In January 2018, Iran was in the midst of a virtually unprecedented nationwide uprising which saw residents of more than 100 cities calling “death to the dictator” and making no secret of their desire for regime change as the means of securing a democratic future for their country.
The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded with a speech that begrudgingly acknowledged the organizational role of the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK)
Khamenei’s speech undermined literally decades of propaganda spread by himself, his subordinates, and a vast state media network with outlets extending their reach across much of the world.
In 1988, Khamenei’s predecessor Ruhollah Khomeini set out to destroy the MEK by issuing a fatwa that declared its members guilty of “enmity against God” and thereby called for them to be summarily executed. As a result, 30,000 political prisoners were executed over the course of three months, and afterward, the regime began peddling the claim that support for the MEK was virtually non-existent and the MEK was a fringe group comprised primarily of exiles.
Those talking points remained largely consistent all the way up until the 2018 uprising. For a time, the MEK was even designated as a terrorist group in Europe and the United States before legal challenges demonstrated that there was no evidence of any criminal activity associated with the group, whose false designation was the result of back-channel dealings and favor-trading with Iranian authorities.
Since long before its formal delisting, the MEK has been accumulating ever-greater support from lawmakers, scholars, and experts in foreign affairs throughout the world. Through participation in conferences and international rallies, those supporters have sought to chip away at the regime’s propaganda and promote international understanding of what Khamenei would ultimately respond to in January 2018: the MEK’s status as the greatest single challenge to the mullahs’ hold on power, and the greatest hope for popular sovereignty and the rule of law in the Iran of the future.
Ever since Khamenei betrayed his own propaganda, the regime has been working to claw back its talking points and to once again promote its adverse impact on the foreign policy of Western nations. Unfortunately for Tehran, that project suffered a substantial setback in July, which has the potential to nudge Western policy in much more productive directions, provided that the international community pays suitable attention to it.
On July 23, the Iranian Resistance was set to host a major rally in support of regime change at the MEK’s compound, Ashraf 3, in Albania. That event was indefinitely postponed after Albanian authorities revealed the existence of credible terrorist threats against the compound, which is home to roughly 3,000 MEK members. But that revelation came with the further revelation that those authorities had been conducting a four-year investigation into Iranian networks tasked with spying on the MEK, setting the stage for further terrorist plots, and spreading the regime’s propaganda about the organization.
Around a week before the Free Iran World Summit was set to take place, the Albanian authorities executed search warrants for a number of properties associated with that network and interrogated 20 individuals affiliated with the Iranian regime. Among those individuals was a person named Hassan Heyrani, who had previously been used as a source by several Western media outlets in reports that the MEK described as defamatory. Heyrani’s arrest effectively confirms that the statements he provided against the MEK to those outlets were part of an influence operation by the Iranian regime.
Disruption of the regime’s network in Albania also yields evidence in support of statements that have been made in recent years by persons who have confessed their own involvement with Heyrani and his fellow Iranian operatives. In February 2021, Hadi Sani-Kani wrote an open letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in which he expressed remorse for having “fallen into the trap” of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry for four years. During that time, he was paid to write articles and give media interviews conveying the regime’s talking points about the MEK, all while knowing that not one word of that propaganda was true.
Has anyone ever heard article of a major Western publication be published by secret service of a totalitarian regime beforehand? #Spiegel provided article on #Iran opposition to MOIS 3 months ago & MOIS published it, attributing #Spiegel. Hook, line, and sinker. #Spiegel_FakeNews pic.twitter.com/wDtt4ztul1
— Shahin Gobadi (@gobadi) February 19, 2019
It is no mere coincidence that the network responsible for this disinformation campaign was also involved with imminent terrorist threats against Ashraf 3 and the MEK at the time it was disrupted. Both phenomena reflect the Iranian regime’s longstanding fear of MEK influence both within Iranian society and throughout the Iranian diaspora. Both phenomena have therefore accelerated as that influence has become more visible and more plainly effective in the midst of recurring nationwide uprisings.
There have been at least eight more of those uprisings since chants of “death to the dictator” became popularized in January 2018. During that time, the MEK’s “Resistance Units” also expanded their activities and broadened their strategies for promoting the message of regime change.
Since the start of this year, defiant youth have taken control of government websites, and state media broadcast signals to share familiar slogans and excerpts from speeches by the Iranian Resistance’s leader Massoud Rajavi and the opposition’s president-elect, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.
Meanwhile, others have risked their lives with direct action, setting fire to regime billboards and a statue of the eliminated commander of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani.
All of this stands alongside the evidence of Tehran’s escalating backlash to demonstrate that the regime greatly fears the MEK, and with good cause. Many American and European policymakers have long recognized that fear and its implications.
Now that a major source for the regime’s demonization stenography has been exposed for what it is, Tehran’s propaganda should have a much more limited reach. The situation in Albania should lead conscientious policymakers throughout the world to maintain more skepticism in the future when presented with claims about the MEK which resemble those peddled by the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.