Founded by Iranian students in the 1960s as a Marxist-Islamist movement, the group is accused of killing six Americans in terrorist attacks in the 1970s during its struggle to topple the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Some of its members participated in the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 before the MEK broke with Iran’s new Islamic rulers and began attacking the regime with suicide bombings and assassinations. Many of the group’s leaders were captured, tried and executed.
MEK officials sought exile abroad, first in France and later in Iraq, where the group found common cause with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The dictator provided the movement with a sanctuary — later dubbed Camp Ashraf — as well as weapons, tanks and other equipment. MEK troops fought against their countrymen during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
Connections to Iraq
MEK leaders officially renounced terrorism in 2001, but ties to the Iraqi dictator earned the group the hatred of Iranians and many Iraqis. In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq left the group without its powerful sponsor and with few appealing prospects, unable to return to Iran and detested by the new Iraqi leadership. No other countries offered refuge to a group that, in addition to the terrorism stigma from the 1970s, had gained a reputation for cultlike behavior — MEK members at Camp Ashraf wear military clothing and adhere to a doctrine that requires mandatory divorce for married members as well as celibacy, enforced separation of the sexes and unquestioned allegiance to the MEK’s leadership.
“I see them as a cross between Hezbollah and the Branch Davidians,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is legitimate to debate whether the MEK meets the Justice Department’s legal definition of a terrorist organization. But it is outright false to claim that they are a legitimate, democracy-minded opposition group with a wide base inside Iran.”
The group did possess two attributes that would eventually allow it to build a network of allies and friends. One was an extensive cash reserve, some of it donated by wealthy Iranians in the West, and the rest acquired from still-unknown sources, something MEK leaders decline to discuss. The other was a deep antipathy for the Iranian government, a view widely shared by many conservative Republicans as well as more hawkish Democrats.
The MEK’s appeal as a potential partner against Iran sharpened in 2002 when the group exposed the existence of a secret uranium-enrichment plant near the Iranian town of Natanz. Slowly, a small band of influential Americans began advocating direct U.S. support for the dissidents as a tool for undermining Iran’s theocratic government.