Iranian Dissident Groups in Europe: The Increasing Complexity of the MEK
By Sam Jacobsen
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (Mojahedin-e Khalq), otherwise referred to as MEK, is a left-wing resistance party that aims to overthrow the current Iranian ruling regime. Born from various factions of dissident Iranian students in Tehran, the MEK has operated since the 1960s in various locations throughout Southwest Asia and, most recently, Europe. The group’s name, Mujahedin-e Khalq, roughly translates from Persian (Farsi) into “the People’s Holy Warriors.” With this notion, the MEK has consistently operated against the Iranian government to promote its often liberal-democratic agenda (Goulka 2).
The early years of the MEK movement were defined by a tendency toward Marxist ideals and modernization of Islam that strictly opposed the ruling regime. Over time, the MEK grew in strength and numbers, posing serious threats to Iran’s government. The first culmination of MEK power was an attempted terrorist attack against power grids in 1971 Tehran. Although the Iranian government thwarted the plan and executed MEK leaders, the ideology persevered. The group carried out additional terrorist attacks in Iran against both Iranian and American targets. Because of these attacks and subsequent activity throughout the past decades, various leaders have sought exile in France since the late 1970s, consequently bringing the conflict across borders (Ghoulka 2-3).
Although terrorism and domestic conflict dominated the news cycles in the last two decades of the 20thcentury, ideological shifts have occurred in MEK leadership. MEK operatives are known to have participated in bombings, assassination plots, terrorist acts, and various illegal activities, but cooperation with coalition groups (including the U.S. and U.K.) since 2006 has caused many countries to delist it as a terrorist organization. Most notably, the United States removed the MEK from its terror list in 2012 (Shane).
After years of cooperation with foreign governments, the MEK has gained credibility and assistance from Western powers as it seeks to protect its constituents and succeed in covert operations in Iran. Although described as cultish and possibly indoctrinating, foreign powers have provided relocation assistance through the UN to protect MEK-sympathetic Iranian nationals. Recently, Iranian operatives have actively carryied out plots to eliminate elements of MEK infrastructure abroad. In August of 2018, Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar and Majid Ghorbani, two Iranian nationals residing in the United States, were arrested and charged for spying on behalf of the Iranian government against Iranian and American citizens with ties to the MEK (United States Department of Justice). Additionally, the Dutch government claimed in January 2019 that the Iranian government was responsible forkilling two Iranian citizens with ties to the MEK in the Netherlands and for making subsequent plots to perform assassinations in Europe (Sanchez). The discourse surrounding the MEK has therefore changed from that of thwarting MEK operations to that of protecting its constituents from the Iranian government. Iran’s diplomatic relations with Western powers have continued to deteriorate in recent years as a result of its campaign against dissidents.
- Carlile, Alex. 2012. “Iran fears the MEK’s influence, as its protests over terror delisting show.” The Guardian, October 12th.
- Goulka, Jermiah, Lydia Hansell, Elizabeth Wilke, and Judith Larson. 2009. “The Mujahedin-3 Khalq in Iraq.” Rand National Defense Research Institute. Santa Monica, CA.
- Sanchez, Raf. 2019. “Iran hired criminals to assassinate dissidents in the Netherlands, Dutch government claims.” The Telegraph.January 8th.
- Shane, Scott. 2012. “Iranian Dissidents Convince U.S. to Drop Terror Label.” The New York Times, September 21.
- United States Department of Justice. Office of Public Affairs. “Two Individuals Charged for Acting as Illegal Agents of the Government of Iran.” Washington D.C. August 20, 2018. Accessed via https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/two-individuals-charged-acting-illegal- agents-government-iran.