Are The Iranian Opposition Terrorists?


One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter — such an infuriating saying. It doesn’t tell you much about the individual in question, other than that he may, at some point, blow something up to make a political point.

What about when you’ve stopped blowing stuff up though? Switch "freedom fighter" for "legitimate opposition movement" and surely we should be fine — it worked for Sinn Fein, after all.

But in one of democracy’s current battlegrounds, there’s an opposition movement that’s still having a bit of an image problem — and it’s being aggravated by the US and Australian governments. The People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) — also known as the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK) — claims to be a legitimate opposition party in Iran — but the insistence of Australia and the US on listing it as a terrorist organisation with frozen assets has left its domestic members in a dangerous situation. They are completely at the mercy of the Iranian government —which uses the "terrorist" designation as an excuse to execute its members, say the PMOI’s supporters.

The PMOI certainly has a past likely to raise the eyebrows of any security assessor. They used to blow things up. They attacked US personnel in Iran in the 70s, helped take over the US Embassy, and backed the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. The PMOI soon, however, found itself on the outer with the new government, which apparently did not approve of the Marxist and feminist views it entertained. After the Khomeini government executed its leaders, the rest of the movement decamped to Iraq in 1986, where it spent the next 15 years or so launching attacks on Iran and Iranian public figures.

A sample of its activities during that period goes a fair way to explain why the PMOI was unpopular with the authorities in Iran. They launched mortar attacks during 2000 and 2001 against government buildings in Iran as well as a mortar attack in 2000 on then President Mohammed Khatami’s palace in Tehran. In 1999 the PMOI assassinated the deputy chief of Iran’s armed forces general staff, Ali Sayyad Shirazi and in 1992, it engineered almost simultaneous attacks on Iranian embassies and offices in 13 countries. And finally, the PMOI was suspected of involvement in Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Shiite and Kurdish uprising in 1991.

But since 2001, the PMOI says, they’ve been clean.

In 2006, the European Court of First Instance backed their claims, finding that the European Union, which had added the PMOI to its terrorist blacklist four years beforehand, had no grounds to freeze the group’s bank accounts. A spokesman for the court apparently admitted at the time that the ruling (pdf) could have serious ramifications for the blacklist. Three years later the EU itself caved, dropping the PMOI from the blacklist in January 2009.

Last year, in Diyala Province in Iraq, a clash with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) at Ashraf camp, the home of 3400 PMOI members, left 11 of them dead. The 2009 US Department of State Human Rights Report on Iraq said the attack occurred after the Iraqi security forces attempted to "establish a police presence" inside the camp — referred to as a "compound of the terrorist Iranian dissident group". "The government credibly claimed the PMOI provoked the clashes by staging a violent demonstration to block the ISF from entering the compound," the report concluded.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) says that as a result of this, the Iranian regime has arrested and detained the families and friends of many of those inside the camp. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked for those inside the camp to respect local laws, and for the Iraqi Security Forces to respect human rights.

Which brings us to the present day.

The PMOI would like to see the NCRI, a body of which it is a member, temporarily take over the running of Iran, with leader-in-exile and co-founder Maryam Rajavi the interim president. The NCRI’s "parliament in exile" has 500 members, and claims to have thousands of adherents around the world. It says it is a legitimate opposition movement that is being hamstrung by the PMOI’s continued listing as a terrorist group — which enables the Iranian government to crack down on its members in Iran with impunity.

One of the chief vocalists for this in Australia is Meredith Burgmann, who spoke to as she was returning from Canberra, where she had spoken to three "sympathetic" MPs on removing the PMOI from Australia’s terrorist blacklist. She said the PMOI had been placed on America’s blacklist by Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s after being asked to do so by Iran.

"They agreed to put them on the list if the mullahs would not go ahead with their nuclear ambitions," she said. "[But now] really the only significant countries that have left them on the list are Australia and the US."

"They’re the organisation that alerted the UN to the nuclear potential [in Iran]," she said. "So they’ve been working as good citizens for almost a decade."

Burgmann said that the PMOI was now a legitimate political opposition movement in Iran, but their place on the blacklist "affords them no protection" and that the government was currently cracking down on the families of members in order to stop any protests in June on the anniversary of the riots that happened in the wake of last year’s election.

"By us having them on the terror list, we’re helping the regime to kill people, really," she said.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.