Warning: Contains graphic images.
European counter-terror experts warn that as ISIS is pushed into a smaller and smaller theatre of operations in the Middle East, there will certainly be blowback as foreign fighters return to their own countries. In this context, the ISIS terrorist attacks in Tehran expose a much more complex situation which will have lasting repercussions in the West unless it is tackled at source. That includes zero tolerance for any messages promoting violent extremism.
What worries experts is that ISIS almost certainly gained the expertise it used to carry out the attacks in Iran from the exiled Mojahedin Khalq (MEK) organisation. The MEK has a three-decade history of terrorist violence against Iran and continues to cling to an agenda which promotes violent regime change. Whilst the MEK is widely regarded as a defunct force due to the age and health of its fighters, experts warn that although the MEK no longer constitutes a fighting force, the members remain fully radicalised and capable of acting as logistics facilitators and training and planning consultants for any other terrorist group. Certainly, they are all capable of conducting suicide missions.
Since America ensured the MEK were transferred from Iraq to Albania this danger has become more acute. Albania is still struggling to overcome the political and media corruption, drug crime, gun smuggling and people trafficking which will prevent it joining the European Union anytime soon. The presence of 3000 radicalised MEK members in a country known as a route between Europe and Syria for modern terrorist forces is not just controversial, it is dangerous.
Even so, the real danger does not lie in Albania; it is a NATO country dominated by the US and the MEK can and will, therefore, be contained and re-purposed for whatever the US needs them for. The recent visits to the MEK by John Bolton and Senator John McCain are an indication of this agenda.
The real danger lies in France and Western Europe. The MEK has been headquartered for the past thirty-six years in Auvers-sur-Oise just outside Paris. This year, as always, the MEK will use its front name the ‘National Council of Resistance of Iran’ to hire the Villepinte salon outside Paris, pay disproportionate speakers fees to advocates and round up a paid audience to wave flags and dutifully applaud the ‘regime change’ speeches. This annual event is known inside the MEK as a celebration of armed struggle – the raison d’être of the MEK group.
This year the event is being held on July 1, but it was originally timed to celebrate the MEK’s challenge to Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership on 30th Khordad (June 21, 1981). These dates matter. Analysts now say that the MEK has moved the date of the celebration to distance it from the association with defeat - after the coup d’état failed, senior MEK leaders fled to France with CIA backing and left the rank and file to face mass arrests and executions inside Iran. Instead the new date is closer to what the MEK regards as a major victory in its three decade long terrorist campaign against Iran. On the 7th Tir (June 28, 1981) MEK operatives blew up the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party in Tehran during a meeting of party leaders. Seventy-three leading officials of the Islamic Republic were killed.
The significance of this becomes clear when we link the MEK’s core beliefs to the recent terrorist attacks in Tehran. The message which the MEK event gives to observers is that the pattern of attacks by ISIS in Tehran was glorious and righteous and is a legitimate response to a scenario in which Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. (For the record, neither the MEK nor Saudi Arabia condemned the attacks.)
This scenario – Iran as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism - has been promoted ad nauseam by the MEK throughout western political circles. The work of national parliaments as well as the European Parliament have been held hostage to this narrative. Normalisation of relations with Iran following the nuclear agreement have been stymied by the MEK. Indeed, MEK bullying and intimidation in pursuit of this agenda was recently discussed in the European Parliament. The MEPs concluded that Europe cannot properly challenge Iran’s human rights situation as long as a group which promotes regime change and abuses the human rights of its own members artificially imposes itself centre stage of these discussions.
The fact is that over the past year the western political landscape has changed dramatically. Two distinct blocs have emerged: a cohort of anti-Iran countries including the US, UK, Israel and Saudi Arabia on one side blindly pursuing regime change against Iran apparently at all costs, and Europe – minus the UK after Brexit – (and incidentally Russia and China) pursuing rapprochement and trade opportunities.
In this context, the spotlight for action must fall on France, home to the MEK headquarters. We must ask the French government ‘these people belong to the regime change bloc, why do you continue renting your land to them after 36 years? What have the Americans or the MEK done for you that is worth the bad reputation attached to supporting this group? What is the cost benefit of having the MEK in your country? What implications does its continued presence have for your foreign policy and trade relations? How can the Republic continue to allow this group to promote violent extremism and terrorism on French soil?’
In the past, of course, it was pointless asking these questions – even though they were asked as permanent unresolved issues. Removing the MEK from France and other European countries was problematic - expelling them to Iraq was impossible because their human rights could not be guaranteed. But in 2016 the Americans facilitated the MEK’s removal from Iraq to safety in Albania. There is no reason to believe that Europe cannot similarly facilitate the safe removal of the MEK leaders from France and other European countries to Albania. The MEK leader Maryam Rajavi has already spent several weeks in Tirana. There is nothing to prevent her setting up a permanent headquarters there with further help from the Americans.
President Emmanuel Macron’s new centrist movement has won a large majority in the French parliament giving him a strong hand to play. He already revealed himself to be a shrewd and masterful challenger in international relations almost before opening his mouth when he out manoeuvred President Donald Trump at the NATO summit in Brussels in May. Perhaps the time is finally ripe for a new appraisal of what zero tolerance means for France. The MEK’s messages promoting violent regime change should no longer be tolerated.