The Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) claims to be the voice of a democratic Iranian opposition.
It is anything but.
Its ideological roots lie in a fusion of Marxism and Islamism. While the group’s members suffered at the hands of Ayatollah Khomeini and his security forces after the MEK split from their former ally, such suffering is not unique to the MEK, nor does it give the group any entitlement to impose itself on the Iranian public.
Simply put, many Iranians despise the group. While it embraces democratic rhetoric—putting its embrace and partnership with first Khomeini and then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein down the memory hole—some would argue it acts more like a cult.
Indeed, senior MEK leaders are unable to name a single instance of disagreement with leader Maryam Rajavi over more than three decades. To suggest regime hatred of the group bolsters its legitimacy among Iranians is a logical fallacy. After all, the regime also despises ethnic separatists inside Iran, but that does not bestow those groups legitimacy with ordinary Iranians or even, in many cases, with their co-ethnicists in the country. This is especially true in Iranian Azerbaijan which, wishful thinking in some Washington circles aside, contributes to the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy in a manner similar to how Soviet Georgia contributed to the top levels of the Soviet Union.
MEK finances are opaque. The tax returns of its affiliated U.S. groups suggest that the donations it makes and its pay-for-endorsement schemes are rooted in foreign money; there is no other explanation for how groups can pay off politicos with amounts greater than their annual operating budgets.
Maryam Rajavi has stood atop the MEK for nearly 30 years. She lives a life of luxury while many group members live in group houses. At 69-years-old, she is younger than the ayatollah she seeks to replace but of an age where health may be an increasing concern, especially given the secrecy surrounding her. MEK handlers stage-manage all appearances. There is no spontaneity.
Analysts—myself included—today consider whether the Islamic Republic can survive the death of its supreme leader. Given both the MEK’s ambition and how much of the MEK’s finances and political imagery are tied up in a single figure, it is reasonable to ask the same question of the MEK.
I recently surveyed a number of Iran analysts, some of whom asked to remain anonymous to avoid harassment of themselves or their families by either the Iranian regime or MEK activists. Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute, believed the MEK could survive Rajavi’s death, though he was in the minority. Alfoneh argued that the MEK has become highly institutionalized and no longer dependent on a charismatic leader. “Just as Scientology survived the passing of [founder L. Ron] Hubbard, the MEK too can survive the occultation of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi,” he said. “The collective leadership of the cult will decide if a public figure is needed, and [will] use the funds of the cult to recruit high profile public figures (the Tom Cruises of Iran) in order to secure the flow of new members.”
Others objected to the notion that the MEK is like Scientology and can so easily survive its founder’s death. As Shay Khatiri, a senior policy analyst at JINSA, pointed out, Scientology has a legal charter to which its leaders must at least pay lip service. The MEK, however, does not. Its rules are whatever Rajavi wants them to be at any particular time.
To make the transition from a personality cult to a group leadership would be trying. Certainly, there is a hierarchy within the MEK’s political and financial web, as another analyst told me, “so much of the organization was personalist that [in 2003] they couldn’t even admit Massoud passed.” Massoud Rajavi was Maryam’s husband and had been, since 1979, leader of the group.
Perhaps, there will be some parallels to what the Islamic Republic will experience upon current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s death. Khomeini was a charismatic figure with legitimate religious credentials. Prior to his death, he was able to appoint Khamenei as a compromise candidate. The Assembly of Experts that constitutionally chooses the next leader was simply a rubber stamp. While Khamenei lacked religious credentials, he was not at the time threatening to any of the Iranian regime’s more established power centers. While Khamenei consolidated power, he never accumulated religious respect. Perhaps like Maryam Rajavi, then, his word will become meaningless when he takes his last breath. The ability of the Islamic Republic to survive has never been so uncertain. Perhaps, with Rajavi in her grave, it could be a free-for-all or simply a rapid dissolution as those used to receiving orders to follow blindly flounder for a purpose while those who know where she has squirreled away her cash seek their cut to finance retirement on the French Riviera.
Another relevant analogy would be the death of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin. When Stalin was on his death bed, longtime politburo member and secret police chief Lavrenty Beria maneuvered to seize control of the Soviet Union. His naked ambition, however, frightened other central committee members who banded together to oppose Beria. In June 1953, they orchestrated his arrest. Within six months, he was dead by firing squad. The question then becomes, as Alfoneh asked, who among Rajavi’s leadership plays the role of Beria, and who if anyone could play the role of Nikita Khruschev, who orchestrated Beria’s demise on his own way to the top?
The MEK’s story is tragic on a number of levels. It contributed to Iran’s destruction by siding with Khomeini rather than democracy. The Rajavis’ ambition led them into Saddam’s embrace, delegitimizing them further. Khomeini’s regime slaughtered thousands, and tortured more. There is no excuse for their murder.
The tragedy of the MEK for Iranians continues to this day. Rajavi empowers the regime by allowing its propaganda arms to launder the image of the devil they know. The MEK’s quest for absolute power kneecaps more legitimate opposition.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).