Analysis: Exiles’ group causing unease within Iran’s nuclear community

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A few years ago at an event in London I had the opportunity to meet a famous nuclear scientist from Iran. “I think in the West, be it the United States or Europe, they are manipulating the public opinion,” he told me.

“And the way that they manipulate the public opinion is that they turn the public opinion against Iran. When we talk about Iran and the nuclear issue, they think that this is the bomb. Now this is not true, Iran is not making the bomb – at least has not made the bomb as yet.”

The man uttering these words was not some hard-line ideologue linked to the Islamic regime. Rather Akbar Etemad, 79 years old, was once a prominent nuclear adviser under the Shah of Iran. Dubbed the “father of Iran’s nuclear programme”, he has been living in exile in France since the 1979 revolution when many of his colleagues were executed or had to flee the country.

Of course, nowadays to be a nuclear scientist from Iran is a dangerous business. Over the past two years five Iranian nuclear scientists and researchers have been killed under mysterious circumstances – with Israel and the US the primary suspects.

Yet some analysts believe the actual killings themselves were carried out by a little known outfit called the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK or The People’s Mujahedin of Iran).

The MEK is a group of Iranian exiles listed as a terrorist organisation by both Tehran and Washington. It’s estimated to have around 3,000 members, with a high proportion of them female. Recently, anonymous US officials told NBC news that the MEK, backed by Israel’s Mossad espionage service, was involved in the killings of the scientists and also insisted the US hadn’t played a role.

So, the question is – would the MEK be so ideologically motivated as to start killing Iranian nuclear scientists? Well for one, their past activities put them in the frame. After all, the MEK likes to take credit for first having brought to the world’s attention Iran’s nuclear programme, in 2002. A few years ago in an interview the wife of the group’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, commented: “The dialogue only has given the Iranian regime opportunity and has served it. This is harmful both for Europe and the Iranian people; don’t waste time, otherwise Europe will wake up one day faced with the shock of the Iranian regime equipped with nuclear weapon and threat of possible Third World War, a terrible war.”

During the 1970s the MEK was one of the parties opposing the Shah and engaged in terrorist attacks inside Iran, including the killing of American military personnel and civilians. The group even supported the violent takeover of the US embassy in 1979. However, after the revolution the MEK suffered a major split with the Islamic regime and was forced into exile in France and later Iraq.

What really incensed many Iranians were the group’s close dealings with Saddam Hussein. At the end of the long Iraq-Iran war, the MEK even foolishly led an unsuccessful attack on their own homeland.

In addition to their past terrorist activities the MEK – whose ideology is a curious mix of Islam, Marxism and feminism – is seen by many to be a cult. In June 2003 some members of the MEK set themselves on fire on the streets of Paris after reports circulated that Maryam Rajavi had been arrested alongside other figures in the group. One former member told me she actually knew one of the victims who were burned that day. This woman also told me as a MEK member she was once made to watch a video of a suicide bomber attacking members of the Iranian regime.

Despite its official status as a terrorist group, a number of prominent US Democrats and Republicans – including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani – have lent their support to the MEK. There is even a drive to get them off the terrorist list. During my brief conversation with Mr Etemad I had asked him about his opinion on the MEK. “They are a group of Iranian activists – leftists – that have been put by the western countries on the group of terrorists. They say they are terrorists and at the same time they take advantage of them for getting information from Iran,” he replied.

Now, if the accusations are ever proven to be true – and it should be emphasised they are just “accusations” at this stage – it seems the MEK may have moved on from intelligence gathering to actually committing acts of murder.