President Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his new national security adviser has created a stir among foreign policy experts. He is known for expressing extreme skepticism about international institutions (including the United Nations, where he served as U.S. ambassador in the George W. Bush administration). He has advocated a preemptive strike against North Korea. And he has also repeatedly proposed “regime change” (meaning “war”) in Tehran.
Since the latter issue is one of the trickiest facing the Trump administration, it’s worth taking a closer look.
Bolton’s hawkish views on Iran mirror those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and one of his key ideological partners, the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK).
Today the MEK bears little resemblance to the highly organized, influential and militant opposition force that it was in Iran while seeking to topple the shah during the 1979 revolution. Initially it worked in cooperation with the clerical government. In fact, children of several top officials in the Islamic Republic joined the MEK.
When it became clear that the MEK could no longer coexist with the ruling Islamic Republic Party, some MEK members withdrew from the group, while others were imprisoned. They either recanted and returned to society or were executed.
Those who were left fled to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein, who invaded Iran in 1980, gave them a haven. Many took up arms and fought against their Iranian countrymen, earning the group the unofficial nickname monafegheen, or the “hypocrites.” That title has stuck, and most Iranians inside the country, regardless of their political tendencies, refer to them as such.
The group is loathed by most Iranians, mainly for the traitorous act of fighting alongside the enemy.
But it is the group’s activities in the decades since that have cemented its reputation as a deranged cult. For decades its command center was a compound in Iraq’s Diyala province, where more than 3,000 members lived in virtual captivity. The few who were able to escape told of being cut off from their loved ones, forced into arranged marriages, brainwashed, sexually abused and tortured.
All this was carried out under the supervision of the group’s leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, the husband and wife at the top of the organization’s pyramid. He has been missing since the U.S. invasion in 2003 and is presumed dead. She now runs the group and makes regular public appearances with her powerful friends from the West — such as Bolton.
The group was long a fixture on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations for having killed American citizens. Bolton and others successfully lobbied to have the designation removed in 2012. That did little to change how average Iranians think of the organization.
In the seven years I lived in Iran, many people expressed criticism of the ruling establishment — at great potential risk to themselves. Some hoped for regime change by military force, others dreamed of a return of the monarchy and many more wanted to see a peaceful transition to a secular alternative to clerical rule. In all that time, though, I never met a person who thought the MEK should, or could, present a viable alternative.
But apparently that doesn’t matter to its supporters in Washington.
Of course they were paid for their loyalty. “Very few former U.S. government officials shilled pro bono for the MEK,” said a former State Department official who worked on Iran. Among the long bipartisan list of people who have taken money from the group in exchange for speaking at its events are former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean. Bolton, the former official told me, was also paid.
Their many efforts failed to the block the nuclear deal with Iran. Despite the long list of nefarious acts still carried out by Tehran, the biggest threat that Iran posed to international security — the issue that our allies and other world powers all agreed needed to be resolved — has been resolved.
To those who claim that the nuclear deal isn’t working, regime change remains the only solution. For the MEK, and Bolton, if his words are to be taken at face value, the only path to that could be war. The group has long been prepared to do whatever it takes to see that happen, including presenting fake intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program.
A dividend of our protracted negotiations with Iran is the increased knowledge we now have about the Islamic Republic and the population it rules over. It’s a luxury we didn’t enjoy in 2003, when exiled figures like Ahmad Chalabi were able to convince the Bush administration they could help transition Iraq into a thriving democracy.
We know enough about Iran that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that the MEK could ever provide a viable alternative to the current regime.
The MEK is the type of fringe group that sets up camp across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and hands out fliers filled with unsubstantiated claims. This is America — we let crazy people talk. That’s their right, and I would never suggest that they be prohibited from doing that. But giving the MEK a voice in the White House is a terrible idea.
In John Bolton they have someone who will do it for them.