Shaun Walker is the Guardian's central and eastern Europe correspondent.
The gates to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) compound, situated on a gently inclined hillside in rural Albania, are usually firmly closed, guarded by two sculpted lions atop stone pedestals and a large team of Albanian security guards. Unannounced visitors are not welcome at the fenced-off, secretive site, where more than 2,000 MEK members live.
The history of the MEK, or the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, is long and complicated. Critics and many of those who have left the group in recent years describe it as a shadowy outfit with little support inside Iran and many cult-like attributes, condemned to die out at the obscure base in Albania because of its enforced celibacy rules.
But for its backers, which include many politicians and, notably, members of Donald Trump’s inner circle, the MEK are tireless fighters for a free and democratic Iran who could potentially become the country’s next government.
This was highlighted over the weekend when the group held a gathering of international backers attended by, among others, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Other visitors included the former Democratic senator Joe Lieberman and the British Conservative MP Matthew Offord.
Giuliani described the MEK as a “government in exile” and suggested it was also a government in waiting after potential regime change in Iran. “It gives us confidence that if we make those efforts to overthrow that horrible regime, sooner rather than later, we will not only save lives but will be able to entrust the transition of Iran to a very responsible group of people,” he said to cheers from the assembled audience.
Giuliani has been a regular visitor to MEK events for several years, as has the US national security adviser, John Bolton. While they have been predicting an MEK government in Tehran for years, the fact that these officials now have positions in the Trump administration, combined with the increasingly fraught geopolitical situation around Iran, makes their support for the MEK matter more than ever.
Originally a Marxist-Islamist group that played a leading role in the 1979 Iranian revolution, the MEK ended up exiled and fighting against the Iranian regime from a base in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the process, the MEK lost a lot of support inside Iran.
The group was only removed from the US terror list in 2012 and the Obama administration later helped negotiate its relocation to Albania as the situation in post-Saddam Iraq became perilous. There, in the countryside, it has constructed a vast compound where men and women lead segregated existences.
Last month, the Guardian spoke with about a dozen men in Tirana who had fled the MEK compound over the past two years. With no passports or other documents, they remain in limbo, unable either to work or to leave the country. The picture they painted of life inside the compound was of a cult-like atmosphere in which mobile phones and contact with relatives were banned, all interactions between men and women were prohibited, and days were spent sitting at computers firing out tweets and other online messages in support of the MEK.
Each evening, the men had to gather in small groups with their commanders for “ideological training” as well as a confessional about any sexual thoughts they might have had that day.
“For example, you would have to say: ‘I saw a girl on television and I got an erection,’ or ‘This morning I masturbated,’” said Hassan Heyrani, one of the defectors. He said there was no specific punishment for such admissions except scolding and embarrassment. “If you admit to it too often they will get angry and say: ‘How do you want to create freedom for the Iranian people if you have an erection every day?’”
An investigation by the Intercept recently found that an anti-regime Iranian activist, who had written extensive media columns about Iran, appeared, in fact, to be an invented persona created by MEK trolls.
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