Iran's delegation to Paris included seven people to the list of IVTC speakers, all with sad stories to tell. "My brother was 28 and he was killed by the MKO just because he wore a beard, was a Muslim and worked as a French teacher," said Mahmoud Navab, a journalist...
In a sign of how even the world's conservative governments increasingly refuse to support the People's Muhajeddin Organization of Iran (MKO), an international conference sponsored by France's Nicolas Sarkozy included Iranian victims of what many say is nothing but a terrorist "cult."
Iranian family members of MKO victims were among the opening speakers at the 7th International Victims of Terrorism Conference (IVTC) held in Paris on September 15. The IVTC is a forum for nations to make others aware of the terrorist efforts made to subvert or overthrow their state.
And the conference generally draws a lot of disdain from the left because it focuses on states as victims of terrorism, not on groups as victims. That means you won't find Palestinian victims of terrorism at this conference, instead there would be Israeli victims.
You won't find leftist groups like Irish, Basque or Kashmiri separatists, either. This is essentially a forum where recognized nations can plead their case for their (often equally violent) opposition against violent opposition groups.
The International Victims of Terrorism has previously been held in places like Medellin, Columbia, and Oklahoma City, USA - not exactly centers of left-wing support, but the meeting turned out to be a rare case where the interests of Iran and the interests of the right-wing have found a common ground.
And that's what makes the inclusion of the MKO a very hopeful event in Franco-Iranian relations. In a change, Iran is included as a victim of terrorism rather than a proponent.
The most respected Middle Eastern journalist in France, Alain Gresh of Le Monde Diplomatique wrote that while he was not a supporter of the conference, he was glad to see the inclusion of the victims of the MKO.
He even called the inclusion of the MKO an "anomaly" among the participants, which included Jewish-American 9-11 victims, a Kenyan worker at the American Embassy who has blinded by the bombing there in 1998 and an Indian survivor of the Mumbai shooting spree.
Gresh wrote that he hoped that the MKO's inclusion might be enough to entice some major Iranian leaders to come visit France. That was not the case, but he implied that the recognition of the MKO's danger is something that the current French government and Iran can find common ground on.
Betraying those they would rule
The MKO are almost universally denounced by the Iranians around the world and are regarded as a terrorist group by many national governments, including Iran and the US, as well as international organizations. After aiding in the Islamic Revolution, bloody street battles took place against Iran's eventual leadership.
As a result, the MKO literally waged war against Iranians: The group took refuge in Ashraf, Iraq, where they aided Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein went on to employ this special brigade in his deadly operations against Kurds and in repressing the Iraqi Shia.
The MKO has taken credit for releasing information on Iran's nuclear program, they are suspected of aiding in the chemical attacks against Iran - it's a long list. And it's a longer list of their victims, which MKO claims are in the tens of thousands.
"My father was killed by the MKO in 1991 as he was Iran's cultural host in Lahore, Pakistan and I'm here to share my knowledge and experiences," said Nader Ganji of the Association for Defending Victims of Terrorism at the IVTC. "At that time I was three years old, so this bad phenomenon affected my life a lot and I never want other countries to have the same experiences."
Still a student, Nader's jovial, kind demeanor gives no hint of such a tragic upbringing. Clearly, the MKO did not stamp out his concern for humanity. He did not bristle when asked about Iran's poor public perception among many of the conference's attendees.
"We've got like 16,000 victims of terrorism and we have got a lot of experiences to be shared," said Ganji. "Unfortunately most of the other countries don't know anything about Iran and the terrorist activities in Iran. Unfortunately, opposition groups are trying to show themselves as freedom seekers in other countries, but this is not true."
Iran's delegation to Paris included seven people to the list of IVTC speakers, all with sad stories to tell.
"My brother was 28 and he was killed by the MKO just because he wore a beard, was a Muslim and worked as a French teacher," said Mahmoud Navab, a journalist and conference participant. "In the cemetery where he is buried he is surrounded by four other people killed by the same MKO murderers."
While the inclusion of Iranian MKO victims is a victory for Iran, it still has a long way to go to achieve proper recognition, and as one incident at the IVTC reveals basic politeness:
After the key Iranian speaker had finished her speech - relaying her shocking personal tragedy which involved the MKO breaking down her door and executing all her adult family members - the French master of ceremonies responded, "And do you find that discussing your experience in Iran makes Iranians more sensitive to the issue of terrorism?" The implication from the event's host was clear. Fortunately neither Masoomeh Eskandari nor her translator took the bait, instead giving a thank you for their invitation, relaying their support for victims of terrorism worldwide.
What is the relationship between France and the MKO?
After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the MKO made Paris its foreign headquarters. Generally each year they hold a rally - as well-organized as any National Front rally of xenophobic royalty Marine Le Pen. Mrs. Rajavi, who many assume is the MKO's leader because her husband Massoud has not been seen in years, attended the MKO this year's rally in June with an entrance worthy of a head of state, seemingly colossal in her delusion.
But while they do have their friends in France, the French government is not one of them. In 2003, when Nicolas Sarkozy was the Interior Minister, the French government led a high-profile raid of their compound about 75 kilometers outside of Paris.
France was concerned that the MKO was trying to shift their base of operations from their camp in Ashraf, Iraq to France, which naturally caused them to worry a part of French soil was being transformed into an international terrorist base. Some 160 people were arrested in the raid, millions of euros were confiscated and the message was clear.
"There is no special relationship between France and MKO," said Pierre Conesa, an international affairs analyst and author who attended the IVTC. "It's not true to say that the French government is accepting MKO: We have a law protecting political asylum. But with their past one is able to ask if they are really democrats and have given up violence. But it's not a support, it's just an ambiguity, I would say."
But the MKO's response to the raid may have done more to damage their image: in several European capitals 10 MKO supporters actually lit themselves on fire, and this gave a great deal of credence to the wide perception that the MKO is some sort of cult. It also hurt the MKO's efforts in France and Europe to whitewash their violent past and their efforts to portray themselves as some sort of human rights organization.
"Their main success is to remake themselves as a democratic party in spite of their history," said Conesa.
Why did the EU take the MKO off their terrorist list in 2009?
The MKO are one of the very few groups to ever have their names removed from the EU terrorist list, once placed on it.
"What I discovered by looking at the MKO in France is that their know-how in lobbying is quite unbelievable," said Conesa. "They are aiming, mainly, at the people who don't know anything about Iran.
In the European Parliament they were mainly aiming at MPs from eastern governments - former communist governments - and as soon as you present a communist with a petition they want to prove that they are democrats, so they sign!
They approach them explaining that they are defending human rights, that they are victims of the regime, and they present a petition that says they contribute to the defense of civil rights in Iran, and then at the end it adds that Maryam Rajavi should be the president for life in Iran!"
Anyone who has seen the MKO's yearly rally in Paris knows that they have extensive funding. It used to be Saddam Hussein playing financier, now it could just be the many groups that wish to see regime change in Iran, or at least those who like to provide a thorn in Iran's side.
Wherever their funds come from, at last year's rally in Paris they reportedly paid 2-300,000 dollars to have former NYC mayor Rudolph Giuliani to speak. They also paid people to attend the rallies - an undisputed fact - and they produced a tremendous amount of propaganda, for which they are legendary.
You can find any number of reports that describe the MKO has skilled manipulators of their public image, of their use of front groups with harmless sounding names, of their efforts to re-craft themselves from an Islamist Marxist group to fascist personal army to a free-market group that champions women's rights.
The MKO has taken so many deviations since its inception that it's hard to know what changes have stuck and in what intensity. Of course that all depends on never mentioning the Iranians, the Kurds, the Iraqi Shia they are known to have killed.
It's key to remember that the EU acted when the Ashraf camp was finally returning to Iraqi jurisdiction after years of war with the US. A massacre was expected (but never materialized, as the Ashraf camp is still there - thousands of Iranians occupying Iraqi soil) and the Europe expected to receive 3,000 MKO members as refugees. Or you can believe the other explanation many accept: the EU wanted a pawn in their relations with Iran.
Regardless, the European governments made it clear that they did not believe in the full rehabilitation of the MKO and there are many nations that have said openly that they regard the MKO warily.
But their propaganda campaign continues to have success in the Europe: In late November 2010, the European Parliament made a declaration, urging the US to remove the MKO from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
Most observers say the removal of MKO from the US's list of terrorist groups is unlikely because it would drive a major wedge in any rapprochement efforts with Iran. The MKO's role in killing Americans during the Islamic Revolution probably makes it impossible as well.
But the US may also be swayed by the fact that the condemnation of the MKO includes any true reform movement, such as the Green Party, who has totally disavowed the MKO.
Despite their wars against Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds, despite their constant depiction by observers of every political stripe as a "cult" and despite the fact that perhaps no one outside of Iran is waving a sign with Maryam Rajavi's face on it, the MKO has done all they could to rebrand themselves as a human rights group.
But nothing in this organization's tactics, or in the testimonies of their few former members lucky enough to escape Camp Ashraf, makes observers believe that this is a group that would grant democracy to anyone if they should ever take control of Iran.