Recently, the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine published an article detailing the experiences that the author, Matthew Campbell, had while visiting the Albanian compound that houses thousands of exiled members of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
In his piece, Campbell did not disregard the MEK’s detractors out of hand, but he did not take their input for granted, as some have done in the past. Campbell personally visited a café owned by one such defector, named Hassan Heyrani who has been the source of many articles in the Western media against the MEK. The author conveyed Heyrani’s accusations about the MEK barring him from speaking to relatives in Iran and forcing members to engage in humiliating “self-criticism” rituals, but he also acknowledged those aspects of Heyrani’s background which cast doubt on his legitimacy.
The Times article noted, for instance, that Heyrani was suspected of being an infiltrator of the MEK, in collaboration with the Iranian regime, before his departure from Ashraf-3. This fact provides vital context for his allegations against the organization, which are identical to certain aspects of the propaganda narrative that Tehran has been peddling about the MEK for many years. Heyrani’s credibility is further called into question by the circumstances surrounding his personal reinvention as a private business owner. He himself claimed in his interview with Campbell that financing for the café, a hub for anti-MEK activism, came from an “NGO in Iran.” It is a notably vague explanation for a steady flow of foreign capital, and it does nothing to counter the fact that the NGO in question is actually a front for the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Campbell also referenced other criticisms of the MEK and cited more than just the MEK’s own testimony in order to cast doubt upon them. He noted for instance, that US military officers had regular dealings with the MEK’s prior headquarters-in-exile in Iraq, and had found no evidence for accusations leveled against it, such as an accusation by Human Rights Watch that members were being held there against their will. While the source, in that case, may seem inherently credible to some, the lack of eyewitness corroboration should raise serious questions about the methods of verification underlying such accusations.
The MEK has long attempted, with inconsistent success, to make international media aware of the sheer volume of propaganda being directed against it by Iranian authorities. By relying on figures like Heyrani, many of whom are recruited before or shortly after their break with the MEK, Iranian intelligence operatives are able to provide that propaganda with a thin veneer of credibility, which in turn helps to accelerate its global spread. Whereas the Times saw fit to push back against that propaganda by providing the MEK with an outlet for its corrections, many other publishers have repeated the allegations of “former members” uncritically, thereby lending them even more credibility by way of their own reputations.
Tehran has long since made a habit of using this phenomenon to fuel a feedback loop of propaganda. Iranian state media now regularly cites reports from Western media which feature “former members” of the MEK, so as to give the impression that the accompanying claims about the organization are objective. In reality, though, the accusations almost invariably trace back to Iran’s own propaganda networks, which feed talking points to recruits within the Iranian diaspora, who defame the MEK to Western media, which provides Iranian state media with the raw material to keep the cycle going.
“After a heavily chaperoned tour of the Albanian site and meetings with its single-minded militants, I am left with the view that they are animated by nothing more sinister than revulsion for the Iranian regime and the torment it has inflicted on them and their families,” Campbell concluded in his Times article. No doubt many other journalists would arrive at a similar conclusion if only they availed themselves of the opportunity to speak directly with long-suffering opposition group coordinating protests inside Iran and advocating for regime change that leads to a secular, democratic system of government in its homeland.