The first time I encountered the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), the Iranian group recently removed by the State Department from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, was in Los Angeles in 2008. I was working for Amnesty International and I had organized an outreach event on human rights to the Iranian-American community.
When supporters of the MEK learned of the event, they objected to one of the speakers because he believed the best way to curb Iran’s human rights abuses is through engagement and interaction, not war. Supporters of the MEK proceeded to call my office line—and then my personal cell phone—so many times that I considered changing my number. Most of the messages were expletive-filled accusations that I was an “agent for the Iranian government,” “an apologist for the mullahs,” and “a terrible Iranian.
We proceeded with the event anyways.
Supporters of the MEK showed up early, filled up almost all of the seats and started shouting. One of the audience members, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who had been tortured in Iran, stood up and said in Farsi that Amnesty had fought for his life and that they should be respectful of the speakers. But they continued to shout.
When they refused to lower their signs or stop yelling, over a dozen police officers intervened and insisted we cancel. The police feared the protesters would become violent. Before our first speaker could even say a word, I had to call it off.
The group intrigued me and I started to probe their history, wanting to learn more.
Violence has always been a part of the MEK. The group was founded in 1965 as an armed opposition to the Shah of Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, it assassinated Iran’s first president and prime minister and later assisted Saddam Hussein in crushing the Kurdish uprising. In 2001 the MEK claimed that it renounced violence but its record showed otherwise. According to a report published by Human Rights Watch in May 2005, “The former (MEK) members reported abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members.”
I was appalled by what I learned about the MEK and I managed to steer clear of the group in Washington DC. That changed in 2009 when I began working as a foreign policy aide to a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Before I worked in Congress, I would have said that advocating for Palestine is the most challenging foreign policy topic on Capitol Hill. But after I worked in the House of Representatives, I realized it is harder to have a rational discussion of Iran than it is to have a rational discussion of Palestinian rights.
The MEK has always been smart to play off other special interest groups. When I met with a prominent pro-Israeli lobby for the first time, a college age volunteer told me his group’s first priority was Iran, its second priority was Iran, and its third priority was Iran.
I realized in Congress that it was nearly impossible to speak about human rights in Iran or about the humanitarian effects of US sanctions without another member of Congress or a special interest group accusing you of being soft on terrorism.
I tried to avoid MEK supporters in Congress but it was difficult. Most days I found MEK supporters camped out in a basement room in the Rayburn House Office Building, passing out flyers with graphic photos of human rights abuses in Iran, serving kabobs and baghali polo. They understood that to attract and to sway staffers, the promise of exotic food could always draw a crowd. One time I received a text from a staffer that the “kabobs from this Iranian group are off the hook good” and that I should come by.
I never did. I knew that MEK supporters took photos at these events and that when a staffer or a Member of Congress showed up, they would post the photos online as a sign of their growing support.
When I refused to attend, MEK supporters often shouted at me, telling me I should be ashamed for calling myself Iranian. I always loved to see their reaction when I would tell them, “Dude…I am Indian.”
Most of all, they stoked the anti-Iran rhetoric in Congress and told staffers that the MEK is a secular alternative, a voice of human rights that would be friends with Israel if it came to power. They told us they had a special message to deliver on “behalf” of the Iranian people: we want the government overthrown. I do not know what was more chilling—their message of regime change or the fact that my colleagues in Congress believed them.
After my botched outreach event for Amnesty International in 2008, I showed up the following Monday to my office in Washington DC and noticed a large cake with my name on it. I was confused. My birthday was months away.
My boss, a seasoned veteran of the White House and the Hill, told me that she was happy that Amnesty International did not cave in.
“No one likes crazy people,” she reassured me. “No one advances that way in this town.”
I liked that quote. I wrote it down and tacked it to my bulletin board. But as this week’s de-listing of the MEK shows, that is just not true. Sometimes bullies do advance in DC, especially if they are well heeled.