Amid Ongoing Iran Protests, Congress Boosts Cultish MEK Exile Group

 Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are backing a bill that endorses Maryam Rajavi, an Iranian opposition figure who leads the Mojahedin-e Khalq.

As Iranians both inside Iran and in the diaspora organize against the Islamic Republic, a bipartisan collection of over160 members of the U.S. Congress this week put forward a resolution endorsing an exiled opposition group with a past of hard-line militancy that has been credibly accused of cult-like behavior.

On Thursday, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., held a congressional briefing to introduce House Resolution 100, with the expressed aim of lending support to Iranians protesting for “a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran.” The introductory speaker at the session was Maryam Rajavi, the head of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian exile group previously listed as a terrorist organization that has been accused of brainwashing and sexual abuse of its members.

“It is no exaggeration to say that perhaps nothing unites Iranians of today than opposition to the MEK and their agenda,” said Arash Azizi, an Iranian historian and political commentator, who described the group as a “brutal cult.” “Not only are they not popular amongst Iranians, they are despised and hated by Iranians across the political spectrum.”

This perception of the MEK among Iranians has not stopped many U.S. politicians who claim to support democracy in Iran from providing consistent support to the group. Congress has long been a stronghold of support for the MEK. The group boasted a robust lobbying operation before it was listed in the late 1990s as a terror group, and then spent years lobbying through cutouts to be removed from the terror rolls. The group has long appealed to hawks in Washington who advocate for war with Iran and a U.S. policy of regime change.

The text of the new bill is pegged to the recent wave of protests and repression in Iran, noting with favor a 2018 rally held by the MEK in Paris calling for regime change in Iran. While the bill does not name the group specifically, it points to “opposition leader Mrs. Maryam Rajavi’s 10-point plan for the future of Iran” as a starting point for change. In her remarks at the briefing, Rajavi thanked the supporters of the measure for “this very important bi-partisan congressional initiative in support of the people of Iran and the Iranian Resistance.”

Sponsored by McClintock, a Republican, the resolution boasts the support of 60 Democratic politicians, including several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. (McClintock’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

”For over 26 years as a senior member of the House Foreign affairs committee, I have co-sponsored many resolutions and bills regarding democracy and human rights in Iran,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who led minority support for the bill, said in a statement to The Intercept. Sherman pointed to an array of other bills he supported in recent years that condemned human rights abuses in Iran, called for sanctions, and expressed support for protesters.

While Sherman did not respond to The Intercept’s follow up questions about the MEK, he has in the past been a stalwart congressional backer of the group, vocally supporting Rajavi, whom he video chatted with last year, and signing on to past McClintock pro-MEK resolutions.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he supported the resolution after receiving “significant outreach” from constituents. “I cosponsored H.Res. 100 because I stand with the Iranian people in their fight for human rights and a secular and nonnuclear state,” Garamendi said in a statement. Acknowledging McClintock’s explicit linking of the bill to the MEK, Garamendi said, “I don’t control what other members say in their press releases about the bill, but let me be clear, the point of H.Res. 100 is to call for investigations into extrajudicial killings and the prevention of other human rights abuses, which I support.”

Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., told The Intercept he co-sponsored the resolution to show “support for the brave protesters in Iran who are risking their lives to protest an oppressive regime.” Boyle said he did not see MEK mentioned in the bill text but that he was glad there was bipartisan support for standing with protesters.

The MEK continues to receive backing from Western politicians, including many American leaders, despite its abysmal reputation among Iranians. Former Trump administration officials like John Bolton have been longtime supporters of the group, which successfully won its removal from the State Department’s list of designated terrorist organizations in 2012 after a yearslong lobbying campaign targeting senior politicians in both parties.

Despite its popularity on Capitol Hill, Iranians themselves tend to be overwhelmingly opposed to the MEK, due to its support of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country in the 1980s, its involvement in terrorist attacks inside Iran, and its own authoritarian ideology.

The sources of the MEK’s funding remain opaque, but the group periodically organizes rallies and public events attended by foreign dignitaries. Many attendees at the events have written about “rent-a-crowds” of non-Iranians who have been hired to show up and provide a simulacrum of popular support for the organization.

The group is also believed to run covert operations and information campaigns from its foreign bases in Albania and France.

(The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Habilian)