Can the West Control the MKO?

By Anne Singleton, Dunia Al Arab, November 2004

If ever there was a story to emerge from the new global war on terrorism which encapsulates the contradictions and controversy inherent in defining the new world order, it is the story of the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq.

Although it is listed as a terrorist entity in all major Western countries, it seems the West still hasn’t got to grips with what that means.

The MKO is still active in Europe and USA because there is no consensus on how to deal with them. Partly it is a symptom of the MKO’s own tactics – not only do they terrorise governments by having people burn themselves in public places, but anyone who even makes the slightest criticism of the group comes in for a massive counter attack. It works only because organisations do not have the resources (as the MKO had money from Saddam Hussein and its own in-house slave labour) to reply to these orchestrated attacks. The lack of hard information about the MKO is as much due to this tactic as to its own lack of newsworthiness. For news editors, the MKO is simply not worth the effort. Ignorance prevails and the MKO fill this silence with their own very peculiar version of reality.

In spite of being designated as a terrorist entity, and being a foreign terrorist group in Iraq, the capitulated MKO was nominated very quickly after the invasion in 2003 by US neocons and Israel’s Likud Party as a useful bargaining chip in any talks with Iran. This started with the idea that Al Qaida suspects reportedly captured in Iran could be exchanged for MKO leaders captured by the USA in Iraq. This didn’t happen. Instead, the latest version of this is the use of the MKO as a threat against Iran if it doesn’t comply to US and European demands over its nuclear program – basically that it stop enriching uranium.

In this, both side are playing a game of cat and mouse. Iran insists that the IAEA is the responsible body to which it should answer, not national governments, and that there is no international law to prevent the enrichment of uranium that it is pursuing. However, threats hang over the debate. The US administration threat that after Afghanistan and Iraq will come the turn of Iran has receded and dwindled to nothing as no one now believes such a military adventure is possible or desirable. However, some in the US have not given up the idea that the MKO could be brandished as a threat against Iran and has persuaded some in Europe to pick up this idea and insert it as a condition for compliance. In other words, if Iran does not give up its enrichment program, the West will re-arm the MKO and employ it against Iran.

So, several issues are involved. The major issue of course is how the re-arming of a terrorist entity and paying it to launch terrorist attacks against an enemy will be squared in the context of the USA’s global war on terrorism. Europe has said that it will continue to regard the MKO as terrorist as part of its suspension demands of Iran. Does this mean that should Iran continue with enrichment the MKO’s recent violent history in Iraq – killing Kurds, Shiites and Iranians – is to be ignored for political expediency? Where does this leave European politics?

Another major question is whether the MKO is actually perceived as a threat by Iran anyway. Certainly, since well before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Iranian government had been sending signals that the MKO was, as far as Iran was concerned, a defunct force which posed no threat to Iran’s national security. With the MKO’s armed forces sitting just over the border in Iraq, there would be little credence given to these statements unless they had at least some basis in fact.

Aside from these two major concerns, it is surely useful to look at the MKO itself to see what kind of ‘resource’ it offers to Western backers in their conflict with Iran.

Whatever its past history and its past strength, the MKO is now a much reduced force. From the point of manpower the organisation has been severely depleted over the past decade. Currently, out of 3800 captured in Iraq by US forces, at least 500 are being held separately in a US base after they demanded separation from the group. Of the remaining forces several have simply escaped from Ashraf camp and disappeared – a figure of around 300 has been rumoured. The MKO itself has stated that around 10% of the original 3800 have expressed a desire to leave. We can assume this is a conservative figure based on the group’s own propaganda needs. What this does tell us is that morale in the MKO’s Iraqi camps is extremely low. Of course another problem for western backers who want to revive the terrorist capability of the MKO to use against Iran is the age of the majority of members. Most joined around the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the average age of the combatants is now well over forty five years old. To have any hope as an effective fighting force there would need to be a quick fire campaign to recruit more willing younger fighters, and some kind of fast track induction into the ideology to get them to be willing martyrs to their cause. Where and how this could happen is open to question in its own right.

The other aspect of its reduced force is the MKO’s standing in the international political scene. At one time, the MKO did enjoy political support from many in the West. In fact the organisation was financed by Saddam Hussein to organise over the top propaganda campaigns precisely in order to attract this support. The MKO’s actual motive was to convince Saddam Hussein that it was a viable force against Iran in order to justify the continued arming and training of its fighters by Hussein’s regime. But even before the downfall of Saddam’s regime, the MKO had been losing its political ground as its activities were being re-assessed in the context of 9/11 and the threat of global terror. The US State Department first listed the MKO as terrorist back in 1997 and all major western governments have followed suit.

So again we return to the contradictions in this terrorist listing. It is apparent that no one really knows at what level this is to be taken seriously.

Although it has no political support and a dwindling an ageing membership, the MKO has pushed itself under the nose of a few willing western backers with its willingness to regurgitate Israel’s anti-Iran agenda over the nuclear issue. The terrorist MKO organisation now has its own spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, on FOX News channel to talk about this issue. A ‘freedom of expression’ which was questioned by Massoud Khodabandeh a former member of the MKO, now working in the UK as a Telecoms and Security Consultant and who, as a former high ranking member, is well placed to criticise the MKO. Mr Khodabandeh challenged FOX News to host a live debate with other Iranian analysts and experts on the claims Jafarzadeh makes on behalf of the MKO.

The Neocons and far right Israelis’ backing for the MKO though is battling an uphill struggle against unpalatable facts. The Duelfer Report into Iraq’s weapons exposed the MKO as a beneficiary of Saddam Hussein’s corruption of the UN’s Oil-for-Food program. The organisation received vouchers for the sale of oil overseas allowing it to potentially generate around $11.2 million. Alongside secretly filmed videos of top MKO officials bargaining over the price for terror targets picked out for them by Iraqi Secret Service officials, these revelations have left little room for manoeuvre for those still willing to gamble on backing the mercenary outfit.

As a result, a US official in Washington revealed on condition of anonymity the possibility that around 4-6 of the MKOs top members who with around 40 others will be tried in Iraq for crimes against humanity and war crimes, may be taken to the US to be tried. So while some on the far right want to reconstitute the MKO as an armed threat against Iran, particularly over the nuclear issue, there are also some in the State Department who argue that the arrest and disarming of the MKO is not enough and the captive terrorist leaders should be proffered for exchange in order to broker deals with Iran. Either way, the MKO appears to have little say in its own future. And surely, in the age of the global war on terrorism, that is how is should be.

Still, over in Europe the MKO is continuing with the kind of propaganda activities it has always undertaken. Most recently, the organisation held some demonstrations to protest Europe’s handling of the nuclear issue. In this case, the number of people participating was so minimal that even the backers must be having second thoughts about whether this is an effective way of spending money. In this current round of propaganda activity, a demonstration was held in Brussels in October this year in which the MKO resorted in desperation to paying Swedish schoolchildren to attend.

When such events occur in western countries, it leaves one to wonder where the real threat of the MKO lies. Iran has said it does not regard the MKO as a threat and indeed welcomes back deserting members with open arms and forgiveness. The MKO in Iraq has been successfully disarmed and weakened with no effort on Iran’s part. There is no threat of cross border terrorist attacks now. Instead, the MKO who fled at the start of the war, have taken their battles with them to Europe. The self-immolations in June 2003 attested to the continued violent approach of the organisation against all its enemies. Since these public burnings were directed specifically against western governments, we can only wonder who the MKO’s enemies now actually are? Recently, an attempted abduction of a former member in the shopping streets of a German city confirmed findings that one of the MKO’s primary missions in Europe is to eliminate and silence its critics starting with witnesses to the murders and tortures committed in Iraq. It appears that the MKO’s battle has now become western-centric rather than Iran-centric. But, this will come as no surprise to those who are aware of the MKO’s deep antipathy to western ‘Imperialism’.

For many the recent prevarication over the MKO has echoes of the way Al Qaida was treated up to the events of 9/11. Until that defining moment it wasn’t really clear whether Al Qaida was terrorist on paper or de facto terrorist. Whether or not 9/11 could have been prevented, the lesson to be learned is that the internal politics of these organisations will override whatever role they are paid to undertake. In the end terrorism is their modus operandi. Are those who back the MKO for short term political reasons sure they will be able to control it when it is no longer needed?