Revelations suggest covert nuclear development by Iranian government, but questions surround opposition group providing allegations
They've been referred to as a “cult” and a “terrorist organisation” by Iran, the EU and the US at various times. But the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), also known as the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI) have continued to endure as one of the longest-running militant groups opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Under the banner of their “coalition”, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have often worked to expose atrocities by the Islamic Republic and leak information regarding the country's controversial nuclear programme.
On Tuesday, the NCRI held a press conference in Washington to announce they had acquired evidence of a secret facility, buried deep beneath the ground in the northeast suburbs of Tehran, engaged in uranium enrichment.
They also released a detailed report into their findings, in which they claim that “despite the Iranian regime’s claims that all of its enrichment activities are transparent and under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, it has in fact been engaged in research and development with advanced centrifuges at a secret nuclear site called Lavizan-3, in a military base in northeast Tehran suburbs.”
They stated that their information came from “highly placed sources within the Iranian regime, as well as those involved in the nuclear weapons projects”.
“The notion that the mullahs will abandon their nuclear weapons program thru [sic] nuclear talks is a misguided narrative, which is the by-product of the mullahs’ duplicity and western economic and political expediency,” the report concludes.
“Those who hope to secure the regime’s cooperation in the campaign against fundamentalism by offering nuclear concessions to the mullahs are both increasing the chances of a nuclear-armed Iran and contributing to the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.”
This is not the first time the MEK have leaked information about Iranian nuclear ambitions – in 2002, the NCRI publicly announced the discovery of secret nuclear facilities at Arak and Natanz, which later allegedly became the basis for an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and sparked the controversy over Iran's true nuclear intentions that continues to this day.
In 2004 it was reported that they had given German intelligence a series of documents which seemed to prove the existence of a nuclear facility at Lavizan and enrichment-related activity at the Parchin military complex.
Evidence later emerged in an expose of Israeli spying practices which suggested that some or all of the documents had been given to the group by Israel's Mossad secret service.
Links between the two groups – who share a mutual enemy in the Islamic Republic – were alleged to go as far as training and arming, according to some reports.
The NCRI began life in 1981, founded by MEK leader Massoud Rajavi as a “parliament-in-exile” encompassing the MEK, the liberal National Democratic Front and the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.
The latter two groups both left during the Iran-Iraq war, outraged at what they saw as the “pro-Iraq” position of the MEK, leaving the NCRI totally under the control of Rajavi's organisation.
The MEK itself began life in 1965 when it was established as a left-wing “Islamic-Marxist” organisation dedicated to fighting the then-monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. After taking part in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, they found themselves suppressed by Ruhollah Khomenei's Islamic Republic.
Following the banning of the organisation, it began a guerilla campaign against the Islamic Republic, even going as far as backing Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.
Since then, the MEK have established a reputation as a violent and often bizarre organisation. According to the Iranian government, the MEK have been responsible for over 12,000 deaths through suicide bombings, assassinations and armed raids.
Operating primarily out of Camp Liberty in Iraq (and prior to 2013, Ashraf refugee camp, also in Iraq), the group have also hit the headlines for their organisational methods, which have been frequently referred to as “cult-like”.
Former members have stated that joining the group involved something akin to brainwashing.
“There was a black-and-white world view imposed; followers cutting themselves off from family; followers losing their personality,” one former member told Vice News.
“I remember one task where we had to write down our old personality in one column on a board, and the new personality in a different column. I remember a guy who said, 'My brother works in the Iranian embassy in London. Before I loved him as my brother, now I hate him as my enemy. I am ready to kill him tomorrow, if necessary.' And everyone applauded.”
Other reports have spoken of forced divorces, public airings of hidden sexual fantasies and the idolising of leader Rajavi. Leaving the MEK is also, reportedly, easier said than done.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in 2005 suggested that 70 percent of Ashraf residents were being held there against their will.
But the MEK has a broad support base in Europe and America, particularly among right-wing politicians who would not seem natural allies of its "Islamic-Marxist" ideology.
David Amess, the British Conservative MP, has frequently tabled motions in the UK Parliament calling for the MEK's de-listing as a terrorist organisation.
In an op-ed for the Washington Times, he referred to the group as the “main opposition” in Iran.
“Removing the terrorist tag would enjoy the backing of Congress,” he wrote. “A bipartisan group of more than 80 members co-sponsored House Resolution 1431, explicitly calling for the delisting of the PMOI, 'thereby denying the regime the pretext to crack down on dissidents inside Iran.'
“It is ironic that as Mr Ahmadinejad keeps lashing out against the very principles of the United States, the US keeps the main opposition enchained,” he added.
In 2012 he was also a speaker at an NCRI conference in Paris.
After major lobbying by MEK supporters – including Amess, former New York mayor Rudy Guiliani, lawyer Alan Dershowitz and numerous other Republican and Democrat politicians in the US – the group was eventually taken off the terror list in 2012.
At the time former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont even went so far as to say that the MEK President-elect, Maryam Rajavi, should be acknowledged as Iran's legitimate ruler.
“Madame Rajavi does not sound like a terrorist to me - she sounds like a president - and her organisation should not be listed as a terrorist organisation,” he said, speaking to MEK supporters.
“We should be recognising her as the president of Iran.”
A 'bad source'
Though Fox News was quick to run with the NCRI's allegations as a story, other media outlets have been hesitant to produce anything, even leading to a chastisement from the right-wing Jewish Press, who claimed the story had been “squelched”.
The absence of reports of the nuclear allegations possibly reflects growing concerns about the reliability of the MEK as a source of information on internal Iranian affairs.
“They have been right on occasion, but it's not because their claim to have inside sources in the Iranian government is accurate,” investigative journalist Gareth Porter told Middle East Eye.
“I haven't done an exhaustive survey about the times they've given information publicly or turned it over to foreign governments including the US, where the IAEA have checked it out and there's nothing there, but it's an enormously high percentage.”
According to Mohamed ElBaradei, then head of the IAEA, after visiting the facilities at Arak and Natanz, an IAEA team also “visited three locations at an industrial complex in Kolahdouz in western Tehran that had been mentioned in open source reports as relevant to enrichment activities” and found no “indications of activities involving the use of nuclear material”.
Paul Kerr, of the website Arms Control Wonk, also stated in 2005 that, according to an IAEA sources, further inspections by the IAEA based on MEK evidence had failed to produce results.
He also pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, US intelligence agencies had known about the existence of the Arak and Natanz nuclear facilities prior to the MEK expose. The MEK also mistakenly classified Natanz as a “fuel production plant”.
“News from this group is often good for getting right-wingers to show their “O” face and belittle the EU3’s diplomacy with Tehran, but it’s probably good that we’re not banking on these exiles for too much intel,” said Kerr.
Gareth Porter said that the US intelligence community had been divided over the use of the MEK as a credible source on Iranian nuclear capabilities.
“There's good evidence that the MEK was simply a bad source for the US military and the CIA has clearly taken their information and considered it along with a lot of other information – some people in the CIA thought they were fine and dandy and other people recognised they were a bad source,” he said.
“They were controversial to say the least.”
The move by the NCRI/MEK to release more information – authentic or not – on Iran's nuclear capabilities was likely intended to throw a spanner in the works of the P5+1 talks to limit Iran's nuclear plans.
“MEK is naturally going to be nervous about any suggestion of an improvement in relations between the US and Iran,” he said.
“In the longer run they are obviously trying to get western governments to support them, to overthrow the regime and put them in power – that's the ultimate MEK aim.”