In July 2021, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) held its Free Iran Conference in Albania. In virtual attendance were some of the West’s most politically powerful and well-connected members, showing support for regime change in Iran. Attendees included former defense official Michèle Flournoy, who has ties to the Biden administration. This makes us question the group’s origins and its ties to the Western political and economic ruling class, with a focus on Canada.
What is the MEK?
The MEK, roughly translated as the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, is an Islamist-Marxist group looking to overthrow the current regime in Tehran. It is often referred to as a cult in popular media, including in the West, due to its strict rituals and its reverence for a missing leader, Massoud Rajavi. The MEK was founded in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, when Iran was ruled by the Shah. The group was opposed to the Shah and sought to overthrow the monarchy in Iran, which was supported by the United States and the United Kingdom and their respective intelligence agencies. Despite having the same stated ideologies, the MEK was not particularly close to the Communist Tudeh Party due to differing goals and tactics. The MEK, like the Tudeh, was then supported by the Soviet Union, support that lasted until the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 under the Russian Federation.
The MEK currently operates in rural Albania and holds a yearly international conference in Tirana, the country’s capital, having been banned from operating in Iran since 1981. It is supported by a number of politicians in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Canada. For Canada, the MEK has been particularly close to figures in the Conservative Party, including former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and others in his cabinet. This alignment has helped position Canada and others like Israel and Saudi Arabia in its regional Cold War against the Iranian regime and its proxies.
The Islamic Revolution
After helping to overthrow the Shah in 1979, the MEK was initially allied with the new Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini, the first Supreme Leader of Iran. The MEK helped root out dissenters and participated in Iranian electoral politics. The MEK even supported the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. However, Khomeini vehemently disliked the MEK’s tactics and philosophy. The MEK then accused Khomeini of “plotting to set up a fascistic one-party dictatorship,” a charge which pushed him to ban the MEK from operating within Iran. While some organizers hid in Iran, most of its members and leaders fled to Paris and Iraq, where it continued to sow discord against the regime. Khomeini and subsequent Ayatollahs have resorted to using violence to suppress the MEK’s activities.
With Saddam in Iraq
During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, the MEK allied with Saddam Hussein in Iraq to fight the regime in Tehran, operating as Saddam’s saboteurs within Iran. The MEK allegedly contributed to a variety of Saddam’s military and intelligence operations against Iran, including Operation Mersad. After the Cold War, the MEK remained a close ally of the Saddam regime, carrying out bombings against Iranian embassies abroad – including the Iranian Mission to the UN in New York – and pursuing other terrorist activities against the regime.
The Second Iraq War
After the start of the Iraq War led by the US and the UK in 2003, things became rocky for the MEK given its affiliation with Saddam Hussein. Its offices in Paris were raided multiple times by French police, and its activities were closely monitored by Western intelligence agencies. The MEK’s leader, Massoud Rajavi, disappeared in Iraq in 2003 and is presumed dead. In the early years of the War on Terror, the MEK signed a ceasefire agreement with the US military and seemed to be fading in importance, funding, membership, and activities. MEK’s base in Iraq was seized by the US military after a series of deadly raids. The base became Camp Fallujah, then run by the US military until 2009. Since then, the MEK has helped US and Coalition forces in gathering actionable intelligence against Iran.
Relocation to Europe and Proximity with the West
After altercations with the Iraqi government, the MEK moved its operations to Europe, where, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the MEK began using its remaining funds to lobby political figures in the West to help overthrow the Iranian regime. In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decided to take the MEK off of the State Department’s Designated Terrorist Organizations (DTOs) list. The MEK is now solidly established as one of the allies of those in the West seeking regime change in Iran. This showcases the political nature of the terrorist group designation process. The US and others are quick to change their classification of terrorist organizations whenever their foreign policy aims are at play.
The MEK’s list of Western supporters includes notable figures such as John Bolton, Mike Pence, Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Bernard Kouchner, Giulio Terzi, and Ingrid Betancourt, who have all spoken at the annual “Free Iran Global Summit.” The MEK provides up to $50,000 for attendees to come and speak at the conference. At the conference and other gatherings, attendees give speeches about the greatness of the MEK and the atrociousness of the regime in Tehran. This is considered much more publicly acceptable than events prior to the shift towards the West, where the MEK conducted routine “ideological cleansings”, targeted supporters of the Iranian regime (with some reports of torture), and made preparations for future paramilitary operations against the regime in Tehran.
Prior to the Harper government, Canada considered the MEK to be a terrorist group, due to its ties to Saddam’s dictatorship in Iraq and its various attacks across the Middle East. In 2012, Harper’s Conservative government – which followed the Obama administration’s decision months earlier – decided to take the MEK off of the Canadian government’s official registry of listed terrorist entities (LTEs). No reasons were given for the delisting. At the same time, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Quds Force) was added to the LTE list. For reference, listed groups and their affiliates could be criminally charged and have their assets seized. There have been no steps taken by the Trudeau government towards relisting the MEK as an LTE. The MEK has been actively lobbying Canadian public figures, including politicians and journalists, to maintain its standing and push Canada in a hawkish direction on Iran.
Canadian Figures in MEK
Since the delisting, a number of important public figures have visited the MEK’s headquarters in Albania and attended its annual conferences in Paris and Tirana. Despite his government considering the MEK a terrorist group in 2012, former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spoken at the international MEK conference multiple times. At the conferences, Harper was joined by Candice Bergen and John Baird, both figureheads within the Conservative leadership. Baird was the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2011 to 2015, during which he closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and took other hardline measures against Iran, including rapprochement with the governments and militaries of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Bergen is still an MP and serves as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Conservative Party. Moreover, Michael Cooper, a Conservative MP from the St. Albert-Edmonton riding, attended the “Free Iran” conference in 2019. Cooper was joined by former public prosecutor and MP David Kilgour, Conservative Senator Linda Frum (sister of political commentator David Frum), and former Liberal Attorney-General Irwin Cotler. All attendees have been criticized by journalists, activists, and academics alike, with University of Ottawa Professor Thomas Juneau stating that Harper “openly supports a former terrorist group, a cultish, undemocratic, completely illegitimate group.”
What This Means for Canadian Foreign Policy
These individuals’ open support for the MEK is incredibly problematic, as they are sent not as private citizens, but rather as representatives of the Canadian government. This has tremendous implications for the present and future of Canadian foreign policy and strategic objectives. Essentially, representatives of the Canadian government are comfortable with the philosophy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to achieve their foreign policy goals—even if that enemy is a designated terrorist organization. In addition, the monetary benefits of joining the conference – with invitations attached to compensation ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars – raise questions about the corrupt and morally questionable nature of this behaviour from representatives of the Canadian government. Furthermore, this nonchalant support for a former listed terrorist entity and cultish group escalates tensions with Iran and embraces a reckless policy of rapprochement with the most hardline politicians within Western foreign policy.
In turn, maintaining relations with the MEK reduces any chance of peace or cooperation with Iran towards mutual goals, such as defeating the Islamic State, balancing the other Gulf State territorial ambitions, or the committed pursuit of democracy, human rights, and secular humanist values in the Middle East. To combat this normalization of support for a former listed terrorist entity, the Trudeau government should publicly and privately pressure Canadian politicians who support the MEK and re-designate the MEK as a terrorist group based on past and current activities, goals, and tactics. Moreover, the Trudeau government should make clear that the MEK does not align with Canadian global values and interests.