Alarm bells rang in Iran as soon as Donald Trump named John Bolton as his national security adviser.
Mr Bolton is even more hawkish towards the Islamic republic than the US president: he has openly called for regime change, suggested there needs to be military strikes to curb Iran’s nuclear activities and insisted the atomic accord Tehran signed with world powers be torn up. But it is his support for a banned Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), that spooked officials in Tehran.
Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s top security official, said it was “shameful” that a “seemingly superpower country” had appointed a national security adviser who received “a salary from a terrorist sect”. He was referring to Mr Bolton’s decision to address a gathering of MEK and other Iranian dissidents in Paris last year. The former ambassador to the UN used the gathering to say the MEK — which Washington designated a terrorist group until 2012 — was a “viable” alternative to the Islamic regime.
“The outcome of the president’s policy review should be to determine that Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution will not last until its 40th birthday,” Mr Bolton said at the gathering. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran.”
Mr Bolton has often suggested that the US should to do more to support Iranian opposition. When a wave of protests swept across Iran in January — which Tehran blamed on the MEK as the “pawn” of foreign intelligence services — he tweeted: “If the Iranian opposition is prepared to take outside support, the US should provide it to them”.
Bolton probably sees the MEK as a fellow traveller in the drive for regime change in Iran
“The regime in #Iran is like a lot of autocratic regimes — it looks impregnable, but kicking it is like a rotten door being kicked in,” he added in a second tweet.
The MEK, which has been in exile for years, is Iran’s most organised and only armed opposition group. Its affiliate organisation, the National Council of Resistance in Iran has a powerful lobbying operation in Washington. But Iranians say that if Mr Bolton genuinely believes that the MEK can be used to weaken the Islamic regime it would be a flawed policy.
“Should Mr Trump bring in MEK, the gap between the Islamic republic and its critics will be narrowed . . . because even those opponents who seek the overthrow of the Islamic republic prefer the current rulers to MEK,” says Amir Mohebbian, a commentator close to Iran’s conservative forces.
Officials in Washington briefed on the Trump administration’s strategy against Iran say the MEK plays no part in its planning. Mr Trump has been ramping up the pressure on Iran, which he accuses of fostering extremism and fuelling conflicts in the Middle East. The appointment of Mr Bolton and the nomination of Mike Pompeo, another Iran hawk, as secretary of state has added to speculation that the administration will further toughen its stance. Many expect the US to pull out of the nuclear accord next month.
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The MEK was active in the 1979 Islamic revolution and was believed to have been involved in the killing of American civilians in Iran and the 1980 US embassy siege in Tehran. But after losing a power struggle with clerics, it went into exile in Iraq.
The group then fought alongside Iraqi forces in the war with Iran in the 1980s. That caused Tehran to execute thousands of its members who were in jail — the biggest atrocity against any Iranian political group.
Analysts say it has little support inside Iran today, where it is regarded as a terrorist organisation and has been accused of assassinating senior politicians and targeting civilians. The regime also alleges it killed at least four nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012 in collaboration with Israel, Iran’s arch enemy.
Often described by Iranian and western political observers as a cult, the MEK has an ideology that is a mix of revolutionary Shia Islam, Marxism and nationalism. Its junior members are forced take a vow of celibacy, and it is believed to have several thousands of members spread through Iraq, Albania and France.
But even Iran hawks in Washington who favour regime change tend to dismiss the MEK’s influence in Iran.
“The Iranian people hate the MEK so the notion that they are somehow going to be part of the future of Iran is laughable, completely,” says Danielle Pletka, an Iran hawk at the American Enterprise Institution, a conservative think-tank where Mr Bolton is a senior fellow.
The MEK denies it ever paid money to Mr Bolton or any Americans to attend its events as expenses or speaker fees. Mr Bolton, whose office declined to comment, was joined at the MEK event in Paris by other Republican luminaries such as former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, a former house speaker.
“Bolton probably sees the MEK as a fellow traveller in the drive for regime change in Iran,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman and Iran expert at Eurasia Group, while adding that Mr Bolton would not pin his hopes on MEK alone. “Lots of US politicians have taken MEK money; that doesn’t make it OK, but it lessens the blight on Bolton.”
If Washington does seek to promote the MEK as a legitimate opposition group, Iran’s rulers could attempt to exploit rally Iranians behind the theocratic regime, analysts say.
“The Islamic republic has always used MEK to justify its own radicalism and failures and keep up the illusion of an enemy,” says Saeed Laylaz, a reform-minded analyst. “An overthrow of the Islamic republic already scares Iranians on fears of domestic or regional instability let alone a day would come when people see their alternative is MEK.”