‘Do you tell your sexual thoughts to your commander?” “Do you tell your secrets to your commander?” “Do you think an authoritarian organization such as the MEK can bring democracy to Iran?” “One of your friends has already told us he confesses his sexual thoughts to his commanders. Do you?”
Don’t be mistaken. This is not an episode of “Law & Order.” They are actual questions a New York Times correspondent, Patrick Kingsley, posed to me in January when he visited Ashraf-3, northwest of Tirana, the Albanian capital, where thousands of members of the Iranian opposition have been residing since 2016, following attempts by Tehran to wipe us out when we lived in Iraq.
I couldn’t help but find the Times’ approach an eerie reminder of the methods of the regime’s interrogators. When they arrested two of my friends, they tortured them to get information about other resistance members. They told one of them that his friend had already given all his information, so he too should give information about the others.
I was 8-years-old when the regime executed six members of my family in 1981 because they supported the opposition Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Those six were my dad, Dr. Morteza Shafaei, my mom, two brothers (one was only 16), my sister and my brother-in-law. After escaping Iran, I moved to the U.S. and resided in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was an A-plus pre-med student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with lots of opportunities before me. While I had a prosperous life, I decided to devote it to bringing freedom for my people in Iran.
I left my studies unfinished to join the Iranian resistance in 1995. The Times’ 25-minute interview with me was more like an interrogation and prosecution, full of hurtful allegations against me and my beliefs, and a humiliating inquisition about my personal life. I answered all the allegations; I have nothing to hide. The Times didn’t bother to publish my replies and corrections. This is not surprising. While in the camp, the Times correspondent visited a museum that included, among other things, a memorial in tribute to the 1,500 Iranian protesters who were massacred by the regime in November. In its report, the Times failed to refer to this tragedy or the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands – my family included — since the mullahs took over four decades ago.
I will never forget my last moments with my mom. When the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) raided our home and arrested my mom, she told me that she would never be back. I later found out they took her for execution. They told my mom that if she wanted to live with me and my dad again, she must carry out a TV interview to denounce the MEK and her struggle for freedom. She refused and paid the price with her life.
If the Times told my mom’s story, they’d probably describe her as a cold-hearted mother who didn’t care about her 8-year-old boy. Although my mom’s decision to sacrifice her life was so agonizing for me, I am very proud of her. For years, the Times has advocated a U.S. foreign policy of appeasement towards the mullahs ruling Iran. The Iranian people meanwhile demonstrated their desire for regime change in the 2018 and more recently in November 2019 and January uprisings.
The paper has consistently denigrated the viability of a democratic opposition, even following mass protests that shook the regime to its core. But its antipathy for the U.S. “maximum pressure” policy has blinded it and put it squarely on the wrong side of history. My experience with the Times and the resulting article are only the latest skirmish in a bigger war the Times is fighting against the current U.S. administration’s Iran policy in which my life and my cause are only fodder.
Indeed, by promoting the false notion that there is no viable alternative to the regime, and by demonizing the MEK, it attempts to undermine President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign on the mullahs. At best this is willful blindness to the realities on the ground in Iran. At worst it is an egregious and hurtful kind of censorship, a distortion of truth to satisfy a political agenda in which millions of lives hang in the balance.
Mohammad Shafaei is a member of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and resides in Albania.