Inside Iran, the Mojahedin, right up to and for some time after the Ideological Revolution, maintained their strong popular support. This support was not fuelled by people’s devotion to Rajavi. It was simply a result of the severity of the regime’s repression and the need to join or support a strong, proven resistance movement. Many, many ordinary people were willing to put themselves at extreme risk to provide succour and support for the Mojahedin's guerrilla units. These members were directly fighting against Khomeini's repressive forces; that is, the officials and employees, the ideological supporters and campaigners for the Khomeini regime.
Before 1986 when the French asked Rajavi to leave Paris and he removed his headquarters to Iraq, the Mojahedin had already used all their resources inside Iran. In order to continue their armed struggle they started using their remaining militia in motorcycle teams which attacked governmental buildings and Pasdaran patrols. During a strategy meeting in the mid 1980s, Rajavi announced that if they only achieve the death of seven Pasdaran every week, the regime would be toppled, the so-called seven sevenths strategy. But they never achieved this target and eventually the strategy died. Rajavi then intensified his strategy of attaching himself more and more to Saddam Hussein. (Remember Rajavi and his outfit were mostly in Paris at this time.)
When the Ideological Revolution was announced in 1985, the guerrilla fighters were led by Ali Zarkesh. Upon hearing these changes, Zarkesh dismissed the Ideological Revolution and refused to recognise Rajavi's new self-proclaimed role as well as that of his wife. As far as Zarkesh was concerned, there was no place for such individualism in the organisation. The Mojahedin were fighting one of the most suppressive regimes in the world's recent history. Those inside Iran were having a desperate time of it and hadn't the luxury of playing power games within the organisation. They were daily risking life and limb to carry out the Mojahedin's original aim, which was to break the atmosphere of repression by fighting back against and thereby exposing, the weaknesses of Khomeini's suppressive forces. They were stoically pursuing Rajavi's own seven-sevenths policy with few resources and little in the way of success.
Rajavi's meddling with the organisation's leadership threw the internal armed struggle into disarray. No one was certain anymore who the leaders were or what the Mojahedin's new ideology meant. Prisoners in particular, barely surviving in the dire conditions and frequently subjected to torture, felt they had been betrayed. At first, many didn't believe what the prison guards gleefully told them about Rajavi's marriage to Abrishamchi's wife. Once they realised that it was true, many became disaffected and gave up their support for the Mojahedin. Isolated and under severe hardship, they only had their faith in the Mojahedin's unbending struggle to help them withstand years of imprisonment. Rajavi's actions cast doubt for them on the organisation's future and its commitment to them.
In Paris, Rajavi was in contact with Zarkesh and other isolated operational cells, by telephone. Rajavi knew that he couldn't leave Zarkesh in command inside Iran. Zarkesh's refusal to accept his leadership would lead him eventually to take control of the organisation there and denounce Rajavi as a traitor. This split in the organisation would leave Rajavi isolated outside the country, robbing him of all the martyrs he needed to bolster his own position. So Rajavi tricked Zarkesh into making the perilous journey out of Iran to visit him in Paris. Once in Paris, Zarkesh was immediately subjected to Rajavi's wrath. He was humiliated, scorned and finally demoted to the level of private in the new army, the National Liberation Army. Zarkesh remained loyal to the Mojahedin's struggle until the end of his life, but never accepted Rajavi's role as ideological leader.
With Zarkesh in Paris, Iran was left without a commander. Once the NLA was formed in 1987, Rajavi appointed Maryam as commander of the armed struggle in Iran. She never even attempted to do the job. The reason quickly became clear when Rajavi made a surprising announcement. He told the Mojahedin members inside Iran that they should all make their way out of the country to the bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. There they would be trained and briefed and sent back into Iran to perform operations against the regime. Rajavi declared that anyone who stayed inside Iran was no longer with the Mojahedin and any activities they were involved in were not acceptable to the Mojahedin. At the same time it should be noted that in practice, the Mojahedin continued to claim any martyrs or prisoners as their own in complete disregard of this statement.
Rajavi's demand was strange. He had the ability to control the cells from Paris, so why would he want to take people, at great risk, out of Iran and out of the struggle? The answer lay in the nature of Rajavi's new role as ideological leader. This was so alien to the original concept of the Mojahedin's founders that he had to foist it upon the members by means of psychological manipulation. Anyone beyond the sphere of manipulation would not be able to accept or submit to Rajavi's leadership simply because it really had nothing to do with the issue at hand, which was confronting and toppling the Khomeini regime.
Rajavi knew that if members stayed in Iran out of his reach, they would leave and not obey him. Even worse, they might declare an independent Mojahedin organisation inside Iran. They, like all the other members, had to be within the sphere of manipulation. Faced with the potential split of the organisation, he announced that everyone in Iran had to leave and join the army in Iraq. Once inside the atmosphere of the cult, Rajavi could make them believe in his leadership.
Relationship of Mojahedin with Iraq
Also, outside Iran, Rajavi had been making his own, separate, plans for the armed struggle. He had seen an opportunity in neighbouring Iraq, which was at war with Iran, to create an ally for the Mojahedin's activities.
The Kurdish Democratic Party had joined the NCRI on the Mojahedin's invitation. It soon became apparent what use Rajavi had for the organisation. Rajavi used the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran to initiate and develop his contacts with Iraqi leaders. The KDP had more open relations with Iraq. For the Mojahedin, accepting their leader Ghasemlou into the NCRI was a means to develop this covert relationship with Iraq under the cover of the KDP. Once Rajavi had secured his relationship directly with Iraq and had no further need for them, he ousted the KDP from the NCRI.
Between 1980 and 1988, Iraq was the aggressor in a full-scale war with Iran. It was a hugely damaging war in which the Iraqis used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers. This war profoundly influenced the Iranian people's perception of the Mojahedin's activities and served to alienate them ever more. The people suffered a double burden; that of Khomeini's internal repression and of a dangerous all-consuming war. The people of Iran were not in a situation to look kindly or sympathetically on the Mojahedin's armed incursions from Iraqi territory against the forces, which were protecting Iran from invasion. It appeared as though the Mojahedin were actually helping Iraq in its war against Iran, whether intentionally or not.
In 1983, before establishing bases in Iraq, Rajavi had signed a peace agreement with Saddam and announced that peace was possible with Iraq and that is was only the Iranian regime which wanted to continue the war! He announced that peace would spell the end of the Iranian regime and victory for the Mojahedin. Many politicians warned him that in the long run, by making this agreement, he would allow himself to become a bargaining chip for Saddam. Now, nearly fifteen years after the war ended, it seems they were right. The Mojahedin are inextricably linked and beholden to Saddam. He plays them as a card in his negotiations with Iran. It is Saddam Hussein who dictates whether the Mojahedin can cross the border into Iran or not, and he does this only with his own interests in mind.
Since 1983, the Mojahedin had established bases in Iranian Kurdistan, as previously had the Fedayeen and others before them. In addition to the urban guerrilla warfare which was being continued in conditions of extreme danger by the members and supporters still left inside Iran, the Mojahedin were also launching attacks on the regime's forces who were fighting the Iraqis. The targets were the ideologically motivated Pasdaran and Revolutionary Guards, rather than the regular army. But the attacks were made on forces fighting the country's enemy.
Not many Iranians wished to see the Iraqis overrun their country no matter how hated Khomeini's rule was. In a matter of only two years, the Mojahedin were pushed back from Iranian Kurdistan by the Pasdaran, and were forced to take refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Mojahedin had maintained a covert relationship with Iraq since 1983, having representatives there and exchanging information and intelligence, and using Iraq for their backup in Kurdistan. So this fallback was not problematic for them.
For the international community, the unspoken agenda was now that Iraq and the Mojahedin could work together with the backing of the West, to topple the Khomeini regime. The Mojahedin (or in the Western mind, the NCRI) would then be a ready replacement in Iran and it would all have a good ending. The West had little idea at this time of the ruthless nature of either Saddam Hussein or of Rajavi and his intentions. Could these two, the dictator and the autocrat, have succeeded? It is impossible to say. Would Saddam have killed Rajavi and invaded parts of Iran? Would Rajavi have killed other members of the NCRI in order to take power in Iran, and become the new Khomeini in Iran? Would they share their programme of building weapons of mass destruction and become a united force against Kuwait or even Israel? None of this came to pass, but the two men are still hand in hand.
For the time being, the international political community backed them both. The West had armed Saddam Hussein against Iran and saw the Mojahedin as part of their ambitions to oust the Khomeini regime and replace it with a compliant, grateful Mojahedin. At that time the NCRI was put forward as the instrument for achieving power in Iran with a six month interim government to be established after the fall of the Khomeini regime. However, in 1986, the Mojahedin's host government France, asked Rajavi to leave the country. The Mojahedin claim that France did this because they were getting close to regime. If this is so, then it simply means that France had given up on the Mojahedin and saw they were wasting their money. At the same time, France had good relations with Iraq and by having the Mojahedin in Iraq they could still 'support' them while at the same time, by having them work with Saddam there was more chance of success in changing the regime in Iran.
It is possible that the Mojahedin would have gone anyway because they were building good relations with Iraq from 1983, and their armed struggle was being waged from there. Having France ask them to leave was simply an excuse for them to go, although they tried to portray it as their choice anyway. Rajavi introduced the move to Iraq to the organisation's members as his decision and part of his strategy for the imminent overthrow.
In June 1986, Rajavi moved his headquarters to Iraq with the agreement of Saddam Hussein. This move was bound to attract controversy in the Iranian political community and in Iranian public opinion. When going to Iraq, Rajavi announced that the departure of the Mojahedin from the West ended the legitimacy for every refugee for staying in the West. The logic behind this was that the refugees only had legitimacy because of the Mojahedin's fight against the regime. In this way, Rajavi hoped to bully more people into joining his organisation. Naturally, this did not go down well with the refugees who had fled Iran because of the horrific human rights violations and mass suppression, rather than because of anything the Mojahedin had done or claimed. The perception of many, right or wrong, was that the Mojahedin were actually prolonging the repression because of the extreme threat they posed to the regime, particularly with the war.
Rajavi's announcement sprang from the belief, which he held from the beginning of the revolution in which he saw himself as the equivalent of Khomeini. He had the ambition even at the beginning of the revolution, before he came to Paris, to be the leader of the Muslim world, not just Iran. Today, Rajavi is no longer a political leader for his supporters and the Mojahedin, although they see Iran as the first step in their plans. The ideology is global and the aim is international domination. As explained elsewhere, Rajavi is following Mao step by step, in his own Muslim version.
Khomeini recognised this ambition back in 1979 when he said 'the boy calls himself the leader'. So Rajavi's fight with Khomeini was significant from an ideological point of view, from the start. Once Khomeini died, Rajavi continued to fight the 'Khomeini regime' even though the religious leader of the country was Khamenei and the elected President was Rafsanjani. If Rajavi had changed his fight to be against these two, then he would have lessened his own position since neither of these men had the qualification, credibility or the popular support of Khomeini. This began to be a problem quite quickly after Khomeini died. The world trailed off its use of the expression 'Khomeini regime' and began dealing with reality. The leadership of Iran fairly soon looked far more diffuse. Rajavi couldn't continue to oppose someone who was dead and the prevailing ethos of the country was gradually changing. Elections were being held, the grip on power was being forced into more, divergent hands. It became clear to everyone that the regime was 'established' and had begun to mature and that the likelihood of a counter-revolution at least from outside, was receding rapidly year by year. This finally came to a head when President Mohammad Khatami was elected with millions of votes. It could no longer be claimed that the reactionaries had total control.
So Rajavi was left more and more isolated in his position. The Mojahedin tried their best to stop these changes, whether by propaganda or by terrorist activities. Khatami for his part was clever enough not to retaliate against these attacks. In some cases, there has even been direct and indirect co-operation with the hardliners in Iran who now had a common interest with the Mojahedin in stopping the process of change. There have been cases of assassinations, such as that of retired General Shirazi, which were first claimed by the Mojahedin and were later found to be the work of the hardliner groups in Iran and vice versa.
Formation of the National Liberation Army of Iran in Iraq
The recruitment drive was continuing in the West. When Rajavi moved to Iraq, the organisation began sending its recruits there for guerrilla training. During February and March 1987 a wave of armed resistance activities were launched from inside Iraqi territory. Shortly afterwards, in June 1987, the National Liberation Army was founded. This transformed the Mojahedin's armed resistance from a guerrilla force into a military force. The change obviously came about because of increased resources. That is, Rajavi accepted military facilities, training and arms from Saddam Hussein.
The effect of this army on the armed struggle was initially positive. The attacks on Iran were far more serious and successful, in that fewer Mojahedin were being killed. However, it also meant that the armed struggle was now based not on the activities of the members inside Iran, but rather on an external armed force, outside Iranian borders and out of touch with ordinary Iranian people.
Maryam was named Deputy Commander in Chief of the National Liberation Army. This gave her a higher position than even the most experienced military members. What reaction did this evoke? On one hand it isn't necessary for an executive head of something to be an expert in the field of operations. Maryam, like any other CEO, was able to consult the military experts and then impose a new way of doing things. In fact, the leadership of Maryam did a lot to help women, even from the point of view of having uniforms, which allowed them more physical freedom. Organising sanitary facilities for women, providing childcare and schools (when they were still allowed to keep their children!) freed the women to concentrate on their work. However, breaking the mental barriers that women still had came later.
This is something, which was a positive aspect of Rajavi's leadership, changing the role and mentality of women, and perhaps only women can really appreciate its impact and implications. Yet Rajavi was doing this for his own benefit, to break down the family ties and get everyone to be devoted to him. Rajavi knew well enough that the number of people with him would not increase by any significant amount. The existing members had come because of the revolution and he had now gone too far for anybody from outside to catch up and accept the changes, therefore outsiders were treated differently and not told about every aspect of Rajavi's ideology (not even the NCRI members). Therefore he needed every man and woman to work to their full capacity, that is, to fight. Men did not need this incentive to fight, but women needed an incentive to fight and the men in the organisation needed to accept them.
Rajavi has said that if he had only had enough soldiers to fight for him, he would not have done this before getting to power in Iran. One clear disadvantage for the Iranian regime is its attitude towards women. This of course was something Rajavi could not ignore and had to take advantage of. The dilemma for him is that he wants everything. He wants to use the women’s issue and he want to use the Islamic tendencies of the people at the same time. Conflicting guidelines were issued to the members according to which idea was in the ascendant. One year it was okay for women to shake hands with (non-Iranian) men in political meetings, next year it was not. One year propaganda was issued condemning the regime’s religious ceremonies like Ashura; next year they did it themselves. Rajavi has this problem in facing the outside world. Inside is another matter. Inside the organisation whatever he says is right. He is the measure of good and bad and the only person responsible for it.
The new army undertook military operations into Iran on a different scale than before. Without doubt, the new military training had an impact on the success of these, in terms of people getting killed or injured, yet no real gains were made. The idea behind them was still to break the atmosphere of repression inside Iran and to damage the regime's repressive forces. And to prove to their Western sponsors that they could do it. Yet the Mojahedin, while they remained outside the country, could actually make little impact. This is where Rajavi's removal of the organisation's resources out of Iran began to make its negative impact felt.
Even Zarkesh, who was doing as much as he could in Iran, was fooled and brought to Paris. He was demoted and replaced by Maryam who never even attempted to do the job. Then Rajavi announced that anybody who refused to come out and stayed in Iran, was no longer a member. Only coming out and then being sent back from Iraq under instruction to work was valid.
Rajavi never explained why he didn't send some command structure to Iran, but it is now obvious that this would leave the way open to a challenge for leadership of the organisation. At the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, there were struggles taking place in other countries such as Palestine, Chile, and El Salvador. In each of these struggles, their representatives reflected to the world community what was going on inside their country. With Iran, this was effective for the first few years because the Mojahedin were still active. But Rajavi achieved what the regime itself was failing to do. That is, to destroy the Mojahedin proper inside Iran. He did this by bringing the headquarters outside the country for his own use. No other country's struggle did this. This destroyed the Mojahedin inside Iran. He took all the organisation's resources to Paris, including its leading members who were loyal to him, and he assumed control of the organisation through this. Even if we postulate that Rajavi had to do this after 30th Khordad, he still never tried to rebuild the organisation in Iran. He was afraid it would become something that was beyond his control. It was this same fear that led him to remove Zarkesh.
Rajavi has got to have even the very junior commanders under his personal supervision and change them all the time. Nobody out of his daily reach is allowed to become more than an ordinary soldier for more than six months. Women are useful to Rajavi because they are loyal and don't object to this structure and anyway they couldn't become rivals, not even minor ones. This use of women is something Saddam Hussein is expert in, and Rajavi clearly learned from him.
While the Mojahedin were still in Iran they had potential. But Rajavi destroyed this. The removal to Paris automatically cut the organisation's ties with the people. The new generation of youth in Iran does not know the Mojahedin except as a terrorist group sponsored by Saddam Hussein. For them, Rajavi is a defector and a traitor who has strange ideas about marriage and on the whole the Mojahedin are not something to be interested in. In short, a black page in the history of Iran. Those who knew the Mojahedin and supported their ideas kept their faith, but little by little, people fall away when they see no progress, no contact, and no help from outside. While people were suffering inside Iran with no help, they only saw the marriage, and the removal to Iraq, their national enemy, and they became disillusioned.
Rajavi wanted to be 'the' help, not to garner it from the international community or to form a wider political base which is what the NCRI was supposed to do. Rajavi, from the beginning showed this propensity to overvalue and overestimate himself, putting himself centre stage instead of the people. The primary reason that the mullahs were able to take control in Iran at the time of the revolution was their contact with people all over the country through the mosques. Rajavi failed to take account of the people, relying on his own popularity instead.
The National Liberation Army had a troubled path to tread. Based in Iraq, they were naturally regarded as on enemy territory. Rajavi has never been able to clearly state how he intends to use the NLA in toppling the regime. To imagine that the 10,000 members of this army could confront the Iranian national army was ludicrous. Even Saddam Hussein after years of all-out war could not do this. Rajavi vaguely hinted that if the NLA entered Iran at the right time, then the people would spontaneously rise up to support them and they would march on Tehran on a wave of popular support. This means a counter-revolution. Yet, the possibility of this happening was becoming more and more remote as time passed. Rajavi had fewer and fewer grounds for supposing the people of Iran would support the Mojahedin.
Yet as soon as the war with Iraq ended, Rajavi launched a desperate and foolhardy bid for power. He ordered the NLA to attack Iran with disastrous results. The Forouq-e Javidan operation is examined in the next chapter. The point here is that even when they had their chance to do what Rajavi had promised, the NLA failed. Since that time there has been little scope for believing that they could even repeat the exercise let alone succeed. Half the army was killed in the operation. It took years for the members to recover their morale and capacity. Even when they did, Rajavi made a decision in 1991, which was to seal the fate of the NLA and condemn it to little more than a terrorist group.
When Saddam Hussein attacked a neighbouring country for the second time, in 1990, with his invasion of Kuwait, the world was outraged and allied forces attacked Iraq, forcing a withdrawal. In such a climate of worldwide condemnation, the clear strategy for an independent foreign organisation would be to leave Iraq, even on a symbolic level. But Rajavi clearly felt that he had too much to lose and nothing to gain from leaving. Or, even more likely, Saddam would not let him leave without paying a huge price. The Mojahedin stayed. Mojahedin military bases were safe from allied attacks. At that time, no one had any proof to implicate them in complicity with the crimes of Saddam Hussein. It was only afterwards, when the NLA were 'permitted' by Saddam to defend parts of Kurdistan against the Kurdish uprising, that the real nature of the relationship was exposed. The NLA used their tanks and armoured personnel to raze Kurdish villages and kill many of the inhabitants. These were innocent Iraqi Kurds. It became clear that Rajavi was beholden to Iraq such that he would do even this dirty work at their bidding.
Human Rights Watch reported the events and the world discovered an ugly truth behind Rajavi's army. In spite of Mojahedin denials, Rajavi knew he needed to recover ground in the propaganda stakes. He had to again present the NLA as the only force which was actively engaged in and capable of overthrowing the hated regime in Iran.
On 18 October 1991, the NLA held a military parade at Ashraf camp, their main military base in Iraq, as a demonstration of its military strength. Foreign journalists were invited to attend and see for themselves the strength and capacity of the army, which was in reality a small sample of Saddam's weaponry. After Forouq-e Javidan, Iraq had advised Rajavi that there was no possibility for the Mojahedin to attack Iran again in the near future and if the Mojahedin wanted to move forward and make progress in the time available, they would have to be trained. This idea to have the army properly trained was, of course, advertised as Maryam's brilliant idea. Iraq took over and started training, which was mostly Soviet. The Iraqis brought ancient T52 tanks, BMP1 and MTL Russian armoured carriers and other equipment to the Mojahedin camp and taught the Mojahedin how to drive them. Later, small crash courses on security and intelligence, commando fighting and administration courses were held.
For this purpose, they moved some of their own service, repair centres and headquarters into the Mojahedin camp. The Mojahedin became more familiar with real army life as a result and became so much a part of it that it was acceptable for the Iraqi army to communicate with them as a military division. They gave up their amateur transceivers and used proper military equipment. They became familiar with using the basic command and operational terms of the Iraqi army. This, of course, is what enabled the Iraqi army to use the Mojahedin as an instrument to help crush the Kurdish uprising during the Morvarid operation of March 1991.
The military parade of 1991, was the graduation ceremony of this division. In this parade, NLA personnel traversed along a wide purpose built boulevard, passing the observers in the middle. At the end of the street, vehicles were waiting to take the crews of the tanks and other vehicles back to the beginning of the street for them to come down again with more tanks and armoured vehicles. The NLA had acquired a whole army load of equipment from Saddam, but hadn't enough people to show it off, particularly to show women on tanks.
The Gulf War in 1991, proved a testing time for the Mojahedin in many ways. Politically, they estranged themselves from their erstwhile supporters in the West by choosing to remain under Iraqi hegemony. Militarily it was also a disaster. After the war ended, Saddam Hussein saw his opportunity to crush the ensuing Kurdish rebellion in the north of Iraq. The Mojahedin army was also mobilised by Saddam to crush the Kurds. They used their tanks to raze Kurdish villages and kill civilians. Currently, the Mojahedin have fewer than 5,000 forces in the NLA, and the average age of the organisation's members is nearer 50 than 40 years. Rajavi has been desperate in recent years to find younger recruits for the army. His first resort was to recall the children of Mojahedin members who were evacuated in 1991, and many of whom had now grown to be young adults. Their parents were told to demand their children back as a right. Those who were under Mojahedin jurisdiction in the West were quickly returned. Others needed a little more persuasion, but many supporters who had fostered the children, felt duty-bound to return them to their parents, without thinking through the full situation. That is, since the parents had been required previously to reject the children, it was unlikely that Rajavi wanted them now to be reunited with their parents.
The National Liberation Army is now all that remains of the armed struggle to free Iran from its present religious rulers. Having existed outside Iran's borders for so long, they are estranged from the people inside Iran. The only operations they have recently been capable of launching are what amount to terrorist attacks, in which several innocent civilians have been killed and injured. And they are inextricably linked with and beholden to Saddam Hussein, whom, regardless of how the rest of the world regards him, Iranians see as their country's erstwhile enemy who used chemical weapons on their army; which the Iranians claim has killed seven thousand men up to the present day. It is Saddam who dictates whether or not the Mojahedin may cross the border into Iran and launch an attack. At present it is not in his interests to do so. He needs to develop better relations with Tehran as part of his attempts to confront American led pressure over his development of weapons of mass destruction.
The Mojahedin as a military force, were finally written off when first the US State Department had them listed as a terrorist entity, then the United Kingdom added them to its list of Proscribed Organisations. Finally, in May 2002, the European Union also listed the Mojahedin as a terrorist entity. It remains to be seen how the Mojahedin respond to a Western attack on Iraq when they are this vulnerable.