Western signs of support for Iranian dissident group will only deepen the divide with Tehran

It is abundantly clear that Canada’s Liberal government is unwilling to spend any political capital on fulfilling its pledge to re-establish links with Iran, and the latest sign of support by Harper for the MEK will only exacerbate the estrangement between Ottawa and Tehran. ​

Stephen Harper spoke at a rally hosted by the Mujahedin-e Khalj last weekend

Harper was in Paris last weekend at a "Free Iran" rally hosted by a fringe group of militant Iranian exiles known as the Mujahedin-e Khalj (MEK). (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

In September 2012, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the helm, Ottawa terminated diplomatic relations with Tehran. Nearly six years later, this Conservative position of total disengagement and isolation has become an entrenched feature of Canada's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did pledge during the last election campaign to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran  — and even took some steps to do so thereafter — but the Liberals have recently signalled that they are no longer committed to fulfilling this promise.

Instead, Harper was in Paris last weekend at a "Free Iran" rally hosted by a fringe group of militant Iranian exiles known as the Mujahedin-e Khalj (MEK). The former prime minister joined several prominent officials from U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, including Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former House speaker and Trump advisor Newt Gingrich. National security adviser John Bolton, though he wasn't at the rally this year, has also endorsed the group's push for regime change in Iran.

Harper's newfound approval of the MEK's agenda, a group that his own government considered a terrorist organization until 2012, comes only month after he backed the Trump administration in "ending the dangerous appeasement of Iran" by abrogating the 2015 nuclear agreement. (When pressed for comment by the National Post, Harper's spokesperson did note that he does not necessarily support a MEK-led Iran.)

Together with the U.S. administration's more explicit backing of the MEK, Western officials bent on regime change are cultivating the veneer of a government-in-exile, which only strengthens the hand of warmongers and damages the prospects of grassroots democratic progress propelled from within Iranian civil society.

Giuliani has repeatedly spoken at MEK rallies. (Mariko Tama/Getty Images)

Considering the numerous protests that have rocked Iran over the past several months — some of which have included slogans against the country's ruling elite — it may appear prudent to seek out those who present an alternative vision for governance in Tehran. The MEK, however, carries little support among Iranians and is not capable of delivering that vision to Iran.

The organization possesses deep roots in Iranian politics, tracing back to its opposition of the Shah's rule in the 1960s. But the MEK relinquished its legitimacy among many Iranians through a campaign of terror tactics and support for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in the 1980s. 

In July 1988, based outside of Baghdad, the MEK mounted a small-scale invasion of Iran with the hopes of inciting a domestic revolt in Tehran. But popular support in Iran did not materialize, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, partly because the MEK "had allied itself with the instigator of the war and had killed Iranian conscripts."  

As Michael Axworthy wrote in Revolutionary Iran, following the war with Iraq, there was "a strong feeling of revulsion and hatred toward the MEK among many ordinary Iranians."

Its impact goes beyond Iran. The MEK has American blood on its hands, and Iraq's sheltering of the group was provided as a justification for the U.S. invasion in 2003 by the Bush administration. As noted earlier, the group was listed as a terrorist organization by Canada, as well as the European Union and the United States for its string of international assassinations.

Despite this troubled past, the MEK's sophisticated lobbying apparatus has attracted Trump officials and the Democratic leadership alike. According to a recent investigation by NBC News, the group's shadowy influence is buttressed by funding from Israeli and Arab intelligence agencies — funds that the MEK then spends to commission the support of Western officials and, as hinted by Giuliani, foment unrest in Iran.

Although the group's leadership is being touted as a secular, democratic alternative to Iran's clerical establishment, exiled members describe the organization as an authoritarian personality cult that enforces "weekly ideological cleansings" and family separation among its ranks.

MEK recruitment

Unable to attract much support from the Iranian diaspora, the MEK utilizes social media bots and susceptible audiences of refugees to augment their messages and rallies. As New York Times reporter Elizabeth Rubin, who has profiled the group extensively, wrote in 2011, the MEK "is not only irrelevant to the cause of Iran's democratic activists, but a totalitarian cult that will come back to haunt us."

It is abundantly clear that Canada's Liberal government is unwilling to spend any political capital on fulfilling its pledge to re-establish links with Iran, and the latest sign of support by Harper for the MEK will only exacerbate the estrangement between Ottawa and Tehran.

The region has undergone major changes since Harper's decision to unilaterally sever relations with Tehran in 2012. The ongoing demonstrations in Iranian towns and cities could constitute a class awakening, with major political repercussions for Iran's government.

That is why projecting an agenda of regime change onto Iran's populace, particularly as the United States upends the diplomatic reset that produced the nuclear agreement, will only isolate ordinary Iranians and endanger the efforts of the country's grassroots democratic movements. Championing the MEK will only deepen their struggle.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Sam Khanlari is a Toronto-based writer and editor. His work has been featured in the Toronto Star, VICE, and Muftah magazine.


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