But, their behavior aside, what is the harm of working with the group or at least including them in any discussion of Iran’s future after current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s death? The answer is simple: The spin in Paris and Washington remains entirely discordant with the sentiments of the Iranians who matter most—those who live under and resent the Islamic Republic. While most Iranians feel that the Islamic Republic has gone off the rails and cannot be reformed, they are more apathetic than revolutionary. After all, the last time Iranians supported a revolution, they replaced one dictator with an even more brutal one and ended up fighting an eight-year-war which killed up to one million people. Certainly, when a spark occurs, they will join in the protests, but otherwise most will stay on the sidelines and simply seek to provide for their families.
Herein lies the biggest problem with treating the MEK as anything more than a pariah: Because Iranians hate the group for its history, previous actions, and past allegiances, the current Islamic Republic will utilize the MEK to delegitimize any movement or group of which they are part. Indeed, many Iranians continue to insist that the only thing worse than the regime under which they suffer now would be the MEK.
The MEK may dismiss this as propaganda, but it is not. Nevertheless, whether they think their reputation fair or unfair, they must acknowledge the perception which surrounds them. If they are Iranian patriots, therefore, and truly garner the support they claim, they would stand aside for now. The Islamic Republic may very well die with Khamenei for two simple reasons: First, the regime elite may be unable to form a consensus on a successor and, second, even if they do, it is not certain the successor will be able to consolidate control. Many Iranians already expect a provisional government will usher in a new constitutional convention and internationally-monitored elections.
If the MEK is as popular as they say, let them support such a process from afar and then compete at the ballot box. Alas, the reason they so often seek to be spoilers now is they know—as does every Iranian—that they will never get more than 0.001 percent of the vote in any election.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.