“Gunning for Iran”
Dateline, SBS Television. 11th April 2006
This story looks at the shadowy Iranian opposition group the Mujahedin-e-Khalk, (MeK), and their role in publicizing so called intelligence “revelations” about Iran’s nuclear program. The MeK is considered a terrorist organization and a cult by many, yet powerful figures in Washington DC are seemingly prepared to work with them.
11th April 2006.
You must’ve heard the howls of protest from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the release of a US House of Representatives report on Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA branded the American report “outrageous and dishonest” for asserting that Tehran’s nuclear plans were geared towards weapons. This, of course, was just the latest flare-up in the running debate over Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions. So where is Washington getting its information?
Try an Iranian opposition group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq – MeK for short. Given the debacle over Saddam’s non-existent WMDs in Iraq, you’d reckon there’d have to be a touch of caution where Iranian exiles peddling nuclear secrets are concerned. But as Bronwyn Adcock tells it, when the MeK speaks, Washington hardliners listen.
Three weeks ago in New York, journalists were summoned to this hotel for a press conference. It has been organised by this man – Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who regularly reveals what he claims is inside information on Iran’s nuclear program.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH, MUJAHEDIN-E-KHALQ LOBBYIST: I would like to share with you today the information I’ve gotten from the very same sources that have proven accurate in the past.
Today, Jafarzadeh announces he’s discovered an apparently sinister new development.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: A very important aspect of the Iran regime’s nuclear weapons program is actually laser enrichment, and the information I’ve gotten from my sources today suggests that Iran is heavily involved in laser enrichment program.
As always, the information is incredibly detailed, with maps, names and addresses. Since 2002, Jafarzadeh and the Iranian opposition group he’s connected to, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MeK, have made nearly 20 intelligence revelations, in press conferences from Paris to New York, Washington and London.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: And they are scheduled to be able to get the bomb by 2005.
The MeK revelations have had an extraordinary impact, sparking inspections in Iran by the nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to the MeK, Iran is building a nuclear bomb, and the world should be very afraid.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: I think the world has to take the Iranian regime’s threat very, very seriously. These ayatollahs believe in what they say, believe that they can eliminate Israel off the map, they can eliminate the superpowers.
According to this Iranian opposition group, there is only one solution.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: You need to slay the dragon. This is the solution. You need to slay the dragon, which means regime change.
The MeK is playing a key role in what’s shaping up as one of the critical contests of our time – the stand-off between the US and Iran, played out here at the United Nations General Assembly two weeks ago.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH AT UN: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.
AHMADINEJAD, IRAN PRESIDENT AT UN, (Translation): All our nuclear activities are transparent and peaceful and fully overseen by the IAEA
CROWD: Down with terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with terrorist!
Outside the United Nations that day Alireza Jafarzadeh and the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, are again trying to get their opinion heard.
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Obtaining the bomb, the nuclear bomb would unquestionably give Tehran the upper hand in the region.
And some powerful forces in the West are listening. The MeK’s main backer in Washington is a newly formed think tank called the Iran Policy Committee, headed by a former Reagan White House official, Professor Raymond Tanter.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER, IRAN POLICY COMMITTEE: The regime change clock has to start. Right now, the regime change clock is not even ticking.
In the Iran Policy Committee, Professor Tanter has created a powerful grouping of former CIA, Pentagon and White House officials. At forums like this briefing on Capitol Hill, the group is trying to convince the American Government that the MeK can help them achieve the goal of regime change.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We didn’t choose the Mujahedin-e-Khalq. The data hit us between the eyes. The analysis passes what I call ‘the interocular test’ – it hits you right between the eyes. I invented that phrase.
CROWD (Translation): Ahmadinejad terrorist! Ahmadinejad terrorist! Down with the terrorist!
But for some, the sight of exile groups bearing gifts of intelligence for the West just brings back bad memories.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK, COLOMBIA UNIVERSITY: In the past, on Iraq, we were fed a lot of false information to try to get our attention and to get us to do what we did. We bought it, and I have a very hard time understanding how anybody can maintain a straight face and say, “Again,” we should do the same thing all over again.
Professor Gary Sick has served on the National Security Council under three presidents. He was the principle White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and has followed the country closely ever since. He’s extremely sceptical about the MeK.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: When people get enthusiastic about this, I just have to look at the history of the organisation, the way it’s behaved, the way it’s done all of the things that it’s done, and I simply can’t see it, I really can’t see it. I find it very difficult to explain why people would get so enthusiastic about this group.
The MeK does have an extraordinary history. A militant left-wing movement, it participated in the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah. But afterwards, when the ayatollahs took power, the MeK began fighting the new regime.
It carried out bombings that killed senior Islamic leaders, and many of its members were executed.
In the 1980s it moved its military base to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From here at Camp Ashraf it launched attacks across the border, and successfully carried out assassinations and bombings within Iran. The MeK’s military heyday has long since passed. Less than 3,000 fighters remain in a camp now guarded by Americans. What’s more, the group’s often violent past has left it officially listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States, the European Union and Australia.
The real action for the MeK now is in the West, where a bevy of lobbyists is operating, including Ali Safavi here in London. Safavi has devoted most of his adult life to the MeK struggle. Now he’s working to get the group taken off the terrorist list. His office located around the corner from parliament.
ALI SAFAVI, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF RESISTANCE OF IRAN: And obviously the office is very close so that it would be more convenient, both for us and for them.
Being listed as a terrorist organisation stands between the MeK and real political credibility. Safavi claims the group was only put on the list by governments trying to win favour with Iran.
ALI SAFAVI: It has nothing to do with the nature, with the conduct, or the activities of the Mujahedin. It is basically a bargaining chip.
Ali Safavi is trying to convince the West of the apparently impressive democratic credentials of the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI.
ALI SAFAVI: The NCRI basically advocates a secular, democratic form of government, a government that is based on the separation of church and the state or mosque and state, if you will.
Leading the concerted charm offensive is the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, who’s based in Paris. She’s offering up an enticing proposition to the West.
MARYAM RAJAVI, (Translation): Today I’ve come to tell you that the international community doesn’t have to choose between mullahs with an atomic bomb and war. A third way exists. A democratic change by the Iranian people and organised resistance.
Maryam Rajavi says if the MeK is just taken off the terrorist list, it will be a sign for the people of Iran to rise up and overthrow their government. It’s this proposition that’s winning support with the Iran Policy Committee in Washington and in parliaments around the West.
Here at the European Parliament, British Conservative MP Brian Binley tells a group of MeK supporters that the majority of the House of Commons and 130 members in the House of Lords are behind the group.
BRIAN BINLEY, BRITISH CONSERVATIVE MP: Because they are the antithesis of the dictatorial fundamentalists that rule in modern-day Iran today, and, indeed, the very antithesis of a regime that I believe poses the greatest threat to global security that we face as a global people.
Binlay was converted to the cause after being approached by an MeK supporter in the halls of Parliament.
BRIAN BINLEY: I met with a gentleman called Nasser, who is a supporter of the National Council, and we talked. And he works in and around the House, as a lobbyist, I suppose you would say. And we talked, and I liked what he had to say, and, more importantly, what he had to say seemed credible in the way that I’ve just explained.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: These are people who really believe that Iran…the regime should be changed, that this regime of mullahs should be done away with. And you look around, and you don’t see any other place where you can put a lever. And I must say for the Mujahedin, to give them full credit, they are very good at their propaganda.
According to Gary Sick, the MeK’s origins at the time of the revolution were anything but democratic.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: There, too, they weren’t talking about democracy, they were talking about power, and who took over. And there was certainly no sign from where I sat in the White House that these people were in any way trying to bring democracy to Iran. They were trying to get rid of the group that had taken over and install themselves in power. And I think that pretty well describes what they’ve been doing ever since.
Massoud Khodabeanedeh says that the MeK is not only undemocratic but that internally, it operates like a cult. Now living in the United Kingdom, Khodabeanedeh was a high-level member for more than 15 years.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH, FORMER MEK MEMBER: They have a charismatic leader, they use psychological methods to convince people and keep people. Their wealth is always serving the leader, not the people. They try to get the money out of the people and keep it. They cut people from their past, their family. They are very restrictive in that way. There is Maryam and Massoud and me, as his bodyguard.
Khodabeanedeh worked as security for the MeK’s leadership in Iraq but left after becoming disenchanted. He is now one of the most outspoken critics of the organisation.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Later on it came to these sessions of self-confession, which again, is a cult… every cult has got it – which you have to come, and every day come to the meeting, explain what you have been thinking about, or what even you have been dreaming about, and even if you don’t have, they will hint that you have to lie, you have to make up something. So the collective pressure would be on you and they purify you.
REPORTER: So all women wore headscarves?
ANNE: Yeah. It was a part of the uniform. It was actually the uniform.
Massoud Khodabanedeh’s wife, Anne, was also a member for seven years, inspired to join by an Iranian boyfriend and an interest in Islam.
ANNE: I became full-time in 1990. After going on hunger strike for two weeks, I was on a real high and I devoted myself to them. And that devotion was encouraged, and I was told at some point fairly early on that all you have to do is choose your leader and follow that leader. And you don’t have to make any decisions. And that leader, of course, was Maryam Rajavi.
Both Anne and Massoud say that in order to encourage devotion to the leadership family relationships were discouraged.
ANNE: When it actually comes to being a liberating movement for women, I would say just the opposite pertains, that they forced women to separate from their children, forced women to divorce their spouse, they forced them to give up any thought of having a normal family life and family relationship. Even relationships with their siblings in the same organisation are, well, banned really. You might meet them but you can’t be a sibling, you can’t show more closeness to them you would show to Maryam Rajavi.
The MeK leadership totally rejects these allegations and accuses Massoud Khodabanedeh of being on the payroll of Iranian intelligence. A charge he in turn denies. An even more serious allegation, though, concerns the group’s relationship with Saddam Hussein during its 15 years in Iraq. This recently revealed footage shows Massoud Rajavi, the husband of Maryam and co-leader of the MeK, with the former Iraqi dictator.
ALI SAFAVI: The Mujahedin were forced to relocate in Iraq, and in the years they were in Iraq, from 1986 onwards, they were completely independent of their host, both in political terms, in ideological terms, in organisational terms and in military terms.
REPORTER: So there was no collaboration between the Mujahedin and Saddam?
ALI SAFAVI: Absolutely not.
However, many sources, including the US State Department dispute this, saying Iraq supplied the MeK with weapons and received military assistance from the Iranian exiles. Former member Massoud Khodabanedeh says that after the first Gulf War in 1991 Saddam’s security chief, Taha Yassin Ramadan, asked the MeK to help suppress the Kurds.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: The way that it was done, I remember that in the meetings with Taha Yassin Ramadan, who was in favour of Mujahedin, and who very much praised the Mujahedin for their loyalty. He divided the forces because he didn’t have much forces after the war in ’91, so he had only enough to suppress the uprising in the south, so he left the north in hands of Rajavi.
Massoud says he saw first-hand a Kurdish village that had been destroyed by the Mujahedin.
REPORTER: What happened to the village?
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: It was just flattened down, the whole village. Villages in Iraq are small villages, and with say 20 tanks, you can see what damage can be done. But it was deliberately flattened.
REPORTER: And this was done by the Mujahedin?
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: By the Mujahedin. They were there when I was passing the tanks and victoriously celebrating.
Massoud also says that during his time with the MeK its members were fed a diet of anti-imperialist and anti-American propaganda. He believes now they’re trying to reinvent themselves for a new, Western benefactor.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: Especially when they went to Iraq, they didn’t see that one day Saddam would fall so they have openly been anti-Western all the years that they were there relying on Saddam. Any democratic face that they put is a false face.
REPORTER: Why do you think they are putting on this false face now?
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: There is no other choice. After Saddam falls, there is no other choice.
The MeK denies this aspect of its past. It says that anyone making such allegations is being either directly or indirectly influenced by Iranian intelligence.
ALI SAFAVI: It is far more than a bit of a propaganda campaign. In fact the Iranian regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars engaging in propaganda.
In Washington, the MeK’s main American backers also reject any criticism.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: We are familiar with all the allegations and we have looked at all these allegations and we have found them to be baseless. And we’re smart, we’re not idiots. I’m a professor at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University and I think I can tell whether a person is saying something to dupe me. And Human Rights Watch and various others who say the MeK and NCRI are changing their face in order to appeal to groups like the Iran Policy Committee haven’t done their research.
While the MeK and their supporters say they’ve nothing in its history to be ashamed of, experts say that’s not how it’s viewed in its homeland.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: They are certainly despised, there’s no two ways about that. They are seen as turncoats, they are seen as traitors, people who joined Iran’s enemies to try to overthrow the government.
For a group claiming it can make the Iranian population rise up and overthrow the government, this apparent lack of internal legitimacy is a major problem.
REPORTER: How much support do you have in Iran, in numbers?
ALI SAFAVI: Well, you know that our movement from day one has called for free elections under UN supervision. I think if such an election were held, without question… our movement would get most of the votes.
DOHKI FASSIHIAN: The claim that the MeK would actually win any support or win any elections inside Iran is really preposterous.
Dokhi Fassihian is the former executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a non-partisan group. She spent much of the 1990s in Iran and knows the political scene well.
DOHKI FASSIHIAN: In fact they are hated and detested in Iran because of their role in siding with the Iraqis in the very, very long and bloody Iran-Iraq war. And so, I would say that even more so than Iranian Americans, Iranians inside Iran really do hate the MeK and really don’t understand why some governments and some officials abroad can support such an undemocratic group and such a violent group.
Political credentials aside, the strongest claim the MeK has on Western attention is its intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
REPORTER: How good are your sources, your intelligence from Iran?
ALIREZA JAFARZADEH: Well, the intelligence is the best that exists anywhere. The best track record in terms of intelligence regarding Iran comes from the sources of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and the NCRI. It wasn’t the intelligence community of the US, or Britain, or other Western countries that discovered Natanz.
The MeK’s biggest claim to fame has been its revelation in 2002 that Iran had a secret nuclear site at a place called Natanz. After the announcement, the International Atomic Energy Agency confronted Iran and Iran opened the site for inspection.
DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: So I think the Iranian opposition group, what they did, their real contribution was to start a chain of events where Iran had to admit that it had its secret gas centrifuge program and other secret nuclear programs, and help get the IAEA into Iran to start uncovering a whole set of misleading statements or hidden facilities in Iran. This building was sized to hold 1,000 centrifuges, but could actually hold more.
David Albright is a physicist and president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington DC. He’s an expert on secret nuclear weapons programs throughout the world. While he credits the MeK with bringing Natanz to the world’s attention, the site was not in breech of the Non-Proliferation treaty. Albright also says later revelations have not proven as useful.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Since then, their record has been a lot more mixed and a lot of revelations about things going on, related to making nuclear weapons. IAEA went to one place and found nothing. There was some equipment that was imported, they said it was related to nuclear weapons. It turned out on analysis it wasn’t even suitable for use on a nuclear weapons program. So I think that you have to read beyond the detail and try to make sense out of it, and often it doesn’t make any, or it’s just speculation.
Dateline also understands that the IAEA has examined much of the intelligence provided by the MeK and its political wing, the NCRI, and while it agrees several early claims were on target, the rest have been unreliable.
REPORTER: All their revelations paint a picture of Iran having an incredibly advanced nuclear weapons program. Would you agree with that assessment?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s relative to what? I mean, compared to Iraq, which had nothing, yeah, it’s quite advanced. Are they close to building a bomb? Most assessments, including our own, are that no, they are not.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: No-one knows whether the revelations are true so how can one make a statement that the NCRI-MeK revelations are off? Intelligence people say this, but they don’t back it up. Because journalists don’t do a good job in querying them. “What is your evidence?” “Oh, I can’t say.” Hello, that’s not right.
REPORTER: But by the same token, if the NCRI holds a press conference saying, “Look we’ve got these documents, we know this information,” and there’s nothing else to back it up, how can you be sure that’s true?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Look, intelligence is an art. What you need is to use the NCRI-MeK allegations as lead information, which you compare with info you acquire independently.
REPORTER: But if revelations are being made, and they’re not proven, and they’re put out there in the media and put out there as a case for regime change, and they’re not actually substantiated, isn’t that alarmist?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: How do you prove revelations with a totalitarian Islamist fascist regime?
The MeK knows that hardliners in Washington are desperate for any information that will confirm their suspicions of Iran.
PROFESSOR GARY SICK: So if the MeK is trying to get credibility as a group that the US should cooperate with in trying to overthrow the regime, focusing on the nuclear side is an absolutely logical place for them to focus, so I don’t blame them for doing that. I think that’s an area that is going to attract attention, it’s going to get them a following, and it will attract the attention of people in Washington.
According to former member Massoud Khodabanedeh, the MeK is just trying to stay alive.
MASSOUD KHODABEANEDEH: They want to survive. They are saying, “Take us off.” The end game is “Take us off the list of terrorism and use us.”
And in a clear convergence of interests, Professor Tanter from the Iran Policy Committee is happy to help.
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not a lobbyist for the MeK and the NCRI, I’m a lobbyist for America, which is different. You keep asking me questions which imply that I am trying to push the MeK on to people.
REPORTER: But you are promoting their cause, you’re trying to get them off…
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: I am not promoting their cause, I am promoting American interests. There is a difference.
REPORTER: You’re not suggesting they are necessarily a good replacement government, you are saying rather they are a good tool for Western interests?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: That’s what you asked me, they are a tool for Western interests, yes. They are accused of being a tool of Western interests by the regime. It’s true!
REPORTER: And they are a tool for Western interests?
PROFESSOR RAYMOND TANTER: Yes! They want to be a part of the West.