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MEK’s Impact on the Iran-Iraq War

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In recent historical analysis concerning Iran, Western governments, think tanks, and media have consistently viewed the country’s unfolding events through the perspective of their “Iranian experts” or their cadre proficient in the Persian language. However, their track record in comprehending Iran’s intricate geopolitical dynamics has been notably deficient, resulting in numerous cognitive missteps leading to flawed decision-making during various multifaceted crises instigated by the regime.

One illustrative case pertains to the influence and involvement of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK/PMOI), a highly organized nationwide movement within Iran that has wielded significant influence in challenging successive dictatorships.

A pivotal contention among these “Iran experts” in downplaying the MEK’s impact on Iranian society has been the assertion that the organization aligned itself with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, consequently eroding its popular support within the country.

In light of the increasing scrutiny faced by these “Iran experts” and coinciding with the regime’s commemoration of “Sacred Defense Week,” a review of recent history merits contemplation.

In contrast to conventional practices where nations commemorate the cessation of wars, the Iranian regime annually celebrates the onset of the Iran-Iraq War on September 22. This war, which began on this date, resulted in a staggering toll on Iran: over 2 million casualties, immense damage amounting to an estimated $1 trillion, and the severe devastation of vital national infrastructure.

Beyond the well-known affiliations of the former Supreme Leader with Iraqi militant groups over 13 years, his radio broadcast in April 1979, urging the people and army of Iraq to overthrow the Baath party in Iraq (six months before Iraq’s invasion), and various border skirmishes prior to the war, Ruhollah Khomeini demonstrated a disposition far removed from pacifism.

Nevertheless, when Iraqi forces initiated an invasion of Iranian territory on September 22, 1980, Khomeini characterized it as a divine blessing and galvanized the nation’s resources and youth for the purpose of “defending the homeland.”

The regime used the war as an excuse to brand dissenting voices advocating for freedom and equality as adversaries of the government and “agents of the foreign enemy.”

It is worth noting that in the early months of the conflict, MEK members and supporters went to the frontlines to fight Iraqi forces and safeguard Iran’s sovereignty.

However, the primary source of opposition against the MEK emanated not from the war front but from within, specifically from the newly established Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Several MEK members were shot from behind or arrested and accused of being “Iraqi spies.” Khomeini, harboring envy for the MEK’s well-regarded and popular standing in their struggle against the Shah’s tyranny, could not endure their sacrifices in the new conflict. Consequently, after enduring months of casualties and backstabbing, the MEK was compelled to withdraw from active participation on the war fronts.

In the subsequent months and years, attempts by the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement, and other nations to broker a ceasefire were flatly rejected by the clerical regime.

Iraqi forces completely withdrew from Iranian territories in May 1982, complying with the UN Security Council resolutions. However, the Khomeini regime had different intentions and proceeded to advance into Iraqi territory, initiating an offensive. Its eminent motto became “Conquering Jerusalem via Karbala.”

In response to these events, the MEK asserted that this war was unjustifiable. Approximately seven months after the withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Iran, leaders of the National Council of Resistance (NCRI) held a meeting with an Iraqi delegation in Paris, led by then-Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. They signed a peace proposal, emphasizing to the global community that peace was achievable, in stark contrast to Khomeini’s stance of advocating for further bloodshed and destruction.

Furthermore, the MEK orchestrated an international campaign, collecting 5,000 signatures from heads of state and lawmakers, highlighting the global demand for peace between Iraq and Iran.

Between 1983 and 1986, following numerous bombings and hostage incidents involving French and American citizens and soldiers in Lebanon, Tehran struck a deal with Paris, resulting in the expulsion of Iranian Resistance leaders from French territory.

At this critical juncture, the MEK found themselves at a crossroads — they had to decide whether to persist in the struggle for their homeland’s freedom or succumb to the pressure.

Given the intricate interconnections and dependencies of neighboring countries with various global powers and contradicting policies, charting a path forward was immensely complex. Iraq, driven by its national interests, emerged as the sole nation willing to host the Iranian Resistance within its borders.

Ultimately, following extensive discussions and contingent upon the MEK’s autonomy within their bases, Massoud Rajavi, the NCRI founder, and a delegation of MEK leaders traveled to Iraq on June 7, 1986. On June 20, 1986, Mr. Rajavi established the National Liberation Army (NLA) of Iran and issued a call to Iranians from diverse ethnic, ideological, and social backgrounds to join the NLA in the struggle against the clerical regime.

Leading up to June 18, 1988, when the NLA successfully neutralized an entire armored division of the regime and liberated the city of Mehran, the NLA had executed over 100 operations within Iran. When the NLA forces reached Mehran and echoed rallying cries like “Today Mehran, Tomorrow Tehran,” the message reached Khomeini.

Up until this juncture, neither any international body nor a roster of war casualties or unfavorable war front reports, nor even the counsel of close confidants, could dissuade Khomeini from his resolve to overthrow the Iraqi Ba’athist government and terminate hostilities. However, an Iranian armed force whose on-ground achievements outmatched any conventional foreign military altered the decision-making.

Khomeini, who had dismissed UN Security Council Resolution 598 as “treachery” just eight days after its issuance on August 19, 1987, eventually acquiesced to a ceasefire on July 17, 1988. He proclaimed on state television that he had “negotiated his honor with God” and “drank the poison chalice.”

He didn’t clarify the reasons for accepting the ceasefire prior to his passing, passing the task to his successors to craft narratives—something they excel at—either by directly disseminating falsehoods or through their network of “Iran experts.”