Facebook has closed hundreds of fake accounts linked to the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK), a move that will be cheered in Tehran and raise questions about official US attitudes about the group under the new Joe Biden administration.
Over 300 accounts, pages and groups believed to be affiliated with the MEK, also known as MKO, were tagged by Facebook for egregious online behavior including disseminating misinformation to discredit the Iranian government.
Facebook ascertained that the majority of the accounts were operated from a single location in Albania and almost universally projected a favorable image of the otherwise historically infamous group some even liken to a cult.
Whether Facebook’s actions came at the request of the Biden administration is unclear, but any such move would be perceived as an olive branch in Tehran at a time the two sides dance around resuming the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.
MEK, a former guerilla group established in 1965, enjoyed broad support among the foreign policy team of former US president Donald Trump, who scrapped the JCPOA and imposed new sanctions on Iran. Top Trump officials made open overtures to MEK, espousing its members as potential replacements to the incumbent Iranian government.
Although the Trump administration never overtly stated that regime change was its goal for Iran, officials including then-national security advisor John Bolton and the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani had on different occasions extolled MEK as a symbol of freedom vis-à-vis Iran’s authoritarian, theocratic regime.
Trump’s was a generous portrayal. MEK is a political-militant organization whose ultimate aim is to overthrow the Iranian government. It was part of the popular movement that led to the 1979 revolution in Iran that brought the Islamic Republic to power, but quickly fell from grace and became disillusioned after its former leader, Massoud Rajavi, was blocked from standing as a candidate in the first post-revolution presidential election.
The most acrimonious episode between the MEK and the Islamic Republic occurred when the group allied with late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after he invaded Iran in 1980 and took up arms against fellow Iranian citizens to overturn the then newly-born revolution. Working in cahoots with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War painted the MEK as a treacherous, malign force in the eyes of many Iranians.
The official Iranian account is that the MEK has the blood of some 17,000 Iranians on its hands, including former President Mohammad-Ali Rajai and former Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, whom it assassinated along with six other senior officials on August 30, 1981.
However, the MEK’s history of violence is not confined to aggression against Iranian citizens. The group subscribed to a fierce anti-American ideology in the 1970s and hit several American targets inside Iran in a string of bombings that hit the US information office, Pepsi Cola, PanAm and General Motors.
A State Department inquiry in 1992 found the MEK guilty of killing six American citizens, including three military officers and three men hired by Rockwell International, a manufacturing company that ceased its operations in 2001.
In 1991, the MEK’s armed wing hatched a plot with Iraq’s Saddam to brutally quell an uprising by Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shias in the south. In April 1992, the group launched attacks against Iranian embassies and diplomatic premises in 13 countries, including Iran’s mission to the United Nations.
Citing its campaigns of terror and killing, the US State Department under Bill Clinton’s administration blacklisted the MEK in 1997 as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), a designation which detractors of the Iranian government claimed was aimed at appeasing the Islamic Republic and giving a boost to moderates rising to power in Tehran.
In 1986, Saddam set up an enclave for MEK militants in the Diyala Governorate, which came to be known as Camp Ashraf. It hosted nearly 3,500 MEK exiles and continued to be their major shelter until 2016, when it was shuttered by the Iraqi government no doubt under pressure from Tehran.
The Barack Obama administration made a deal with the Albanian government in 2013, under the supervision of the UNHCR, to offer the MEK members asylum. The small Balkan peninsula has been their base since 2016, from which they orchestrate their online misinformation activities.
Although it enjoys protection in Albania, some experts are concerned the group, known for its Marxist ideologies, could seek to foment sectarian divides in the host country.
Sources in Albania tell Asia Times that despite the deal reached between the Obama administration and the Albanian government, the MEK is not viewed favorably by the Albanian public.
“When MEK was officially relocated from Iraq to Albania in 2016, the Albanian public opinion and media protested their coming. However, the Americans who had convinced the Albanian government to host MEK in the country, gave total support to Edi Rama’s regime to host them in Albania,” said Olsi Jazexhi a Canadian-Albanian historian specializing in the history of Islam and nationalism in Southeastern Europe.
Jazexhi notes many of the MEK’s activities, including money laundering, radicalization and human trafficking, violate Albanian law. Yet Albania’s major political parties have thrown their weight behind MEK and its leader Maryam Rajavi to coax the US into supporting them to win parliamentary elections, a reflection of the country’s political fragility.
“The Albanian government has allowed the MEK to build a paramilitary camp in the town of Manza, in Durres. From this camp, the MEK wages war in different ways – from psychological, indoctrination, online and probably even physical against Iran.
“What the MEK does is considered a crime according to the Albanian Penal Code and if Maryam Rajavi was to be Albanian, she would have been jailed for at least 15 years,” claimed Jazexhi.
The MEK also maintains a presence in France. From 1981 to 1986, France functioned as the MEK’s European bastion, but an agreement between the Iranian government and then French President Jacques Chirac over securing the release of two French hostages in Lebanon kept captive by the Iran-allied Hezbollah, stipulated that MEK members were expelled from the European territory.
In 2003, as tensions flared up between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program, France renewed its offer to shelter MEK operatives and the group chieftain Maryam Rajavi resided there for a spell. MEK organizes annual rallies in the Paris suburb of Villepinte, which are filled by thousands of Iranian and non-Iranians.
MEK was characterized as a terrorist organization by the European Union, Canada and Japan, as well as the United States until the early 2010s. Intense lobbying by the group coupled with the Iranian government’s international isolation, convinced these countries to jettison the terrorist labeling. As a recognized “dissident” group, it has been given latitude to operate and mobilize internationally and reassert itself as a legitimate opposition party with “democratic” aspirations.
In particular, the 2012 decision by Obama’s then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to delist the MEK as a terror group brought the syndicate above ground, allowing it to court and lobby top American politicians and officials.
MEK has since launched a campaign, including through Facebook campaigns, to bury its unsavory past. The Guardian reported the group paid at least US$20,000 to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the former chair of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, $14,000 to former House of Representatives member from California Bob Filner and “thousands of dollars” to former representatives Ted Poe, Mike Rogers and Dana Rohrabacher, who all accepted generous donations from the MEK and other Iranian-American organizations to advocate for its de-banning.
The MEK also paid at least $1.5 million to three leading Washington lobbying firms – DLA Piper, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and DiGenova & Toensing – and more than $150,000 in speaking fees to former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell in its terror delisting campaign.
In recent years, MEK events have featured high-profile American, European and Canadian guests who have been paid hefty gratuities to speak in support of the group, with many waxing lyrical about Maryam Rajavi’s cult as a democratic alternative to the Islamic Republic.
Donald Trump’s national security advisor Bolton, former mayor of New York City and Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich and former Governor of Vermont Howard Dean are among the stalwart partisans of the MEK. All have heaped praise on the organization as one that can bring the Iranian people freedom and democracy.
They have, however, not gone into their MEK raptures free of charge. John Bolton, for example, is estimated to have received at least $180,000 for speaking at several MEK events through 2018. In one of the most famous ones in 2017, Bolton vowed to celebrate the “fall of the regime” along with MEK members in Tehran before 2019.
Due to the MEK’s lack of transparency and the enigmatic nature of its workings, few details have trickled out about its financial sources, but some informed observers believe Iran’s regional rivals in the Persian Gulf may be among its benefactors.
“The MEK regularly pays tens of thousands of dollars to American politicians to speak at their annual conference outside Paris. The source of these funds is opaque, posing serious questions about who is paying high-profile US politicians to speak in support of the MEK and their regime change efforts in Iran,” said Eli Clifton, an investigative journalist and research director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s Democratizing Foreign Policy Program.
“However, [Saudi] Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud’s remarks at a MEK conference in 2016, in which he expressed his support for the group, lends credibility to the reports that Saudi Arabia may be a funding source,” he added.
Despite its insistence that it stands up for democracy, the MEK is sensitive to criticism and often harshly smears journalists and academics, particularly Iranian correspondents in the international media, who report on its conduct and policies.
Certain MEK defectors have taken the lid off the secrets of serving the organization, with reports of its rigid enforcement of celibacy and restrictions on members’ relationships with their families.
To demonstrate allegiance to the cult’s leader, MEK members are required to remain unmarried and promise that they won’t give up the practice. Forced medical sterilization for female cadres so they devote themselves to the organization unconditionally has been imposed on members living in MEK camps.
The MEK’s now at least partially shuttered social media machine is intricate and multi-layered. Using troll armies and hundreds of online hirelings across the world, it disseminates fake news, hijacks popular hashtags related to Iran on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and circulates narratives portraying the state of life in Iran in an unswervingly negative light.
The top results for the hashtag “#Iran” on Twitter almost universally return pages belonging to MEK members and advertising the speeches of Maryam Rajavi.
A 2019 investigation by the American non-profit media company The Intercept found that Heshmat Alavi, an “Iranian activist” who published articles on such noted American publications as Forbes, The Hill, Daily Caller as well as The Diplomat and Al-Arabiya English attacking the Iranian government and adulating the MEK as “democratic” was actually a fake persona “run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK.”
“Western politicians or governments who agree to associate themselves with the MEK are making a mistake. Morally, it is a bad idea, since the group is basically a violent and corrupt cult. Strategically, it is also lunacy, since the group has no support inside Iran. In fact, it is widely hated,” claimed Thomas Juneau, an Iran expert and associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.
“It is not, in any conceivable way, an alternative to the Islamic Republic. Why do politicians do this? Money is certainly one reason. For political reasons, I assume some are also keen to be seen to be associated with opponents of a regime that definitely deserves to be opposed.”
Whether the political tide is turning against the MEK under the Biden administration is yet to be decisively seen, but Washington’s official disassociation with the group will almost certainly be on Iran’s list of JCPOA negotiation points. The Facebook ban would seem to signal at least a tentative step in that direction.