The connection of an anti-Iran exile group to senior members in the Trump administration may explain why the US president has taken such a hostile line towards the Islamic Republic, declaring it a «number one state sponsor of terrorism» and slapping new sanctions on Tehran.
Trump’s National Security advisor Michael Flynn issued an unusual public statement last week, provocatively claiming that «Iran was being put on notice» for future unspecified actions, including military actions, over its recent ballistic missile tests. Trump himself has weighed in, scorning Iran for destabilizing the Middle East.
It turns out that an Iranian dissident group with suspected links to Israeli and Saudi state intelligence may have the ear of the president in setting his policy.
Trump’s newly confirmed transport secretary Elaine Chao and at least one of the president’s top advisors, former New York mayor Rudi Giuliani, have both appeared as guest speakers at rallies organized by the Iranian dissident group, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).
Other senior political figures close to the Trump inner circle who are also associated with the MEK include Republican party grandee Newt Gingrich, former CIA director James Woolsey and former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton.
The MEK originated as an armed insurgency against the US-backed Shah dictatorship during the 1960s. It later fell foul of the Islamic clerical government that has ruled Iran since 1979. The Iranian authorities have designated the MEK as a foreign-backed terrorist group. It is estimated to have carried out up to 17,000 killings against Iranian citizens in an attempt to destabilize the Islamic Republic. The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years has been linked to MEK operatives, orchestrated by American and Israeli intelligence. Republican elder statesmen Newt Gingrich, who is a foreign policy advisor to Trump, famously called for more such assassinations.
Oddly enough, considering the group’s connections to senior Washington figures, the MEK was also responsible for the killing of at least six American servicemen and military contractors during the 1970s, when it was opposed to the US-backed Shah. The MEK declares that it has since renounced armed violence, officially as of 2001, and it blames the earlier killings of American citizens on a splinter group. It was taken off the US blacklist of foreign terror groups in 2012 – a move that was earlier recommended by the Washington-based Brookings Institute in 2009, when the think-tank referred to the MEK as a useful «proxy for regime change in Iran».
According to a report this week from Associated Press, Trump’s transport secretary Elaine Chao received $50,000 for a five-minute speech she gave in 2015 at a rally held in French capital Paris, which was organized by the political wing of the MEK. Attending the same rally was Rudi Giuliani who gave a vehement speech calling for regime change in Iran.
Chao, who is married to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, received an additional $17,500 for a speech she delivered in March 2016 at another rally held in the US organized by Iranian dissident groups linked to the MEK.
Giuliani was considered by Trump for the post of Secretary of State before the top diplomat job was finally given to Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil. Last month, Giuliani and other former US officials wrote a letter to Trump calling on the new administration to «establish a dialogue» with the MEK’s political wing, reported theAP.
This lobbying background serves to explain why the Trump administration has taken an abruptly hostile line towards Iran.
There have been reports in US media that one motive may be that the Trump administration is trying to split the de facto alliance between Russia, China and Iran. So far, that gambit does not seem to be gaining any traction. Both Russia and China have denounced the new American sanctions imposed on Iran as counterproductive to international relations.
Moscow has also rejected Washington’s allegations against Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that Iran was, on the contrary, a key partner in defeating Islamist terror groups in Syria and Iraq.
Moreover, Russia this week defended Iran’s sovereign right to develop defensive military technology and said that its testing of ballistic missiles at the end of last month did not violate the 2015 P5+1 nuclear accord. Nor did they breach UN Security Council sanctions, says Moscow, because the missiles in question were conventional in nature and not designed to carry nuclear warheads. On the face of it, therefore, the pretext for Trump’s hostile turn towards Tehran does not make sense.
Pertinent to the Trump calculus is the input from Israel and Saudi Arabia – both states rabid in their claims that Iran is a malign influence in the region. Trump is due to meet with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu when he flies to Washington later this month. The pair have already held phone calls in which they have reportedly discussed the need to «contain Iran».
Trump’s defense secretary James Mattis, who last week also labelled Iran the «world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism», has reportedly been sharing close communication with Saudi Arabia’s military chief Prince Mohammed bin Salman about regional security matters, including again the «need to contain Iran». The Wahhabi House of Saud views Shia Iran and its more democratically driven Islamic Revolution as an existential threat to its dynastic rule and that of the other aligned Sunni Monarchs in the Persian Gulf.
The Washington establishment depends on this Saudi-Israeli axis and its containment of Iran in order to maintain its petrodollar hegemony, upon which its entire economy survives. The symbiotic nature of the US relation with Saudi and Israeli despotism is systematic and immutable regardless of who is occupying the White House.
A senior House of Saud figure, Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and uncle of the present defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is also a patron of the Iranian dissident group MEK. He has spoken at rallies calling for regime change, according to AP. It is very possible that the House of Saud is a major funder of the MEK, otherwise it is hard to explain how the exile group maintains offices in Europe and the US, with such major political figures on its guest lists.
The tie up with Israeli military intelligence is also consistent. Iranian authorities claim that assassinations carried out by MEK agents are enabled by Israel’s Mossad.
It would appear that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the MEK anti-Iran exile group are major drivers of Trump’s policy towards Iran.
Certainly the uptick in belligerence from the Trump administration is strongly suggestive of undue influence.
Personal dynamics also come significantly into play. Trump has shown himself to be something of a dilettante and ignoramus on foreign matters. He doesn’t read books, gets his information from cable TV news, and appears to be reliant on advisors and nebulous details to formulate «policy». Trump’s echoing of «state terror sponsor» charges against Iran suggest that this is a president who is prone to malign influence.
And on the matter of Iran, there is plenty of malign influence feeding into Trump’s brain.