Foundation of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, 1981
After the defeat of the 30th Khordad demonstration, the organisation was forced to go underground. But it was too big, and no contingency had been made for the members or supporters in the event of failure. Only the leading members had safe houses to escape to. The vast majority of supporters were left to be arrested or killed. Later their names were to be published in a book as the 'martyrs of freedom' by the Mojahedin.
The regime cracked down on any kind of opposition with mass, arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial executions. This was the end of pretending for all sides. Khomeini showed his true face to the world. Rajavi was about to show his. On the scale of things, little attention was given by the West to the scheming that was to take place in Paris. But the ever increasing alienation of the Mojahedin from Iranian society was about to begin.
The Mojahedin Central Committee had immediately instructed Massoud Rajavi to leave the country in order to take news of their struggle to the world and gain international support and publicity. Mousa Khiabani was left in overall charge inside Iran. Several days later, the international media was covering a story about Massoud Rajavi and ex-President Abol-Hassan Bani Sadr landing at a Paris airport in an Iranian fighter jet, piloted by one of the ex-Shah's personal pilots, who had since defected to the Mojahedin. Accompanying Bani Sadr, Rajavi had made certain that his arrival would not go unnoticed.
Abol Hassan Bani Sadr, the first President of Khomeini's rule, was politically a liberal. He found it increasingly difficult to accept the killing and suppression, which was being conducted through Khomeini's power and influence. Day by day he became more distant from Khomeini. His newspaper took up a similar stance to the Mojahedin, in pinpointing the danger to establishing a representative government as coming from within the Islamic forces, in other words, the reactionaries. Inevitably, in May 1981, because of his reluctance to back revolutionary measures, Khomeini dismissed Bani Sadr as President.
With the defeat of the Mojahedin on 30th Khordad, (20th June 1981), Bani Sadr could see that his time also, and that of many other liberals, had come to an end and that this failed coup would be used against him, either to draw him closer to Khomeini and his policies or that he would be further sidelined and eventually persecuted. The Mojahedin for their part, had ordered their militia to attend Bani Sadr's speeches posing as his supporters in order to encourage him to turn more and more against Khomeini. After 30th Khordad, clearly this 'support' would not be tolerated. Caught between Khomeini and the Mojahedin, the heat created by both sides was too much for any liberal to survive. Bani Sadr decided to take his chance with the Mojahedin organisation, which he trusted, and which in the end, betrayed him.
The Mojahedin had done their utmost to separate Bani Sadr from Khomeini and bring him to their side, even though he did not share the same values as they. This was pursued to the point that a major upset erupted among the Mojahedin's supporters, even in America and Europe where they believed that Bani Sadr should be supported unconditionally by people declaring their allegiance to the Mojahedin, rather than in disguise as Bani Sadr's supporters. This internal criticism was especially strong after the announcement of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the treaty, which was co-written by Bani Sadr and Rajavi. The Mojahedin were forced to send envoys to the United States and Europe to talk to their supporters in the Moslem Iranian Student’s Society, and were even obliged to expel some of those who could not be convinced.
The same conflict of ideas had also occurred during the Mojahedin's 'political phase'. In this case, posters of Khomeini were displayed in the Mojahedin offices and people were writing articles and letters in his favour. This behaviour was a continuation of the Mojahedin’s initial approach to Khomeini’s leadership following the revolution, which was to accept it and work with it. It was, of course, a useful tactic for Rajavi in order to delay the confrontation between the Mojahedin and Khomeini. But many supporters believed in what they were doing and even at the start of the 'military phase', posters of Khomeini were still displayed in the meetings outside Iran. These and other issues presented constant internal challenges to Rajavi and the path he wanted to steer the Mojahedin organisation along. At each stage he had to argue and battle with the views of others for control of the scene.
Shortly before leaving Iran, the Mojahedin made an agreement with Bani Sadr to form a political coalition. The first political act therefore, which Rajavi instigated once he was safely in Paris, was the formation of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the NCRI, which was formally announced on 30th July 1981. This was hugely important in his strategy for the Mojahedin, perhaps more so than he realised at the time. The NCRI, according to Rajavi, was to act as a united front against Khomeini, to advance the Iranian people's democratic movement, and to prevent opportunists from taking advantage of the hiatus of power in Iran. It was heralded as a national, popular, all encompassing front. The Mojahedin's idea was that this political democratic front be formed as an umbrella for the energies and influence of popular parties and personalities, while at the same time, their own organisation would continue with the armed struggle inside Iran in order to provoke a popular counter-revolution against Khomeini. This is what they said.
In reality, the NCRI was created for them to show a democratic face to the West who always insisted on dealing with a coalition. It didn't take long for the West to realise that only obedient people were allowed to join the NCRI, and that those who had the slightest criticism or argument were quickly expelled. Privately, Rajavi would say that the history of people sacrificing their blood and some politicians or other taking the fruit of it, has passed, and this time we want to make sure that the people who have given the blood will rule, meaning himself of course. Rajavi had fled Iran on instruction, but this had ensured his personal survival and allowed him to escape the consequences of his failed coup attempt.
The Mojahedin ensnared Bani Sadr to prevent him from acting alone or from joining with another group of people who would steal the advances made by the Mojahedin in building up resistance against Khomeini. For this reason of course, they tried to recruit many others inside and outside Iran. Some of those courted by the Mojahedin preferred to remain in Iran where they saw the real struggle taking place. They started working quietly to encourage and promote the various democratic movements, which have only very recently begun to make tentative inroads into Iran's internecine political power struggle. Others simply refused to accept the Mojahedin’s conditions. Some were killed by Khomeini's forces in the backlash to 30th Khordad and some were reluctantly absorbed into Khomeini's regime. Those outside Iran, who refused to join, were subjected to damaging Mojahedin propaganda to make sure that they would not make any alternative in future.
Iranian commentators and analysts wrote much about the content of the NCRI programme, and it has been much criticised and changed since its inception. But in Rajavi's view, none of this niggling over details, had any real significance. In the interviews he gave on the subject, it is clear that what was important for him was that the Mojahedin hang on to their share of power and exclude any other organisation from the equation of Khomeini versus Rajavi.
Outside Iran, this was done under the banner of an 'anti-liberal' revolution, which devoted one hundred percent of their efforts in Paris to meetings, lobbying and publishing their newspapers so that they kept their public position. Internally this phase was explained in terms of the necessity for preserving their revolutionary identity in the face of Western liberal values, but in reality they used all their resources to attack the Iranian liberals who had left Iran, and who might become rivals.
What was of paramount importance to Rajavi, was that each of the NCRI members agree that the Mojahedin representative should take control of the interim government after Khomeini's overthrow. That representative was of course Rajavi himself. This is the fundamental issue that he wanted the NCRI to accept. He remarked ‘We were certain that once the correct strategy has been adopted, all the other shortcomings, weaknesses and mistakes would be ratified in due course.’ The ‘correct strategy’, in other words, was that as long as you accept that I will be the interim leader, then all other differences mean nothing and can be resolved in time.
The reaction of other groups was scathing. They attacked Bani Sadr and the Mojahedin. From Monarchists to Marxists to Liberals, none could accept such a proposal and all denounced it. Of course this was what Rajavi wanted; to exclude every body else in anticipation of the victory which he believed was imminent. He believed that he didn't need anybody else (he little suspected that later, even with the help of Saddam Hussein, he would not be able to topple the regime with his military militia (National Liberation Army of Iran) without a proper coalition) and the more they denounced the sectarianism of the Mojahedin, the happier he was to draw his lines. Privately, Rajavi told the Mojahedin that the more they attack us, the easier things will be after our victory because these attacks will be proof for the Iranian people in the future that this is what all these other people did while we were fighting with the regime, and therefore they cannot lay claim to anything.
Publicly, Rajavi dismissed their carping as sour grapes because they had failed to progress their own organisations. This was partly true. It was ostensibly unfair of them to pick on the Mojahedin when in fact it was Khomeini's regime, which had all but destroyed them. Yet there remained a teasing grain of truth in their arguments. There was, consciously or unconsciously, an awareness that Rajavi was up to something more than his words implied. He was regarded as devious and treacherous, but no one could seem to put their finger on what he was doing. Even when they did, their voice was quickly quashed by the Mojahedin's anti-liberalism propaganda machine.
The break-up of the original NCRI
At first, the formation of the NCRI was welcomed by a variety of well-known parties, and personalities. Bani Sadr, as Iran's first post-revolution President, and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, were considered the two main pillars of the NCRI which gave it credibility. The presence of other well-known personalities such as Dr Nasser Pakdaman, Bahman Niroomand, Mehdi Khanbaba, Dr Mansour Farhang and several others, was a major factor in the preliminary success of the NCRI.
However, it wasn't long before Rajavi's demands began to take their toll. The first casualty was the democratic relations between the parties involved. It soon became obvious that Rajavi wanted the NCRI to act as a tool in his hands to serve the aims and purposes of the Mojahedin. Soon only those who were willing to offer loyalty to Rajavi and were willing to follow Mojahedin policies, were accepted into the NCRI.
Bani Sadr became increasingly critical of Rajavi's developing relations with the Iraqi government, which were being facilitated by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). On 24th March 1983, he officially announced his separation from the NCRI. Bani Sadr refused to accept the support of foreign forces in toppling Khomeini's regime, in particular when that force was at war with Iran. Bani Sadr was a man of principle. Just as he rejected Khomeini’s use of violence, he now rejected Rajavi’s opportunism. In Paris, Bani Sadr was totally at the mercy of the Mojahedin. He was living in Rajavi's house and therefore had no means to do anything without their help. Everything he wanted to achieve had to be arranged through the Mojahedin. It was impossible for him to mount an internal resistance to Rajavi's control of the NCRI's policies.
After Bani Sadr left, it was the turn of the KDP. Rajavi had the organisation ousted from the NCRI on 14th April 1985. The pretext was that the KDP had had contact with the Khomeini regime. In the view of the Mojahedin, this was unacceptable. There was no ground for contact in any shape or form. For the Mojahedin the choice was either us or Khomeini, with no compromise.
But for the KDP, although they viewed the Khomeini regime as an implacable enemy, they still were realistic enough to see that they needed contact. While they were involved in armed conflict, there was need for communication; where and how to return the bodies of those killed, arrangements for exchange of prisoners, etc. These were the realistic communications between two sides at war. The KDP's struggle was not ideological as was the Mojahedin's, but was rather for Kurdish autonomy, yet they preserved their independence, while the Mojahedin did not. They also fully understood the deep responsibility they had toward their people in Kurdistan. The Mojahedin had simply left their supporters to the mercy of the Khomeini regime.
The Mojahedin also contributed greatly to the break up of other organisations, including the communist Fedayeen-e Khalq. These organisations, by giving their support to the Mojahedin, forced many of their members to defect. Such as Mehdi Sameh, who broke up the minority section of the Fedayeen-e Khalq in order to join the NCRI. He joined the Fedayeen to the NCRI in name only, with less than a handful of members. (Their first split into minority and majority factions was really the act of Khomeini. His tactics forced the majority faction to get nearer to the Soviet backed Tudeh Party after the military defeats in their strategy of working from the villages. The minority faction resisted this development, preferring to maintain a purely Iranian communist identity).
The NCRI as it had been originally constructed in 1981, lasted no more than two or three years. After this, there were only eleven members, the largest and by far the most powerful of which was the Mojahedin. Others were either individuals or small organisations whose influence carried little weight.
Rajavi's manipulation of the NCRI for the benefit of the Mojahedin could possibly, if the Mojahedin had been a democratically run political party, have been excused, even praised as being politically astute and pragmatic. But the Mojahedin was based on ideology in spite of the political manoeuvring of its leader. It was not itself a democratic organisation in which the ideas and beliefs of its grass roots members were taken into account. This meant that the coalition was never ever likely to succeed while the Mojahedin were its most powerful member in terms of personnel and material resources. The Council allowed Rajavi to put a liberal face to his virulently and violently anti-imperialist organisation. It was a means also to absorb and destroy other opposition forces so that the Mojahedin remained the only major force in opposition politics. But Iranians were never convinced of its validity as a democratic coalition. The popular perception was expressed in the phrase ‘if they act like this in opposition, how will they behave in power!'
For his part, Rajavi was not only shaping the NCRI for his own and the Mojahedin's benefit; he was, at the same time, consolidating his control over the Mojahedin organisation. The result was seen in the announcement in 1985 of the Ideological Revolution in which Rajavi appointed himself and his new wife, as co-leaders of the organisation. By this time, the NCRI had been reduced to only a handful of members, whether organisations or individuals. Rajavi managed to convince these members of the paramount importance of the continuation of the Mojahedin’s armed struggle, and that the NCRI speak with a unified voice when confronting the Khomeini regime. Those who objected were ousted or forced out.
Rajavi found various ways of dealing with the remaining members by manipulating their weaknesses and needs. Those who were most democratic and liberal in their beliefs, though their arguments were probably the most cogent and critical, were actually probably the easiest for Rajavi to deal with. He was adept at arguing the same theme in various ways, which was that as long as the Khomeini regime continued its torture and executions, then no one had the right to speak out against those who were fighting directly with the regime and sacrificing their lives, that is, the Mojahedin inside Iran. This became an impossible position to refute and so the other members of the NCRI were obliged to be circumspect in their criticism of the Mojahedin's flouting of democratic principles and other people's views.
So far, the members of the Mojahedin themselves, were wholly loyal and devoted to their cause. This allowed Rajavi the power base with which to impose his own wishes on the Council. But when he announced the Ideological Revolution in 1985, he faced not only incomprehension from the NCRI members, but a significant amount of confusion and rejection within the Mojahedin itself. His answer was to strengthen his methods of control and manipulation in both organisations. This worked with some, but others left the NCRI leaving it even more depleted and lacking in credibility as a coalition. This situation continued after the Ideological Revolution until Rajavi found a new way to push his aims: transform a large section of the Mojahedin into the NCRI and call it the political wing of the Iranian Resistance. How this backfired on him will be seen in Part Two.