U.S. Politicians Seduced by Iran’s Shadow Government

A group of wealthy, hawkish Iranians-in-exile has premier access to U.S. Congress members.

Cole Stangler

A MeK protest sign from 2011 calls for the de-listing of MeK as a terrorist organization. The State Department dropped MeK from the rolls in September of 2012. (futureatlas.com / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Last month, in a Paris suburb, a bipartisan group of American politicians attended a massive conference and political rally held by an organization calling for the overthrow of the Iranian government. With wealthy donors spread across Europe and the Middle East, the group is beating the war drums for American intervention in Iran. 

MeK-backed lobbyists have been increasingly successful in engaging with members of Congress, many of whom are attracted by the National Council of Resistance’s self-described democratic and secular opposition to the unpopular Iranian regime.

The conference was the tenth such event organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which is the political wing of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (MeK), a group that was classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department as recently as September 2012. The MeK and its supporters have increased their clout in Washington, as highlighted by the fact that three sitting representatives attended June’s annual conference — Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.). Last Friday, Roll Call reported that the representatives’ trips each cost more than $10,000 for the weekend.

In addition to those sitting representatives, this year’s event featured a collection of high-profile American political figures spanning the political spectrum. Republican conference participants featured former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Democratic conferencegoers included former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. More than thirty other current House members were invited to the conference but did not attend.

As the political face of the MeK, the National Council of Resistance is a shadow Iranian government that was founded in Tehran in 1981 in the aftermath of Khomeini’s rise to power. The MeK’s political agenda has undergone multiple transformations — at various points since its founding in 1965 it has been Marxist, Islamist, secular — but its opposition to Iran’s post-Shah Shi’a regime has remained a constant. The organization, which moved its main headquarters to Iraq in the 1980s, was first listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department in 1997 for its killings of American civilians in Iran in the 1970s and an attempted bombing of the Iranian UN Mission in 1992. A now infamous 2009 Rand study, commissioned by the Defense Department characterized the MeK as dissident cult group” (noting its practice of mandatory divorce for members) and remarked on its deceptive recruitment and public relations strategies.”

While the organization has little actual presence in Iran, it has boosted its international profile as of late. The group reportedly offers handsome speaking fees at its conferences, according to the BBC, roughly $20,000 for a 10-minute speech.

This is a group that is extremely dangerous,” says Jamal Abdi, senior policy advisor at the National Iranian American Council, an organization that lobbies against U.S. sanctions on Iran and for peace talks between the two nations.

A senior Democratic staffer tells In These Times that the MeK-backed lobbyists have been increasingly successful in engaging with members of Congress, many of whom are attracted by the National Council of Resistance’s self-described democratic and secular opposition to the unpopular Iranian regime. These lobbyists often work for groups with innocuous-sounding names, such as the Iranian-American Community of North Texas or the Iranian-American Community of Northern California. The name of the trip’s sponsor this year was the Organization of Iranian-American Communities.

Part of what’s scary from a progressive perspective is that they’re very much pushing for war with Iran,” the staffer says, referencing the group’s leaking of alleged intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program to members of Congress. They’re always here. I see them [on Capitol Hill] almost every day. Clearly they’re constantly meeting with people and pushing this agenda.”

The staffer compares the group’s tactics to those used by Iraq War supporters in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. At that time, many war hawks championed the cause of Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress. That marginal group of Iraqi exiles, financed by the CIA, endorsed by the Bush Administration and promoted by the New York Times’ Judith Miller managed to earn a degree of international support by branding itself as a democratic alternative to the Saddam Hussein regime. Chalabi, whose organization leaked documents to the press and high-ranking politicians in the hopes of justifying American military intervention, eventually earned the title of the George Washington of Iraq.” Chalabi is now a member of the Iraqi Parliament.

The MeK equivalent is Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the government-in-exile. Her husband used to lead the MeK but has been in hiding for the last 10 years. The couple maintains a cultish allure among their supporters.

At the rally last month outside of Paris, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) presented the beaming president-in-waiting with a gift. On behalf of the U.S. Congress, I want to give you a plate that is sealed in glass, and when Iran is free and you are the President we will break this glass and break bread in Tehran together.”

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Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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