In the wake of the US assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, an obscure group of Iranian dissidents once classified as a terrorist organisation by the US celebrated the news.
“In Tehran, Isfahan, Qom and Qaemshahr, among numerous other cities, MEK supporters were celebrating Soleimani's death by throwing parties and handing out pastries,” the People's Mujahideen of Iran tweeted, with pictures of jubilant supporters.
The MEK — officially the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or the People's Mujahideen of Iran in English — has waged war against the Islamist regime in Iran since it seized power in 1979. Formerly based in Iraq, the group is believed to have killed thousands of Iranians in terror attacks.
—People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) (@Mojahedineng) January 7, 2020
But far away from the battlefields of the Middle East, the MEK has also waged a campaign for influence in glossy functions at diplomatic events in western capitals, successfully cultivating powerful allies in western governments.
Among them are current and former officials in the top echelons of the Trump administration — including those who Trump regularly turns to advice on Iran, such as personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
Soleimani was “directly responsible for killing some of my MEK people,” Giuliani told The Daily Beast in an interview on Monday, making no attempt to disguise his closeness to the group.
“We don't like him very much.”
And its not just Giuliani who has longstanding ties to the MEK.
In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended an event on the fringes of the United Nations assembly in New York alongside the MEK.
Hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who departed the administration in September after reportedly pushing for Trump to launch strikes against Iran, also had links to the MEK. Bolton has attended the group's conferences, and long served as its most powerful advocate in Washington DC.
Eli Clifton, an expert on US foreign policy at the Quincy Institute for Iranian Statecraft, told Business Insider that the MEK had long advocated the assassination of Iranian regime officials.
“The MEK clearly endorses the assassination of Iranian government officials and employees. In 2012, NBC News reported that the MEK was directly involved in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists,” Clifton wrote in an email Wednesday.
A cult-like group of Marxist Islamic radicals behind scores of terror attacks
The MEK emerged in opposition to the then ruler of Iran, the Shah, in the late 1960s, inspired by a blend of Marxist ideology and Islamic theology.
When Islamist rivals seized control of the country after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the MEK fled to neighboring Iraq, where it fought against Iran alongside then-president Saddam Hussein's forces.
Defectors have claimed that the group seeks to brainwash members — forcing them to confess to sexual fantasies in bizarre public shaming rituals and to send away their children to be brought up by others. It has been described by several ex-members as a cult.
Several thousand MEK members live in a compound in Albania, where they reportedly spend their days on social media distributing anti-Iranian propaganda.
In Paris, where the MEK's official headquarters is located, the group holds glitzy functions as it seeks to cultivate influential western officials. It has hired Iran hawks in Washington to speak at its events, paying them large speaking fees. It was eventually de-listed as a terror group by the US in 2012 following a long lobbying campaign.
Despite the rigid control it exerts over members, it has sought to portray itself as the only viable democratic alternative to the current Iranian regime.
“When the president's personal attorney and former national security adviser have effectively endorsed the MEK as a legitimate opposition group and a viable government exile for Iran, it certainly raises serious questions about the extent to which the MEK is influencing the administration's Iran policy,” Clifton told Business Insider.
The group's activities in Europe have attracted the ire of Iran, with French officials in October 2018 accusing Iranian intelligence of being behind a plot to bomb a rally held by the MEK's political arm in Paris. The rally was attended by Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, former House speaker and Trump ally.
And with the US now taking the hardline stance towards Iran it has long advocated, it will be likely seeking to consolidate its influence in Washington DC.