When confronted with the question of whether the Trump administration backs regime change in Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington would work with Iranian opposition groups to reach “peaceful transition of that government.”
The most organized and renowned Iranian opposition group is none other than the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), with the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) being the core member of this coalition.
The MEK enjoys vast support both inside Iran and abroad, along with an unmatched network of activists who dare to show their support for NCRI President Maryam Rajavi and her movement at every opportunity.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed Tillerson’s view, saying, “It’s time the Iranian people had a free and open society and a functioning democracy,” effectively a call for regime change.
Just months ago Senator McCain paid a visit to Albania, where most MEK members are currently stationed after a long ordeal in Iraq. The MEK was the target of numerous attacks by Iran-backed proxy groups and the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prior to their departure from Iraq in 2016.
On July 1, a major convention was held in Paris, where hundreds of political dignitaries from across the globe explicitly called for regime change in Iran and gave their support to the NCRI and MEK.
The MEK’s vast popular base was showcased as over 100,000 members of the Iranian Diaspora rushed to Paris to express their support for Maryam Rajavi, the MEK, and a free and democratic Iran.
Trump allies, including John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, were present and voiced their support for the convention’s cause.
“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centered in this room today. I had said for over 10 years since coming to these events, that the declared policy of the United States of America should be … to change the regime itself. And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” said Bolton.
We are currently at a period of analysis as the President’s National Security Council reviews Washington’s Iran policy. This comprehensive review is focused not only on its nuclear ambitions, but also on human rights and the many violations of international law.
The best and most realistic option before the Trump administration is supporting the pro-democracy coalition of dissidents, the NCRI, which is best able to mobilize other opposition groups into an even broader coalition. This, coupled with the MEK’s vast domestic network inside Iran, poses a major threat to the ruling regime in Tehran.
In his visit to Riyadh, President Trump also expressed strong views about extremist groups, sending a stern message to those supporting such entities.
“Drive them out of your places of worship.” Trump said of the extremists, “Drive them out of your holy land. Drive them out of this earth.”
After the July 1 convention in Paris, reports seen the next day indicated Trump might defy Tehran by signaling his willingness to consider supporting the Iranian opposition.
The Iranian people and their resistance, with the NCRI and MEK at the helm, will bring about “regime change from within.” That is where U.S. and international support will help.
Washington benefits from aligning with the Iranian opposition because this resistance is seeking regime change to bring about democracy and freedom for the Iranian people. In turn, this will help to stabilize the region, by rooting out the central exporter of terrorism and Islamic extremism, the religious fascism ruling Iran.
Thus, President Trump has before him the option of reaching out to the Iranian opposition during his review of Iran policy.
More about MEK:
A Long Conflict between the Clerical Regime and the MEK
The origins of the MEK date back to before the 1979 Iranian Revolution., the MEK helped to overthrow the dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi, but it quickly became a bitter enemy of the emerging the religious fascism under the pretext of Islamic Republic. To this day, the MEK and NCRI describe Ruhollah Khomenei and his associates as having co-opted a popular revolution in order to empower themselves while imposing a fundamentalist view of Islam onto the people of Iran.
Under the Islamic Republic, the MEK was quickly marginalized and affiliation with it was criminalized. Much of the organization’s leadership went to neighboring Iraq and built an exile community called Camp Ashraf, from which the MEK organized activities aimed at ousting the clerical regime and bringing the Iranian Revolution back in line with its pro-democratic origins. But the persistence of these efforts also prompted the struggling regime to crack down with extreme violence on the MEK and other opponents of theocratic rule.
The crackdowns culminated in the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, as the Iran-Iraq War was coming to a close. Thousands of political prisoners were held in Iranian jails at that time, many of them having already served out their assigned prison sentences. And with the MEK already serving as the main voice of opposition to the regime at that time, its members and supporters naturally made up the vast majority of the population of such prisoners.
As the result of a fatwa handed down by Khomeini, the regime convened what came to be known as the Death Commission, assigning three judges the task of briefly interviewing prisoners to determine whether they retained any sympathy for the MEK or harbored any resentment toward the existing government. Those who were deemed to have shown any sign of continued opposition were sentenced to be hanged. After a period of about three months, an estimated 30,000 people had been put to death. Many other killings of MEK members preceded and followed that incident, so that today the Free Iran rally includes an annual memorial for approximately 120,000 martyrs from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The obvious motive behind the 1988 massacre and other such killings was the destruction of the MEK. And yet it has not only survived but thrived, gaining allies to form the NCRI and acquiring the widespread support that is put on display at each year’s Free Iran rally. In the previous events, the keynote speech was delivered by Maryam Rajavi, who has been known to receive several minutes of applause from the massive crowd as she takes the stage. Her speeches provide concrete examples of the vulnerability of the clerical regime and emphasize the ever-improving prospects for the MEK to lead the way in bringing about regime change.
The recipients of that message are diverse and they include more than just the assembled crowd of MEK members and supporters. The expectation is that the international dignitaries at each year’s event will carry the message of the MEK back to their own governments and help to encourage more policymakers to recognize the role of the Iranian Resistance in the potential creation of a free and democratic Iranian nation. It is also expected that the event will inspire millions of Iranians to plan for the eventual removal of the clerical regime. And indeed, the MEK broadcasts the event via its own satellite television network, to millions of Iranian households with illegal hookups.
MEK’s Domestic Activism and Intelligence Network
What’s more, the MEK retains a solid base of activists inside its Iranian homeland. In the run-up to this year’s Free Iran rally the role of those activists was particularly evident, since the event comes just a month and a half after the latest Iranian presidential elections, in which heavily stage-managed elections resulted in the supposedly moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani securing reelection. His initial election in 2013 was embraced by some Western policymakers as a possible sign of progress inside the Islamic Republic, but aside from the 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers, none of his progressive-sounding campaign promises have seen the light of day.
Rouhani’s poor record has provided additional fertile ground for the message of the MEK and Maryam Rajavi. The Iranian Resistance has long argued that change from within the regime is impossible, and this was strongly reiterated against the backdrop of the presidential elections, when MEK activists used graffiti, banners, and other communications to describe the sitting president as an “imposter.” Many of those same communications decried Rouhani’s leading challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, as a “murderer,” owing to his leading role in the massacre of MEK supporters in 1988.
That fact helped to underscore the domestic support for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, insofar as many people who participated in the election said they recognized Raisi as the worst the regime had to offer, and that they were eager to prevent him from taking office. But this is not to say that voters saw Rouhani in a positive light, especially where the MEK is concerned. Under the Rouhani administration, the Justice Minister is headed by Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who also served on the Death Commission and declared as recently as last year that he was proud of himself for having carried out what he described as God’s command of death for MEK supporters.
With this and other aspects of the Islamic Republic’s record, the MEK’s pre-election activism was mainly focused on encouraging Iranians to boycott the polls. The publicly displayed banners and posters urged a “vote for regime change,” and many of them included the likeness of Maryam Rajavi, suggesting that her return to Iran from France would signify a meaningful alternative to the hardline servants of the clerical regime who are currently the only option in any Iranian national election.
Naturally, this direct impact on Iranian politics is the ultimate goal of MEK activism. But it performs other recognizable roles from its position in exile, not just limited to the motivational and organization role of the Free Iran rally and other, smaller gatherings. In fact, the MEK rose to particular international prominence in 2005 when it released information that had been kept secret by the Iranian regime about its nuclear program. These revelations included the locations of two secret nuclear sites: an uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak, capable of producing enriched plutonium.
As well as having a substantial impact on the status of international policy regarding the Iranian nuclear program, the revelations also highlighted the MEK’s popular support and strong network inside Iran. Although Maryam Rajavi and the rest of the leadership of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran reside outside of the country, MEK affiliates are scattered throughout Iranian society with some even holding positions within hardline government and military institutions, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Drawing upon the resources of that intelligence network, the MEK has continued to share crucial information with Western governments in recent years, some of it related to the nuclear program and some of it related to other matters including terrorist training, military development, and the misappropriation of financial resources. The MEK has variously pointed out that the Revolutionary Guard controls well over half of Iran’s gross domestic product, both directly and through a series of front companies and close affiliates in all manner of Iranian industries.
In February of this year, the Washington, D.C. office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran held press conferences to detail MEK intelligence regarding the expansion of terrorist training programs being carried out across Iran by the Revolutionary Guards. The growth of these programs reportedly followed upon direct orders from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and coincided with increased recruitment of foreign nationals to fight on Tehran’s behalf in regional conflicts including the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.
In the weeks following that press conference, the MEK’s parent organization also prepared documents and held other talks explaining the source of some of the Revolutionary Guards’ power and wealth. Notably, this series of revelations reflected upon trends in American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. And other revelations continue to do so, even now.
MEK Intelligence Bolstering US Policy Shifts
Soon after taking office, and around the time the MEK identified a series of Revolutionary Guard training camps, US President Donald Trump directed the State Department to review the possibility of designating Iran’s hardline paramilitary as a foreign terrorist organization. Doing so would open the Revolutionary Guards up to dramatically increased sanctions – a strategy that the MEK prominently supports as a means of weakening the barriers to regime change within Iran.
The recent revelations of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran have gone a long way toward illustrating both the reasons for giving this designation to the Revolutionary Guards and the potential impact of doing so. Since then, the MEK has also used its intelligence gathering to highlight the ways in which further sanctioning the Guards could result in improved regional security, regardless of the specific impact on terrorist financing.
For example, in June the NCRI’s Washington, D.C. office held yet another press conference wherein it explained that MEK operatives had become aware of another order for escalation that had been given by Supreme Leader Khamenei, this one related to the Iranian ballistic missile program. This had also been a longstanding point of contention for the Trump administration and the rest of the US government, in light of several ballistic missile launches that have been carried out since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, including an actual strike on eastern Syria.
That strike was widely viewed as a threatening gesture toward the US. And the MEK has helped to clarify the extent of the threat by identifying 42 separate missile sites scattered throughout Iran, including one that was working closely with the Iranian institution that had previously been tasked with weaponizing aspects of the Iranian nuclear program.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) led by Maryam Rajavi is thus going to great lengths to encourage the current trend in US policy, which is pointing to more assertiveness and possibly even to the ultimate goal of regime change. The MEK is also striving to move Europe in a similar direction, and the July 1 gathering is likely to show further progress toward that goal. This is because hundreds of American and European politicians and scholars have already declared support for the NCRI and MEK and the platform of Maryam Rajavi. The number grows every year, while the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran continues to collect intelligence that promises to clarify the need for regime change and the practicality of their strategy for achieving it.