The CIA coup, which restored Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's monarchy in Iran in 1953, heralded a dark era in Iranian history. With the defeat of Mossadeq's popular government, the people's perception became that of an Iran dominated by imperialism, exploitation and despotism. An uprising in June 1963, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over the Shah's intended reforms to land and women's rights, was suppressed with guns and tanks. The swift brutality, with which the uprising was dealt, was a warning to all: the Shah would use all means at his disposal to protect his social, economic and political reforms from the plots of communism and reactionary Islam.
Khomeini failed to mobilise the masses at this time over the issues of land reform and rights for women. In this respect, he was out of touch with both the undercurrent of progressive thinking which informed Iran's political scene and the interests which his fellow clergymen had in land ownership. The Shah believed the protests were short-lived, and that once he had exiled Khomeini, his rule would enjoy public endorsement.
However, when Khomeini left Iran, the void was quickly filled by Iran's radical youth, who were inspired by the Marxist ideology. They saw that Marxist organisation and strategy had been effective in helping the liberation movements of other oppressed people around the world at this time. The newly emerging revolutionary guerrilla movements in Latin-America and Asia were finding Marxist ideology useful in guiding their struggle. Iran was no different. At a time when the only protest seemed to come in the voice of reactionary Islam, young people responded readily to the appeal of this new form of struggle. Perhaps the revolution in Iran evolved out of the zeitgeist of the age. Maybe the Shah was not overthrown because of what he had personally done, but because the time for change to the whole political system in Iran had come, and the left-wing revolutionary communist inspired groups, were leading the way.
But the appeal of Islam was not dead. Young radical Muslims were convinced that Islam still had a part to play in modern politics and that for too long, the reactionaries had cornered the market in Islamic slogans. In 1965, five university graduates responded to the challenge.
The People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran founded in 1965
The Mojahedin was founded in 1965 by university students and graduates Mohammad Hanif-Nezhad, Saied Mohsen and Ali-Asghar Badi’Zadegan. Other founder members were Mahmoud Asgarizadeh and Rasoul Meshkinfam. They spent six years studying and developing an ideological framework, mixing Shiite Islam and Marxist theory, to create a radical interpretation of Islam to suit the needs of their struggle. Only then did they start their political activities, that is, revolutionary armed struggle. Once the Mojahedin started their armed struggle, they lost no time in assassinating those who in their view, were the real representatives of imperialism in Iran, American personnel. This original anti-imperialist platform is one, which the organisation has more recently tried to hide, but it still continues to be part of the ideological framework of the organisation.
In his book, 'Revolutionary Islam in Iran' Suroosh Irfani describes these beginnings:
"The Mojahedin did not begin their military operations for another six years, even though they had carefully screened and recruited over 200 members. These members were required to undergo an instructional programme in ideology that could take up to two years. During this period, the Mojahedin recruits studied the Qoran, Nahjol Balagha, the book of speeches and statements by Hazrat Ali, and Islamic history. They were also required to acquaint themselves with contemporary revolutionary experience by studying the Algerian, Cuban, Chinese, Russian and Vietnamese revolutions, and develop a critical understanding of Marxism. Next in the instructional programme was military training. Several pioneer Mojahedin were trained in Palestinian camps in Jordan, some of them enriching their experience by fighting alongside the Palestinians against the Royal Jordanian Army in 1971 during the 'Black September' conflict." (Revolutionary Islam in Iran, Suroosh Irfani. Zed, 1983)
One of the first recruits was a young undergraduate in political science at Tehran University, Massoud Rajavi, who joined the organisation in 1966. Rajavi, along with Hanif-Nezhad and Ahmad Rezai, became a member of the ideological group; a study group for developing Islamic parallels for the Marxist ideas which were so popular at the time. He also became part of the sixteen-member strategy team.
In 1969, aged twenty-one, Rajavi was made a member of the twelve member Central Committee of the organisation. His rapid promotion in the organisation was noted by many whom found his behaviour at odds with the ethos of humility and self-sacrifice, which governed the members’ involvement. For Rajavi, what was important was his own progress He never cared about other people’s circumstances. Hanif-Nezhad remarked at the time that Rajavi had become ‘inflated like a balloon’ and that he would become more and more big headed with the amount of reading he did. While Hanif-Nezhad had to nag the recruits to read the required books, Rajavi had already read all the books that the others hadn’t finished. Hanif-Nezhad said then that it was obvious this would give Rajavi a distorted idea of himself.
Basis for the Mojahedin's struggle
The Mojahedin's success very much depended on their analysis of the failure of past popular movements in Iran, as summed up in their own publication, Mojahed. The analysis inspired young people who were extremely critical of the handling of previous struggles and protests. It wasn't even important if people didn't fully understand the implications of the analysis, it was enough that it condemned the past and appeared to present a new methodology for radical change.
According to the Mojahedin there were four main currents of analysis:
1. In the past, people had joined a movement with the aim of removing a 'corrupt' ruler at the top and replacing him by a 'just' ruler. These movements were, therefore, essentially of a reformist nature and those leading the movements lacked a thorough understanding of the nature of their enemy. Occasionally the people succeeded in changing a minister or sending their own representatives to Parliament. But these successes were ephemeral and never succeeded in ending the corruption and poverty prevailing in society.
2. Because religion had played an important motivational role in these movements, they could be termed religious, but they were not ideological. An ideological struggle had to rest upon an adequate theoretical framework; a system of thought which could answer the needs, the problems and questions facing the people. It also had to deal comprehensively and adequately with the philosophical inquiries of those adhering to that ideology. For example, questions like 'What is Man?' 'What is Islamic Economy?' 'Who are the infidels (kafirs) and why killing them is justified?' and 'Who are the hypocrites (monafeqin) and why killing them is justified under the current circumstances?' needed to be dealt with coherently and scientifically.
Similarly, questions about the origin of the Universe, or the philosophy of history required to be answered by a system of thought that claimed to be an ideology. Hence, given that the previous movements were not ideological in this sense, they were not able to answer the social problems facing contemporary man. And even though these movements were motivated by religion, they reached a dead end because they lacked a long term strategy and organisation. Moreover, since these movements were directed only against an obvious symbol of despotism or injustice - the 'bad man' at the top - they could not have gone beyond the demand for superficial reforms, which would leave the more subtle and deeper contradictions unresolved.
Lacking the organisational framework of a clearly defined ideology, these movements had an inherent weakness, which eroded their capacity for obliterating despotism, exploitation, and imperialism. More importantly, the ideological deficiency of these religious movements was one of the reasons for the indifference with which a substantial section of the intelligentsia viewed Islam and also for their reluctance and failure to take seriously, Islam's revolutionary potential.
3. Previous struggles had failed because they lacked adequate revolutionary organisation and structure. In each instance, the movement had relied entirely on one person only for its leadership. There was no leadership cadre or group that had devoted itself wholly to the struggle as its principal task, taking it, as it were, as a full time enterprise. Nor was there a group that had trained itself concerning problems and issues confronting the leadership. As a result, when the focal figure of a movement, its leader, was eliminated or removed from the scene, it marked the end of that movement, as had been the case with Mirza Kuchak Khan (1906) and Mossadeq (1953).
4. In any case, the leadership of past movements lacked a scientific knowledge about revolutionary resistance and struggle. As a result, it couldn’t maintain a continuous, stage by stage, understanding of the social movement or evaluate its effectiveness, and redesign its strategy and tactics. In other words, 'revolutionary struggle’ (or ‘the movement’) had not been approached as a science with its own body of knowledge and its own methods. As a result, struggles in the past had not enjoyed precise strategy and policy.
In the context of Iran's recent political history, this analysis was astoundingly attractive to young Muslims who had felt let down by their leaders. It is useful to examine this analysis briefly, as it provides a touchstone for charting the changes that Rajavi subsequently forced upon the organisation.
The first item is about achieving power. The Mojahedin's ideology was based on the concept of the total overthrow of the prevailing system, rather than reform from within. In their view, this could only be achieved by violent revolution and this is the justification for armed struggle. This is still Rajavi's aim. His slogan became 'all or nothing'. He cannot share power, but requires that the present ruling system be removed in its entirety, and replaced with his own Islamic democratic republic, led by himself. All of Rajavi's manoeuvrings and strategies have been based on this analysis regardless of the actual changes that have taken place inside Iran over twenty years. And regardless of the will of the people; which has shown itself reluctant to embark on any further revolutionary action in spite of severe repression, preferring instead to challenge the existing system in an attempt to wrest from it some democratic share in power.
Item two refers to the Mojahedin's books that Rajavi has now banned inside the Mojahedin. Books like 'Economy in Simple Words', 'the Path of Man and the Path of the Prophets', 'Evolution', etc contain the pure communist message with an Islamic interpretation. The organisation, as can be understood from these books was, therefore, based on sharing and giving everything to the organisation and taking from it as little as possible. This later made the basis for Rajavi's cult. The most basic examples of revolutionary self-sacrifice are the giving of money, possessions and time. These began as revolutionary ideals and were perverted by Rajavi into cult behaviour.
Item three is the most revealing of Rajavi's deviation from the Mojahedin's original ideology. This analysis clearly points to the need to have a group of competent people at leadership level, any of whom could be replaced should they fail in their duty to the people, be killed or otherwise removed. Rajavi has now established himself not only as the sole leader, but also as even more than this; he is a self-appointed ideological leader who is above the law. He cannot be voted in or out, and he now occupies a position beyond democratic or any other accountability. As such, the organisation now exists only in his person, everyone else is dispensable. Yet the original slant of the Mojahedin’s analysis was that the people are the permanent feature and the leaders should be replaceable.
Item four describes the necessity for using scientific methods to chart the social movement. Instead, Rajavi has removed his organisation as far away as is possible from the social movement in Iran and has thereby lost touch with the Iranian people. The best use he has made of scientific methodology is in the psychological methods employed to inculcate the members of his organisation into his cult.
1971 - Leading members imprisoned
In 1971 SAVAK engineered mass-arrests of the organisation's members, including Rajavi. Over seventy-five members were arrested. Ahmad Rezai was the only top member who remained outside prison at this time and was therefore effectively leader of the Mojahedin. However in 1973 he killed himself with a grenade to avoid arrest, and became the Mojahedin's first martyr in the armed struggle.
The members were tried in a military tribunal and sentenced to death. Rajavi's brother, Kazem Rajavi, a highly respected academic in Switzerland and at one time ambassador to African countries for the Shah, started an international campaign to have the death sentences of all the Mojahedin prisoners, but in particular Massoud Rajavi, commuted to life. He gained support from many prominent human rights activists and academics. However, in spite of his efforts, in 1972 all the Central Committee members except Rajavi, were executed. It remains unclear why Rajavi was the only one spared execution, since international pressure was for leniency to be shown to all the leading members. What made him a special case? Rajavi himself may have unwittingly given the answer to this enigma. In Paris, several years later, Rajavi, as part of his drive to manipulate and indoctrinate his membership, urged Mojahedin ex-political prisoners to ask themselves what they had given for their freedom. His intention was to imply to them that only those who had been executed or tortured to death, had retained their ideological purity; if you survived it meant that you had weakened and somehow co-operated with the Shah's or Khomeini's regime. Clearly, if this really was the case, then this applies just as well to Rajavi as anyone else.
1975 - Splits in the Mojahedin - Rajavi takes up role of leader in prison
Massoud Rajavi was in the main, regarded by those around him as the most competent member to take up a leadership role for the Mojahedin in prison. However, after the arrest and execution of the Central Committee, many of the members and supporters, who remained outside, went their own way. One group in particular denounced the Islamic ideology and appropriated the Mojahedin name as a purely Marxist group. They murdered some of the leaders and workers of the Mojahedin who were continuing the struggle outside prison and brought the organisation to the brink of collapse. This coup became known as the 'pseudo Left opportunist deviation'.
"… the Marxist members while justifying the take-over of the central committee of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq organisation reasoned that they could violate the commonly accepted and acknowledged principles and regulations of the organisation because they had evolved to what they perceived to be a 'more substantial and evolved ideology'.(Mojahedin founding document)." (Revolutionary Islam in Iran, Suroosh Irfani, Zed, 1983)
The Marxist Mojahedin clearly regarded themselves as more progressive than the Islamic Mojahedin and in this way justified their attempted take over. Significantly, they argued that the original Mojahedin ideology had been out-stripped by their newer version.
The Islamic Mojahedin, led by Rajavi, answered this with a quote from the founding document:
"If any member of a guerrilla organisation begins to believe that his own individual point of view and conviction is more evolved and developed than the overall ideological foundation of the organisation, and on the basis of this belief feels that he is justified to do as he pleases with other members of the organisation, then, no scientific and rational rules and principles would be left for constituting the common ground for members of an organisation. In that case everyone in the organisation would consider it permissible for himself to commit any crime he pleases." (Revolutionary Islam in Iran, Suroosh Irfani, Zed, 1983)
It is ironic that Rajavi took such great pains to preserve the original organisation and ideology, only to appropriate and deviate from it for his own use later. The behaviour described above has been acted out in full by Rajavi, who firmly believes that his own point of view is more evolved and developed than the original Mojahedin ideology. However, the original analysis doesn’t take into account the possibility that such an individual would exert his control to the extent of making the organisation a cult. This means that everyone in the organisation now apparently considers it permissible for Rajavi to commit any crime he pleases, without necessarily arrogating that right to him or herself. It seems that the pseudo Left opportunists were merely the forerunners of a larger betrayal of the original ideology.
The in-fighting between the Islamic Mojahedin and the Marxist Mojahedin, continued until after the revolution, when the Marxist Mojahedin changed their name to Paykar and operated from Kurdistan where they still exist as a small group.
Rajavi, from inside prison, denounced the change in the ideology and with a handful of other prisoners, stood by the Islamic version. In prison too, however, some disagreed with Rajavi's version of the ideology, such as Lotf’ollah Meisami. Meisami had joined the Mojahedin at the same time as Rajavi and had undergone the same ideological training. He had been arrested when a bomb he was making exploded. In prison he was denied medical treatment for his injuries, which led to blindness and the loss of his right hand. He disagreed with Rajavi over the interpretation of Islam and Rajavi, acting as the leader, expelled him from the organisation. By force of personality, Rajavi led the organisation from inside prison.
At this time, Marxist groups analysed the Mojahedin as ‘petit bourgeoisie’. Other Muslim groups saw them as Marxist at root and didn't want to co-operate with them. Khomeini, while in exile in Najaf, Iraq, never clashed directly with them, but nor did he accept to help them either. The only prominent cleric, who supported them both before and after the 1979 revolution, was the progressive Ayatollah Taleghani, who was also imprisoned by the Shah for his beliefs. The Mojahedin tried to utilise his support to the full after the revolution, but he died shortly afterwards, in September 1979.
1979 - Rajavi, freed from prison takes up role as spokesperson
Rajavi remained in prison until the 1979 revolution and was freed on 20 January, being one of the last political prisoners to be released. From the time that he was released from prison, Rajavi took up the most prominent role, that of spokesman for the Mojahedin. He gave his first public speech just four days after his release. This allowed him to gain authority, both within the organisation, and in the public's perception. At this time, there were a handful of other Mojahedin members who were as ideologically competent as Rajavi; Meisami for instance, who was expelled from the organisation inside prison when he refused to give in to Rajavi, and Mousa Khiabani who had also undergone the original ideological training programme.
During the presidential election campaign in 1980, the following were introduced as ‘leadership cadre’: Massoud Rajavi, Mehdi Abrishamchi, (Massoud later married his wife) Abbas Darvari (who is now with Rajavi in Iraq, but with no responsibility), and Mousa Khiabani, (one of the original recruits of the Mojahedin and therefore, like Rajavi, had undertaken full ideological instruction. He was killed by the regime after Rajavi went to Paris.). Other leading members included Parviz Yaqoubi who later denounced the Ideological Revolution and was put on trial in Paris and expelled, Mahmoud Ahmadi and Mansour Bazargan.
But Rajavi had advantages over these other leaders. Darvari was a worker by trade and relatively uneducated. Abrishamchi was educated, but in Chemistry; a good qualification for making bombs, but not for political analysis, planning or for public speaking. Khiabani, although an enigmatic figure, he possessed true revolutionary humility and fought shy of personal publicity. Rajavi, however, had studied political science at Tehran University. He also came from an educated family; two of his brothers were doctors, one a top academic. This background gave him the confidence and the ability to speak in public. He also had what the others hadn't and which Hanif-Nezhad had recognised; an overreaching sense of his own importance.
Rajavi used this public platform to develop the 'charismatic' speaking style which he would later use to convince his followers that it was his right to act as their sole ideological leader and they had no use for God any more because Rajavi could fulfil that role for them instead!
Events quickly unfolded that allowed Rajavi to take more and more control of the organisation. Indeed, after the revolution, it became necessary to have a charismatic figure at the forefront of the organisation as a counter to the figure of Khomeini. Rajavi and the Mojahedin ideology appealed to radical Muslim youth in a way that Khomeini, in spite of being 'leader of the revolution', couldn't. Khomeini's ideas were not for a new generation, but at the same time, Marxism held no appeal for young people with a Muslim background. In the religiously charged atmosphere, Rajavi used this to the full. He presented a dynamic, passionate figure in his public speeches. He spoke at rallies, at universities, at seminars and in sports arenas. He tapped into the sense of injustice many were feeling as the reactionaries violently grabbed power and control over everything.
Very soon after the revolution, it became clear that there were two Muslim forces vying for power; one was Khomeini with his supporters and the other, the Mojahedin with Rajavi as the voice of the organisation. Once it became apparent that Khomeini wanted total power and that, having power, would not hesitate in commissioning any of the dirty work necessary to stay in power, people began to defect to the Mojahedin. In effect, these two men with their autocratic ambitions were locked in a power struggle from the start that only one of them could win.
Anecdotal evidence of Khomeini's willingness to do this dirty work is given as follows: When the revolution was underway, the mob attacked all public and government buildings. At the national bank, Bank Melli, they arrested the head of the bank Khosh Kish, and threw him into prison. Khosh Kish protested. He had remained at the bank out of duty to the country not to the Shah. He held it to be his responsibility to hand over the country's financial resources to the head of the new revolutionary regime whoever that might be. Not only did the angry mob not understand this, but Khomeini himself had no appreciation of such an action. After years languishing in prison without trial or accusation, he wrote a letter to Khomeini asking for his release as an innocent person. Khomeini replied pointedly to his aide "Is he still alive?", and this became Khosh Kish's death sentence.