussein’s government. Some claim they now receive money from Saudi Arabia, Israel, or other powers that oppose the Iranian regime, but no smoking gun definitively proves these connections.

“This is not a small operation. One of [their] conferences probably runs the entire budget of some of the other diaspora groups for the entire year,” said an analyst who did doctoral research on the group but asked to remain anonymous to avoid backlash. “Once you start to pull the strings of who pays for it and all of that, the thread crumbles really quickly.

“They say it’s based on donations, that it’s based on their popularity, and they can fundraise and things like that,” the analyst added. “They’ve been doing this—the lobbying game, the congressional game—for decades. They are a well-organized, well-heeled, well-funded, and well-remunerating organization.”

To what extent lawmakers are aware of the group’s origins is unclear. National Journal reached out to all lawmakers who attended the Dec. 8 Senate briefing for comment.

Juan Pachon, the communications director for Sen. Menendez, said the Foreign Relations Committee chair is “proud to continue his decades-long work of engaging with Iranian-Americans from across the country, including those whose friends, family members, and colleagues have been repressed, tortured, and killed for opposing the regime for decades.”

Spokesmen for Sens. Tillis and Boozman said the lawmakers were contacted by constituents and asked to offer remarks during the event.

During the briefing, Menendez praised the MEK’s organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Sen. Blunt referenced a trip he had made to Albania, where the MEK’s main headquarters are now located.

The ongoing protests in Iran, which began in mid-September following the death of a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police, have sparked a flurry of outreach and lobbying on Capitol Hill from a variety of Iranian diaspora groups and human rights organizations. All the organizations oppose the Iranian regime and its brutal crackdown on demonstrators. But they appear to have little else in common.

Numerous people contacted by National Journal asked to speak anonymously for fear of online harassment or death threats. Many described the current atmosphere within the Iranian diaspora as “toxic.”

Borzou Daragahi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said the internal debates between Iranian diaspora groups are largely removed from what takes place in Iran.

“The more they can unite around a common and all-inclusive agenda in support of the people inside Iran, who are the ones risking their lives, the better,” Daragahi said. “I don’t think they’re doing that now.”

Despite the MEK’s visibility, other Iranian diaspora groups have had some successes working in Washington.

The National Iranian American Council collaborated with Rep. Ro Khanna’s office on a recent letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calling for protections for Iranians fleeing persecution, according to the group’s president. NIAC has drawn backlash from critics who argue that its advocacy benefits the Iranian regime, a claim the organization rejects.

“Urgent action must be taken regarding Iran’s horrifying execution of protestors and violent repression of peaceful protests,” Khanna told National Journal in an email. “I sent a letter to Secretary Blinken and Secretary Yellen outlining what I believe the administration must do in response, including providing protection to Iranians fleeing persecution and funding internet access in Iran.”

NIAC has advocated for U.S. efforts to support Internet freedom in Iran, which would help protesters organize. That includes providing clarity to tech companies about what they can offer Iranian citizens to circumvent the regime’s crackdown on internet access without running afoul of sanctions.

“We’ve been encouraging [the administration] to do outreach to tech companies to really make clear what is permissible,” said NIAC President Jamal Abdi. “This is purely about what we can do to support the Iranian people and condemn the government. We’ve held in the past couple weeks a few dozen meetings at the grassroots level with lawmakers and staff here in D.C.”

While various organizations hold frequent meetings on the Hill, Toossi at the Center for International Policy noted that the MEK-connected groups are the most persistent.

“Because they are very organized and the members they have are very ideological, and they are well-funded, they are like a small special-interest group,” Toossi said. “These kinds of small special-interest groups have an outsized influence in Washington. They get their people into offices. It’s a very sophisticated operation.”

Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Habilian’s views.