“As I’m speaking to you, you must either think I’m a con man sitting in front of you, plain and simple, or I’m genuine,” Ali Safavi, a former spokesman for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, told TPM in an interview last week. “There is nothing in between.”
As TPM has reported, a growing number of former U.S. government, military and intelligence officials have recently been attending events in support of the MEK, an Iranian opposition group classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. These officials have called the MEK critical to any chance of regime change in Iran, and have urged President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take the group off the terror list. Furthermore, supporters have called for the protection of the roughly 3,400 MEK members who currently reside at Camp Ashraf, the organization’s main base, in Iraq. Ashraf has fallen into a kind of diplomatic no-man’s land between Iraq, Iran and the U.S., and the MEK says its members there have been subject to attacks and other privations.
Safavi, a former MEK spokesman and current member of the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which the State Department considers the MEK’s “political arm,” spoke to TPM about the controversy surrounding the group. Several times, he put the debate in the starkest possible terms.
“Let me put it this way, Eric, for you, yourself as a person, as a human being, to be at peace with your conscience,” Safavi said. “This issue of the MEK, I’m afraid I have to tell you, is a black and white issue. Either the MEK is exactly what you have read, [what] its detractors say it is — or it is the exact opposite.”
Safavi, who studied and taught sociology at UCLA and the University of Michigan during the 1970s, served as a spokesman for the MEK in Washington D.C. during the 1980s, and then worked in a similar capacity in Paris until the early 1990s. While no longer an official MEK member, he is now one of the 530 members of the NCRI, a self-styled parliament in exile that in 1993 unanimously picked MEK leader Maryam Rajavi to be president-elect of a post-Islamic-regime transitional government in Iran. Currently, Safavi is also the president of Near East Policy Research, an Alexandria, Virginia-based organization “dedicated to informing and stimulating the debate on Near East policy issues of critical importance to the policy makers and analysts,” according to its website. Safavi maintains a blog at The Huffington Post, where he promotes the MEK and rebuts reports about the group that he disagrees with.
The State Department put the MEK on its terror list in 1997, but it has publicly accused the group of engaging in terrorist activities since the 1980s, according to press reports. The State Department’s latest Country Reports On Terrorism state that the group killed Americans in Iran before the fall of the Shah in 1979, and went on to kill dozens of high-ranking Iranian officials after 1981, the year the group had a falling out with the Islamic regime. (The MEK now blames the killing of Americans on a splinter group, and insists that it has never killed innocent people.) According to the State Department, the NCRI maintains “a global support network with active lobbying and propaganda efforts in major Western capitals.” Despite the designation, the group has counted members of Congress among its supporters for years. And support from D.C. heavyweights has stepped up recently, in the wake of a Washington D.C. District Court of Appeal’s recent ruling that asked the State Department to review the MEK’s placement on the terror list.
Among the speakers at recent pro-MEK events have been former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CIA directors, and prominent office holders from both the Democratic and Republican parties. These officials have tried to frame support for the MEK as a middle-ground in the United States’ policy toward Iran between unproductive sanctions and risky military force. Detractors, meanwhile, say the MEK has little support in Iran, and U.S. support for the group would alienate ordinary Iranians.
The MEK says that 120,000 of its members have been killed by the government in Iran over the years, and Safavi brought a large, red volume to the interview, which he said documents 20,000 of the dead. Among them is Safavi’s own brother. According to Safavi, the MEK treasures its “martyrs” over everything else.
Over the course of our conversation, Safavi refuted a number of the deeds and characterizations attributed to the MEK. He suggested that negative portrayals of the group, including information reported by the State Department, have been propagated by the Iranian regime.
Safavi rejected the label of the MEK as a violent group. The group says it has renounced violence, and it turned over its large supply of weapons, which included tanks, to the U.S. after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In 1986, the MEK fled to Iraq, after being kicked out of France. The State Department says that the MEK then relied on Saddam Hussein for “basing, financial support, and training,” and the group fought on the Iraqi side in the closing years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Safavi said the decision to go to Iraq was only made because the group had no other options.
“You need a base, a land to operate from,” he said. “And so, it so happened that at that time Iraq was still at war with Iran. And of course, politically it was to the benefit of Iraq to allow the MEK to go to Iraq, because it would show both to the Iraqis, especially the Shi’ites — because the Mujahedin are Shi’ites — but also to the Iranian population, that the main opposition to the regime is on Iraqi soil.”
Safavi also rejected the claim that MEK lost popular support in Iran after siding with Hussein.
“People who say that either don’t know Iranian society, or have a specific ulterior political motive,” he said.
Asked about reports that the MEK had received money in the past from the U.S. government, and had a relationship with the CIA, Safavi said the MEK has never asked for “any assistance from any government.”
“The United States government has not paid a dime to the MEK,” Safavi said. “Not a dime. The MEK has never asked for it… it hasn’t needed it because this is its treasure, this is its asset” — he tapped the the red volume — “Iranians who give their children to the cause of the MEK in such large numbers, they are more than ready to provide any financial assistance to the organization.”
Safavi took exception to the State Department’s description of the NCRI as a “political front” for the MEK. He said that while the MEK made up the bulk of the NCRI’s membership, they are separate organizations. He cited the fact that four other Iranian opposition groups belong to the NCRI, and that the heads of several NCRI committees are not MEK members. TPM has asked Safavi for breakdown of NCRI members by organizational affiliation.
Perhaps most adamantly, Safavi took exception to the characterization of the MEK as a cult. The State Department, the Council of Foreign Relations, The New York Times and The New Yorker, among others, have suggested that a cult of personality has built up around Mrs. Rajavi and her husband, Massoud Rajavi, who the NCRI calls “the Leader of the Iranian Resistance.”
“When you talk about the MEK, and you say they are a cult, and they are this and that, we take it very personally, very personally,” Safavi said. “Because in our view, and in my view, it is an insult to our brothers and our sisters and our fathers and our mothers and our cousins and our friends who have been murdered by this regime.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com