The Mojahedin-e Khalq, or as they are also known in Western circles, the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran, remain the largest and most powerful external opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Mojahedin fields its own army, the Iraq based National Liberation Army of Iran (NLA) and uses as a political alias, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Collectively these are referred to by the Mojahedin as the Iranian Resistance. The personnel of each is comprised largely of the same people. The Mojahedin, NLA and NCRI are led by one, self-appointed man, Massoud Rajavi.
In spite of being labelled as a terrorist entity by the governments of the USA, the UK and Europe, the Mojahedin continues to operate unchecked under its NCRI alias, allowing it to lobby and win the political approbation of the parliaments of those countries. This raises the immediate question as to why this gap exists between the support given by individual politicians and the official government line. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a simple answer. While the governments have been accused of political cynicism and the parliamentarians are said to be acting out of ignorance, neither response can be dismissed by such raw arguments. In reality, despite these respective positions, the Mojahedin remain something of an enigma in Western political circles. Neither supporting them as 'the sole democratic alternative' to the mullahs, nor attacking them as terrorists, effectively addresses the issue of who they really are and what they represent.
To add to the problem of how to assess the Mojahedin, the exiled Iranian community takes a completely opposite view from the West’s. Whilst any Western political support gained by the Mojahedin is dismissed as simply a propaganda exercise, there has been strong protest against the terrorist labelling, even among those Iranians who most strongly oppose the Mojahedin.
Inside Iran, the political scene is slowly rising to boiling point, with the balance of power between the various factions within the framework of the Islamic Republic of Iran, at stake. This political conflict between the ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’ factions, is represented in turn by President Mohammad Khatami and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But although these factions are locked in a power struggle to serve and preserve their own interests, clearly what is driving the conflict, are the demands from a society, which has suffered enough repression and deprivation. A society that is now demanding that change (largely in the form of economic progress) comes more rapidly and is more about their needs than the needs of the ‘revolution’.
In spite of the dangers apparent in this power struggle, for Iranians who lived through the 1979 revolution, this represents a positive shift in the country’s troubled past two decades. Most people felt passionately toward the injustices in their country during the 1960s and 1970s, but felt largely powerless to change things. When the revolution did eventually erupt, there was for many, an implicit trust in fate. Perhaps they believed as historically a shah had been replaced by the next shah, that this time he would be replaced by a democrat. It was an easy delusion to fall into. However, now it would appear that these people are beginning to understand that a democracy is not created by the imposition of democrats on a society, rather it is the process of struggling toward democratic government, which matures people into democrats. It is this process which now appears to be underway again in Iran. After more than two decades, it begins to look like democracy is on the horizon for Iran.
The period in Iran’s history since the 1979 revolution can be compared to the historical path toward democracy in other regions of the world during the same period. Yet in many ways, the events remain completely unique. The Shah left Iran not because he didn’t know how to rule, or was too dependent on the USA or even because he and his family were corrupt. It was rather for the simple reason that the historical time for Iranians to be ruled by one family had come to an end. The political evolution of the Iranian people had reached a point at which they clearly recognised what they didn’t want, even though they appeared unsure as to what they did want. As with any populace, there was no single, cohesive and universally popular solution.
Although the nation had reached a level of political sophistication for which the next step would be democracy, it was never going to be that simple. For one thing, Khomeini was not a democrat. He never claimed to be one and couldn’t have made the claim even if he had wanted to. In addition, how was it possible for anyone taking over in Iran, particularly following a revolution that had swept away a monarchy which had ruled the economic, cultural, social and political life of the country for thousands of years, to claim to be a democrat? More importantly, if the definition of political democracy is very loosely defined as accepting a share in power, then anyone who had the platform of ‘winner takes all’ could not be considered a democrat; no matter whether that person is, in the end, the winner or the loser.
In Iran after the revolution, two people took up this platform. Khomeini who supported the stance 'The only Party is the Party of God', and Massoud Rajavi, leader of the Mojahedin, who later announced his intention to have 'either everything or nothing'. To this day, their loyal followers are supporting these slogans. Through the passage of time, both sides have shown that they will stand by what they have said. Clearly this is why no peace treaties or summits, or even a cease-fire have been agreed, as has been the case in other armed conflicts, such as in Algeria, Sudan, Turkey and Latin America, in which concessions have been made by both sides in the struggle for power.
It is this intractable stand off which has made Iran’s path toward democracy, unique and difficult, until now. Even though it is possible to state that in the short run Khomeini has won and Rajavi has lost, it is clear that both sides have irrevocably lost ground and that a third ‘democratic’ force is emerging and has the support of the people. As such, this force is the real winner. The path of Iran toward democracy could have been very different and followed a more predictable path – in relation to other countries’ experiences – had Khomeini and Rajavi seen their future and started thinking about having ‘something’ rather than losing everything.
In the West, the Mojahedin are a dark horse in Iran’s equation of power. On one level their political platform shows them as liberal, pro-Western and capitalist, with a strong emphasis on women’s rights. Some of their Western supporters refer to them as "Iran's democratic opposition".
In an otherwise informative article ‘Who are the People’s Mujahedin of Iran?’ (WSWS 14 September 2000) Justus Leicht claims that “there is little that separates them politically from the so-called “reform wing” of the mullahs.” But this raises an important question about the Mojahedin. Let us assume that the reformist Khatami received his electoral mandate from a populace looking for a leadership which would return their country to the world community, produce economic growth and development, and impose the rule of law to curb the excesses of those in power, and bring a little democratic accountability. If the Mojahedin’s political platform actually offered even half of this, then surely they would have had massive support from the Iranian people, and the election of Khatami would have been unnecessary, as there already existed a force which could deliver the people’s will.
Leicht, however, goes on to say that the Mojahedin “stubbornly deny that there are any conflicts whatsoever within the regime.” This points more accurately to their actual political approach. This describes Rajavi’s true platform, which is to have 'everything or nothing'.
The Mojahedin ignore the schisms when talking about the regime, because it is in their interests to continue to treat the Islamic Republic as a single indivisible entity. Rajavi can only have everything, if everything that is there now, is swept away in a second popular revolution and his own system replaces it in its entirety.
For two decades, the Mojahedin enjoyed a huge amount of support from Western governments in their armed struggle and propaganda battle against the Iranian regime. The Mojahedin organisation in the guise of the National Council of Resistance, continues to win support as the 'sole democratic alternative' to the regime, from the US Congress, the US House of Representatives, the British Parliament and some of Europe’s parliamentarians. But now the governments of all these countries have labelled them as terrorists. Whether this labelling is simply a cynical political manoeuvre to allow closer relations with the Islamic Republic, is consequently a matter of some conjecture.
When it began in 1965, the Mojahedin tapped into a feeling in the Iranian psyche, which said the country, had had enough of dictatorship, monarchy and imperialist domination. With its strongly anti-imperialist stance and the assassination of six American advisors in Iran, the organisation attracted mostly young radical and educated Muslims. By the time the 1979 revolution was underway, many more sectors of Iranian society were willing to support them, including rich merchants. The country began to divide into reactionary and traditionalist Muslims who lined up behind Khomeini, and a whole spectrum of Muslims with informed and progressive beliefs and outlook. Aside from the Liberal movement, which attracted intellectuals, the Mojahedin presented the only channel for such people. So much so, that two years into the revolution, the Mojahedin were able to gather half a million people onto the streets of Tehran at only two hours notice, for the massive demonstration in June 1981. This demonstration became the pinnacle of the Mojahedin's activity in Iran.
After this, Khomeini ordered a bloody crackdown on any and all opposition to his rule. The Mojahedin were forced to go underground and many leading members fled abroad to carry on the struggle from France, which offered them a safe haven.
In the two decades since then, the Mojahedin have both grown in influence and died in support. Today they are shunned and even feared by Iranians at home and abroad. At best they are regarded by the youth of Iran as an anachronism, in much the same way that for the young founders of the Mojahedin, Mohammad Mossadeq, whose star had risen and fallen in the early 1950s, had become an irrelevance in their struggle for freedom. At worst, Iranians see the Mojahedin as dictators in the making. ‘If they behave like this now, what will they do if they come to power?’ is the rueful phrase greeting each new revelation of the Mojahedin’s activities.
But their political influence is apparently as strong today, if not stronger than it was in the early 1980s. In non-Iranian circles, and in particular in the West, the Mojahedin are viewed much more sympathetically than by their fellow countrymen. For many people, the issue is clear and straightforward; the Mojahedin profess the desire to bring democracy to Iran and they are struggling against a regime with a horrific human rights record, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Mojahedin above all, advertise their respect for the rights of women. So much so that they only give specific leadership roles to women in the organisation in order, they claim, to redress the historical imbalance of gender power.
Conversely, the Mojahedin righteously and articulately point their accusing finger at the Iranian regime as misogynist, operating a gender apartheid, and as practicing the worst aspects of what they describe as Islamic fundamentalism. That is, gross violations of human rights, the assassination of political enemies, and the denial of political and social freedoms to the people. This regime, say the Mojahedin, is a total perversion of the true, progressive Islam that the Mojahedin follow.
But to lead the analysis of the Mojahedin organisation down the path of which version of Islam they promulgate would be to ignore the one very dangerous characteristic, which renders it unacceptably dangerous per se. The danger from some organisations or countries is clear: terrorism performed against Western interests and societies. No one could dispute that this has no relation to democratic principles. Yet the danger posed by the Mojahedin is not so clear. Their Western educated, middle class 'diplomats' visit Western parliaments, academics and human rights activists, with a democratic platform ideally suited to gain the utmost sympathy. The sinister nature of the Mojahedin’s real agenda is one not immediately recognised by those examining their political or religious motivations.
One of the main criticisms of former members of the Mojahedin, concerns the internal structure of the organisation. It is described as operating an iron discipline over its members, to the extent of practicing serious violations of human rights in an attempt to make members conform. However, the description of 'iron discipline' fails to adequately convey the behaviour of the Mojahedin towards its members. After all, armies depend upon an iron discipline in order to fight wars. But former members know that the control exerted on them is not the same as that of a classic army. Even though most former members know that they have been in what has been described by many, including the US State Department, as a personality cult, they lack the tools to describe what this means.
In fact, according to Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre, all cults share the same characteristics. The definition of any cult is that it indoctrinates its members; forms a closed, totalitarian society; has a self-appointed, Messianic and charismatic leader; believes that the ends justify the means and its wealth does not benefit its members. He also states that recruits are a certain type of person; intelligent, idealistic, well educated, economically advantaged and intellectually or spiritually curious.
The Mojahedin have all these characteristics, and it is the use of well-documented psychological mind control techniques, which the former members describe as 'iron discipline'. It is a view of their structure, which has not been given much attention until now. The inner world of the Mojahedin, if it is enquired into at all, is still a mystery to Western observers, and it is a deliberate policy of the Mojahedin to keep it that way. Because of this, little importance has been attached to this aspect of their organisation. Yet cult culture is one of the most dangerous forms of society. Firstly, because it robs the members of their most basic of human rights. The Mojahedin has conducted forced marriages and later forced divorces, and has separated children from their parents and had them fostered by their supporters in various countries. But there are even more disturbing issues emerging from the secrecy of their inner world.
In January 2001, a group of fifty Iranians were taken from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, to the border with Iran where they were secretly exchanged for Iraqi prisoners of war. The Iranians were not prisoners of war, they had been sent to Abu Ghraib prison without legal process by the Mojahedin and the Iraqi Secret Service, after they had expressed criticism of the organisation's policies. The Mojahedin had full knowledge of the deal with Iran. As far as they were concerned, these people were being sent to almost certain death. This was the latest in over a decade of accusations from former members of the Mojahedin who have complained of terrible human rights abuses inflicted on them whilst under the jurisdiction of the organisation.
Amnesty International in its 2002 Annual Report, being unable to investigate in the Mojahedin's headquarters and camps in Iraq, the hundreds of accusations of human rights abuses which had reached its office, resigned itself to stating: "There were unconfirmed reports that the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, an armed political group, ill-treated its own members at a base in Iraq. The reports were denied by the organization but it failed to provide substantive information to allay AI's concerns."
The second, perhaps more imperative reason that cult culture presents such a danger, is because it renders its members obedient to the point, as was seen with the disaster in the World Trade Centre in New York, where they are capable of the most extreme and unthinkable acts of self-sacrifice. Could this be one of the reasons that governments have placed the Mojahedin on their lists of terrorist organisations? Or have they still a more conventionally defined analysis of the Mojahedin based on their missile attacks in Iran which have killed and injured several civilians. Or perhaps the fact that the Mojahedin's armed wing, the National Liberation Army of Iran is funded, trained and supplied by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, is a major consideration. This book seeks to examine these issues and although no definitive answers emerge, it is hoped that this examination will form the basis of a more realistic and in-depth appraisal of the Mojahedin's place in current Iranian politics.
Iran is one of the very few countries in that region which holds democratic elections. Each country holds these elections within a very narrowly defined constitution or system of rule. In Iran, this is based on the preservation of Islamic rule. In Israel, it is the Jewish faith which defines the state; Israel was founded as, and remains, the Jewish homeland. But their citizens have the power to vote in secret ballots for their choice of leader within that framework. As the years have passed since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the sharing of power has shifted from the autocracy of Khomeini, to a mangled mire of power struggles between hard liners and reformers which involves every single aspect of government and law in the country. What has certainly become clear in all of this, is that once the slightest space opened up for their voice to be heard, the people of the country shouted out. Via the ballot box, they demanded more democratic accountability by their leaders, and for the rule of law to apply to all.
But for the Mojahedin who claim to believe in democracy, none of these counts. They don't want to see gradual change emerging from the involved struggles of the people. They want to control the scene and impose their own government on the country. Their army is waiting on the border to do just that. The leader of the Mojahedin, Massoud Rajavi, wants to replace the Islamic Republic with what? With a secular democracy? How does he intend to implement that? More importantly, as the spiritual leader of the Mojahedin, could he resist the temptation to become the new Spiritual Leader of Iran, replacing Khomeini and Khamenei? How can the leader of a cult become an effective leader of a country? These are questions, which need to be examined in evaluating the Mojahedin.
This book does not set out to be a history of the Mojahedin Organisation, although it charts the organisational changes chronologically. The book is divided into two parts. Part One leading up to the 'Ideological Revolution' and Part Two describes what happened afterwards. This dividing point is of the highest significance. Regardless of how the Mojahedin present themselves to the outside world through the NLA or the NCRI or the new National Solidarity Front to Overthrow Religious Dictatorship in Iran, the Mojahedin only obeys its internal dynamic, which is the need to keep all the members loyal and obedient.
The mastermind and owner of all the Mojahedin's aliases and activities is one man, Massoud Rajavi. It was Rajavi who engineered a complete re-write of the organisation's ideology in 1985 with his 'Ideological Revolution'. With that he took control of the organisation and transformed what had been a political organisation led by a twelve member Central Committee, into an ideologically based cult, with himself as the sole leader. Though ironically it is probably the use of cult culture which has preserved the Mojahedin, while most of Iran’s other external opposition has diminished or dissolved in the difficult conditions of exile. Rajavi’s main asset is undeniably the unquestioning devotion of his followers, which he is able to use in disregard of the normal constraints imposed on political organisations.
This book examines how Massoud Rajavi promoted himself beyond accountability, and how he converted what had been at one point, one of the most popular and powerful armed resistance movements in the world, into a hideously contorted cult. A cult which has only its own massive propaganda machine and a few terrorist acts, to preserve it as what is now a very real threat to the process of democracy in Iran. In this respect, the book argues, the Mojahedin in current Iranian politics, fulfil the same function outside Iran as the hard-liners do inside. There is a growing movement inside Iran toward democratisation within the existing framework of the Islamic Republic. It is daily becoming clear that no matter how slight this voice for change is, it represents the real voice of the Iranian people. The only people who wish to stifle this voice are those vying for total power over Iran. Those people are the hard-liners, and the Mojahedin who pitched themselves against Khomeini over twenty years ago and who are still fighting to gain "everything or nothing". It remains to be seen whether the voice of the people is more powerful than the gun.