the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Also known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, MEK is believed to have several thousand
What is Mujahedeen-e-Khalq?
Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) is the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Also known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, MEK is believed to have several thousand members operating from Iraq, as well as a network of sympathizers in Europe, the United States, and Canada. MEK was added to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups in 1997 because its attacks have often killed civilians. Despite its violent tactics, MEK’s strong stand against Iran—part of President Bush’s “axis of evil”—and pro-democratic image have won it support among some U.S. and European lawmakers.
How was MEK formed?
MEK military commander Masud Rajavi speaking before portrait of group leader Maryam Rajavi, 1996.
MEK was founded in the 1960s by a group of college-educated Iranian leftists who thought the country’s then ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was too open to Western influence. The group participated in the 1979 Islamic revolution that replaced the shah with a Shiite Islamist regime led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. But MEK’s ideology, a blend of Marxism and Islamism, barred the group from joining the postrevolutionary government, and its original leadership was soon executed by the Khomeini regime. In 1981, the group was driven from its bases on the Iran-Iraq border and resettled in Paris, where it began supporting Iraq in its eight-year war against Khomeini’s Iran. In 1986, MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq, which uses MEK to take swipes at neighboring Iran.
Does MEK have ties to Saddam Hussein?
Yes. Iraq is MEK’s primary benefactor. Iraq provides MEK with bases, weapons, and protection, and MEK harasses Saddam’s Iranian foes. Experts say MEK’s attacks on Iran traditionally intensify when relations between Iran and Iraq are strained. Iraq encourages or reins in MEK according to its own interests.
Who is MEK’s leader?
Maryam Rajavi, who hopes to become president of Iran, is MEK’s principal leader; her husband, Masud Rajavi, heads up the group’s military forces. Both live in Iraq. Maryam Rajavi, who was born in 1953 to an upper-middle-class Iranian family, joined MEK as a student in Tehran in the early 1970s. After relocating with the group to Paris in 1982, she was elected its joint leader and later became deputy commander in chief of its army. Experts say that MEK has increasingly come to resemble a cult that’s devoted to Masud Rajavi’s secular interpretation of the Koran and is prone to sudden, dramatic ideological shifts.
Has MEK targeted Americans?
Yes. In the early 1970s, angered by U.S. support for the pro-Western shah, MEK members launched an attack that killed several U.S. soldiers and civilians working on defense projects in Iran. (Experts say the attack may have been the work of a Maoist splinter faction of MEK operating beyond the control of the Rajavi leadership.) MEK members may also have participated in the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days.
What are the MEK’s targets?
Iranian officials, as well as Iranian military and government facilities in Iran and abroad. While the group says it does not intentionally target civilians, it has often risked civilian casualties. It routinely aims its attacks at government buildings in crowded cities; MEK attacks on security posts in central Tehran, for example, have caused several civilian deaths.
Recent MEK attacks include the assassinations of Asadollah Lajevardi, the director of Iran’s prison system, in 1998, and Ali Sayyad Hirazi, the acting director of Iran’s army, the following year. In 2000, on the twenty-first anniversary of the Iranian revolution, MEK fired mortars at the palace of Iranian President Muhammad Khatami, killing one civilian and injuring five. Khatami was unharmed. It’s unclear how many attacks MEK has carried out: according to experts, the group’s claims of responsibility for attacks in Iran are often exaggerated, and sometimes it’s blamed by the Iranian government for attacks it didn’t stage
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