The MKO's rhetoric about democracy can be alluring, but if the goal of the Trump administration is to contain, weaken, and roll back the influence of the Islamic Republic, then outreach to the MKO is the worst possible move because it would rally Iranians around the flag and strengthen the current regime.
Will Trump Embrace the MKO?
President-elect Donald Trump has promised to shake-up Washington, DC. And, he has rightly promised a radical shift in the Obama administration's policies toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. Certainly, mitigating the damage caused by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and an end to the obsequiousness toward Tehran would be welcome, not only by the broad swath of the American public, but also by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and America's moderate Arab allies.
But would Trump's foreign policy team go into uncharted territory by embracing the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO), an Iranian opposition group which, until recently, the U.S. Department of State designated as a terrorist organization? Some Trump advisors appear to have endorsed the group at one point or another. To be faira, the MKO is no longer designated a terror group, and its advocates argue that the only reason it was in the first place was in order to appease Iran. Not only prominent Republicans but also Democrats have appeared with Maryam Rajavi, the group's leader. (Here, for example, is former Obama administration National Security Advisor James Jones with Rajavi). In addition, while the MKO is odious, it is reasonable to defend the group against the wanton slaughter which Iranian forces and their proxies sought to inflict at Camp Ashraf.
Still, it is important to remember that the MKO is a Marxist, authoritarian cult with minimal support inside Iran. I was fortunate to spend about seven months in Iran during the 1990s while studying language and completing my dissertation research. I talked to hundreds if not more than a thousand Iranians. Most-including government employees-had nothing but disdain for the Islamic Republic. Some were curious about the late Shah's family; others were not. Some were sympathetic to exiled political parties; others saw them as a spent force. Many wanted a constitutional democracy similar to what Iran flirted with a century ago. The only unifying factor was the absolute antipathy with which they viewed the MKO, a group which allied itself with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Many Iranians view the MKO in the same way as Americans view John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. That the MKO conducted terrorism which victimized ordinary Iranians has only solidified Iranian public opinion against the group even further.
The MKO's rhetoric about democracy can be alluring, but if the goal of the Trump administration is to contain, weaken, and roll back the influence of the Islamic Republic, then outreach to the MKO is the worst possible move because it would rally Iranians around the flag and strengthen the current regime. The simple fact is this: if there is any consensus within Iran, it is that the MKO is the only thing worse than what Iranians now suffer. The enemy of an enemy is not always a friend.