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Mojahedin-e-Kalq (MEK)

Updated: Apr 10

Flag of the Mojaehdin-e-Kalq


Thousands of supporters of the exiled Iranian opposition group, Mojaehdin-e-Kalq (MEK), gathered as American political figure Rudy Giuliani took to the podium. The enamoured, passionate crowd that was his audience that day were not even American. The flags they waved were the green, white, and red tricolour of the old Iranian monarchy, with the lion and sun at its centre. Yet this group and its followers had helped to displace the Shah in the events of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. In his speech, the former New York Mayor and ally of then President Donald Trump (known for his hardline against the Islamic Republic) promised that “they would be in Tehran much sooner than the cynics believe”  to a response of massive applause from the audience. The same people applauding, however, can hardly be known for their adherence to ideas like freedom and democracy. The organization hosting Giuliani, the MEK started as a leftist student movement in the 1960s and helped to topple the Shah's government in the 1970s, leading to the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). Now opposing the IRI, the MEK was forced into exile where it became even more radical, more contradictory, and more controlling. What began as a revolutionary political movement is now viewed by many as a cult which demands total submission from its members and dishes out punishment to those who dare act independently. Its ideology has become esoteric; its violent acts not only impacting its opponents but also its members, particularly women. Despite its lack of support in Iran, it has managed to become the United States handpicked choice for Iran's diaspora opposition. Though it has never been more unpopular and threatened, the group maintains its belief that it will topple the Islamic Republic.


Founded in 1965, the MEK came to life in an era where activism against the Shah, then ruler of Iran, was on the rise. Backed by the United States, the Shah was an increasingly unpopular autocrat who had been restored to power with the help of Western intelligence in the 1950s. The MEK took part in his overthrow during the revolutions of 1979. They soon came to oppose the governance and ideology of the Islamic Republic as well, garnering a ban on their activity in 1981. From there they were exiled to France. In 1986, the French government made a deal with the Islamic Republic for the release of French hostages on the condition of the MEK's exile. From there they relocated to Iraq.(1)

The MEK started losing favour with the Iranian population in the 1980s when it sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War. In the days following the war's end, the MEK made one last desperate attempt to inflict a blow to the Islamic Republic. 7000 of its forces launched a military operation into Iran. Dubbed "Eternal Light" the mission was doomed to failure as the IRI caught wind of the poorly thought-out military plan. Advancing down just a single road in mass, the IRGC was able to inflict high casualties on the MEK's forces, killing an estimated 2000. In response, the IRI ordered the execution of thousands of political prisoners. During this time, Massoud and Marynam Rajavi took control of the organisation and began its pivot towards a more cult-like structure. (2)

Despite its failures, the MEK remained in Iraq for the next two and a half decades. When the U.S. invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the MEK surrendered. In the power vacuum which followed, Iranian influence grew, threatening the MEK's presence. In 2012, the United States removed MEK from its Foreign Terrorist Organization list, facilitating its relocation to Albania, where they still reside today. (3) During the Trump administration, the group’s status as America’s preferred opposition group soared with many U.S. officials making appearances and statements for the group. The MEK publicly endorsed the protests resulting from the Murder of Jina Amini by the Iranian government in 2022. (4)

Ideology and Objectives

The MEK was founded by revolutionary students in the 1960s and attempted to combine Marxist socialism and revolutionary Shia Islamism. It has since denied its links to Marxism, a hard sell considering its original logo is clearly inspired by Marxist iconography. Today it can be seen more as a cult that has overthrown the Islamic Republic and dedication to the Rajavis as its two core tenants. (5)

To become as contrary to the Islamic Republic as possible, the MEK incorporated feminism into its worldview. Their form of “feminism” proved far from liberatory, however; women command each military unit within the MEK and also compose the entirety of the group’s High Council. At the same time, the group demands total submission to Rajavi and its goals. There can be no distractions or other commitments. Under this justification, there have been forced divorces, separation of families, and worst of all, non-consensual hysterectomies. (6) All members of the group must adhere to celibacy and any steps out of line result in sleep deprivation, physical and emotional abuse, and isolation. (7)

Military and Political Abilities 

The MEK has evolved from an armed organisation to more of a political one due to its remoteness from Iran and elderly membership. Instead of conducting strikes in Iran or using weapons like a legitimate military force, their primary activities these days are lobbying US lawmakers and using troll farms to intimidate IRI leaders and sympathisers. They have shown themselves to be highly successful in this area.

John Bolton, former National Security Advisor to Donald Trump and a long-time influential voice in American foreign policy, is a registered lobbyist for the group. Both the MEK and Bolton opposed the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, which was repealed under the Trump presidency. Several prominent American politicians in addition to Bolton have had deep ties to the MEK, including Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, and Howard Dean. They have also obtained the support of both Conservative and Labour politicians in the UK. (8)

Approach to Resistance 

In its first decades of existence, the MEK was capable of carrying out bold and deadly attacks on entities tied to the Shah’s Iranian government and the Islamic Republic. Many of their early attacks were carried out against American targets for their support of the Shah’s government. In 1972, they set off bombs at the U.S. embassy and assassinated one of the main American military figureheads in the country the next year. It is also claimed they partook in the 1979 American embassy siege and ensuing hostage crisis. (9) Following exile, they continued armed activity for some time. Armed by Saddam, they fought alongside the Iraqi military in the 1980s against Iran. (10) In the early 1990s, they carried out a series of raids against Iranian embassies in Europe. (11)

Currently, most of the MEK’s resistance activity is done through internet troll farms, which flood the social media accounts of Islamic Republic officials and supporters, while simultaneously voicing support for the MEK. As will be discussed later, the group may also be responsible for carrying out assassinations inside Iran with the backing of Israel. (12)

International Relations and Alliances

With its ageing member base and its lack of popularity among Iranians, the question arises: where does the MEK get the funding for its lobbying efforts and other activities? Based on some of its guests as well as sharing some common enemies, it is thought the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel are the prime backers of the MEK’s activity. The Saudi prince and former intelligence chief of the Kingdom Turki al-Faisal has spoken for the group at events. The Intercept, quoting an anonymous former intelligence official for the United States, claims that MEK members have been “deniable assets” taking part in the assassinations on Iranian nuclear scientists on behalf of the Israelis. (13)

Anti-Iran hawks in the United States continue to back the MEK as their preferred opposition group, but what happens as the remaining members of the group age and die out is a question left for the future. For now, and for the foreseeable future, the group will likely remain in Albania - its members confined to life inside the organization with the odds of seeing their homeland again slim to none. For many inside the MEK, the biggest enemy is no longer the Islamic Republic, but their own cause. 

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Merat, A. (2018, November 9). Terrorists, cultists – or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the mek. The Guardian. 

(2) - Ibid

(3) -

(4) - Hussain, M., & Lacy, A. (2023, February 13). Amid ongoing Iran protests, Congress boosts cultish MEK Exile Group. The Intercept. 

(5) - Merat, A., Terrorists, cultists – or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the mek

(6) - Cole, M. C., & Hussain, M. (2020, March 23). Defectors tell of torture and forced sterilization in militant Iranian cult. The Intercept. 

(7) - Ibid

(8) - Merat, A., Terrorists, cultists – or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the mek

(9) - Masters, J. (2014, July 28). Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK). Council on Foreign Relations. 

(10) - Ibid

(11) - Ibid

(12) - Merat, A., Terrorists, cultists – or champions of Iranian democracy? The wild wild story of the mek

(13) - Cole, M. C., & Hussain, M., Defectors tell of torture and forced sterilization in militant Iranian cult.


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