The Mojahedin needed to have made very different political choices and stances in order to survive and be a real challenge to the regime. Currently their propaganda depicts them as the only alternative to the regime in its entirety. It depicts them as pro-democracy and progressive on the issue of women's rights. But they have in real terms, failed to make the kinds of decisions which would have granted them a future in Iranian politics. Instead, the Mojahedin now finds itself irrelevant in Iran, and even before 11th September, labelled as a terrorist entity by the US and UK governments.
How did this happen? The Mojahedin's political posturing and propaganda hides a very real and fundamental failure. That is, the failure of Rajavi's foreign policy to move away from the politics of 'everything or nothing' and the use of force as the means to achieve it. The depth of failure can be traced through the activities of both the NCRI and the NLA, though its roots are to be found in the Mojahedin's internal relations, through the turning points of the Ideological Revolution and the Internal Revolution.
When Rajavi escaped to France and the Mojahedin was established in the West, the incumbent members, who had mostly been tutored in their Mojahedin identity by Reza Raisi, began actively campaigning for foreign political support. They posed as students, although even from very early on, most were full-time revolutionaries who had given up or completed their studies. To add to this image of being students, until the late 80s, funds and support were still extracted from the Students' Unions of most major educational institutions, wherever people could be persuaded to start a Muslim Iranian Students' Society in their local college, polytechnic or university. So notorious had the Khomeini regime become that this was not difficult to achieve.
The Mojahedin also had the advantage that they had been active and organised among students since before the revolution. This allowed them to move in forcefully and push out the less organised, but no less popular, communist groups. The Mojahedin's expertise in self-propaganda also allowed them to portray themselves as the main opposition. The early attrition of the communist groups' armed forces in Iran by Khomeini, deprived them of the publicity which the Mojahedin's continued operations gave to them. The Mojahedin also made much headway during their anti-liberalism phase in which they actively destroyed the credibility of other Iranian opposition groups and personalities.
The 'diplomacy' section of the Mojahedin was developed from Reza Raisi's framework. Rajavi's methods were more for action and force. He wasn’t really interested in talking to anyone except about money, power, arms or land. But fortunately for him there were enough people who had the wisdom to see that Western public and political opinion needed to be courted.
The members who were undertaking this political lobbying were Western educated Iranians from wealthy families, who had enough social niceties and foreign languages, to meet with influential people. The revolutionary atmosphere and the atmosphere in the West coincided.
In the UK, the Conservative victory in the 1979 general election led to a confrontation between employers' interests and the working class represented by the trades unions. The militancy of the time exactly suited the Mojahedin and they found it easy to gain support from all sides, which were in the mood to help 'the oppressed' whoever or wherever they might be. They started at grass roots, visiting the local meetings of various unions and the Constituency Labour Party. Soon they were able to count on a number of loyal and influential supporters in parliament and the political parties, trades unions and various NGOs.
As the contact with politicians and the media developed and now that the anti-liberalism phase had been superseded by the imperatives of the Ideological Revolution it became clear to Rajavi that the revolutionary image of the Mojahedin needed to be hidden. A new glossy image needed to be portrayed to the West in order to maintain support. Their publications developed from 'News on Iran' to the 'NLA Quarterly' and 'NCR', made it easier to distance their relationship with Saddam Hussein in Western eyes, while maintaining the glamorous image of their armed struggle as being led by women and operated independently and courageously from just over the Iranian border.
Up to the failed Forouq-e Javidan operation in 1988, the Mojahedin was enjoying some degree of success and popularity. The regime was exerting its most repressive measures; the atrocities it was committing on a daily basis almost defy belief. The more they did, the more popular the Mojahedin became for those who had no objection to their relationship with Iraq. The regime was in crisis and perhaps only the war kept it from being destroyed. The war allowed it to focus popular attention away from its domestic failures and its repression and the intense international pressure and condemnation. But this only worked up to a point.
The Mojahedin inside Iran carried out operation after operation and dealt severe blows to the regime's authorities. On the border, the NLA carried out its own military campaign and made some gains. In the West, the Mojahedin could count on massive support among the Iranian community who saw their successes. Demonstrations were organised in most major capitals and other major cities of the USA. Thousands attended. The Mojahedin were enjoying massive success. The demonstrations were backed by various organisations including unions etc, and financed by practically every political institution which would gain popularity by showing that they were against the regime. Delegations of the PMOI and the NCRI were permanently represented in the annual conferences of the International Socialist Organisation, the Labour Party (when in opposition) and the Trades Union Congress. They successfully lobbied the British and every European parliament, as well as the US Congress and House of Representatives. Most parliamentarians were more than happy to sign anything the Mojahedin presented if it showed their anti-Khomeini credentials to electors. Mojahedin statements carried priority in every news agency.
However, the Ideological Revolution carried with it its own imperatives which eventually impacted on the Mojahedin's 'diplomacy section' and their foreign policy in ways which though palpable to the outside world, were hard to quantify without understanding the internal relations which drove the changes.
In simple terms, Massoud Rajavi's agenda evolved from gaining power for himself as leader of the Mojahedin in Iran, to exerting his power over not only the Mojahedin members, but over the global community.
Since arriving in Paris in 1981, France had offered the Mojahedin as much help as was needed to establish the organisation as a significant threat to and potential replacement for, Khomeini's administration. In response, France expected some conformity to the Western concept of an opposition force. Rajavi however, was unable to work to anyone else's agenda even when it was in his own favour.
France had been under increasing diplomatic pressure from Iran to stop the Mojahedin using Paris to co-ordinate attacks inside Iran and in 1996 France asked Rajavi to leave.
Rajavi, seeking never to expose himself to possible criticism from within the Mojahedin, did not admit to the members that he was being threatened with expulsion. Instead, he told his followers that since their victory was imminent, the next step for the Mojahedin, was to leave Europe and go right to the doorstep of Iran and to prepare for a military campaign that would win them back their country, and finally install the Mojahedin in power. He reasoned that there was only one possible place to go and that was Iraq, which was already providing all kinds of facilities including arms and land. He countered arguments against this plan.
They couldn't, for example, move to the United States of America simply because it was too far removed from Iran. This argument really shows Rajavi's propensity for action rather than dialogue. In fact politically, the Mojahedin could have gained enormously by moving to the USA. After all, America was the implacable enemy of the mullahs and, in spite of the Mojahedin's history of killing Americans while they were in Iran, was possibly willing to give them full backing had they shown themselves even a little compliant. But Rajavi wanted to be closer to what he perceived to be his real power base, that is the armed forces of the Mojahedin. Unable to break free from the belief that force was the only way forward, he had a vision, that was these forces carrying him and Maryam triumphantly atop a Chieftain tank, all the way to Tehran. Rajavi dismissed suggestions that the Mojahedin de-camp to Pakistan or any other country. He wanted to be as physically close as possible to his goal. But in the age of supersonic travel, this argument simply does not add up.
Rajavi's real motive for going to Iraq was that he knew he could develop the close relation he had already built with Saddam Hussein. Saddam was willing, furthermore, to provide Rajavi with land and facilities with which to convert his armed struggle into military capacity. For the West, this was also a good solution. Rajavi’s strategy of seven sevenths 7/7 had so far failed and he needed the help Iraq was willing to give. Saddam had also failed to gain in his war with Iran and his forces had been pushed back. The West was willing to help them both to work together and become more efficient.
Rajavi headquartered himself in Iraq and set about doing work for anyone and everyone in order to get money from anywhere he could. The Mojahedin became mercenaries for Saddam Hussein, providing intelligence gathered from inside Iran, which would help his war effort, buying equipment which Iraq couldn’t do on her own behalf, etc.
In 1987, the National Liberation Army was founded. Rajavi publicised this in glossy magazines distributed to all the political and media channels in the West. He needed to show that his army was a real threat to the regime. But he also wanted to show that it was different from any previous opposition army and certainly different from the Iraqi army. This army wouldn't degenerate into a mercenary or terrorist force. It had a woman in command. This grabbed attention in the West. The Mojahedin were riding high. But as ever, they were soon confronted with an unpalatable reality.
Primarily, the major question which Rajavi couldn't address was simply that as time passed, and year after year saw the Islamic Revolution becoming more and more established in Iran, particularly after the end of the war with Iraq and the death of Khomeini, was there any hope of a counter-revolution? How was it possible to survive as a 'revolutionary' organisation when the revolution had occurred for good or bad and they were excluded from any part in directing its future by being beyond the national borders? The West was willing to bet on the Mojahedin and its army as long as it saw hope in this. Rajavi, unable as ever to work to a wider agenda than his own, time and time again passed up proffered opportunities, and trashed the gains he had made through disastrous decisions. The worst of these was to go to Iraq with Western blessings, but to stay during the Gulf War when it was possible to have withdrawn. This meant that in the West, many found it impossible to continue with the same level of support.
On the surface, the Mojahedin were doing well in their external relations. They extracted support from all and sundry. Only the media were properly sceptical. Politicians and others readily signed pre-prepared statements condemning the human rights abuses and supporting the NCRI. The NCRI, after all, looked good. They had glossy magazines, and they held demonstrations in which thousands of exiled Iranians waved banners in their support. The NCRI claimed to represent every part of Iranian society, including Armenian Christians, Zoroastrians, Kurds, and more. That these members were co-opted from within the Mojahedin themselves was never exposed. The Mojahedin have always been excellent propagandists and have still managed to maintain the face of the NCRI as their political wing. But in spite of this success, Rajavi couldn't prevent himself from intervention.
In order to progress his Internal Revolution, Rajavi decided that he would promote women into all the leading roles. At the same time, he couldn't trust anyone inside the Mojahedin. He had to keep changing the personnel in every position. His system remains stable because he has sacrificed effectiveness for control. So he no longer has the well-respected, non-Mojahedin, Bahman Etemad acting as the NCRI spokesman in the UK. He first made Etemad answer to a 'sister' who most often had no English language let alone any knowledge of politics or diplomacy. Her job was simply to make sure that the NCRI spokesman only did what he was told. After a while, Etemad was replaced by a Mojahedin 'sister' who speaks English and has been educated in the West, but who obeys Rajavi without question, rather than the needs of the political relationships. As such she is incapable of the social niceties and political subtleties which make up such relations. In the end, the underlying diplomatic and political relationships with politicians are sacrificed. It ends up with just lists of politicians who sign, and the basic understanding and support is gone. The Mojahedin of course were always willing to pay anyone who would offer them continued political support.
All their approaches eventually ring hollow. The issue of women for example, amounts to little more than having a women only layer at the top of the Mojahedin, between Rajavi and any other men. In their external relations they use it to say that they promote women's freedom while at the same time, pointing to the regime's backward and suppressive treatment of women. On the surface this may look true. But no one in Rajavi's organisation is free, neither men nor women. So, their assertion is not as true as it seems.
The Gabon crisis
'Arrest of a number of sympathisers of the Mojahedin by French police. After Khomeini's terrorists released two French hostages, and the French government released Khomeini's terrorist diplomat, Vahid Gorgi, French police raided the residences of supporters of the Mojahedin and subsequently expelled 14 of them to Gabon. A wave of outrage swept through France and other countries. After a month long international campaign for the return to France of the expelled refugees, an agreement was signed between a Mojahedin delegation and the Government of France, according to which all the expelled refugees returned to France.'
NLA Quarterly Autumn 1988
The failure of the years outside Iran and its shrinking support and forces had its impact on the Western appraisal of the Mojahedin. In 1986, France had asked the Mojahedin not to use Paris, and over 200 telephone lines, as their base for carrying out attacks on Iran. For Rajavi it became obvious that he had to show some results or the situation would deteriorate for him. The only way was to accept the exposure of his relationship with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. He had to pay the political price for the money and bases he had gained there. France was only too happy to get rid of them and avoid being accused of harbouring terrorists in France, which the Iranians had raised with the United Nations. At that time, Iraq also had good relations with France and could be relied upon not to use the Mojahedin card against Iran without consultation, (at least France thought this was the case).
The Gabon crisis arose due to the unwillingness of the Mojahedin to totally cut ties with France. After asking them to leave several times, in December 1987 France took action to close their bases completely. In order to put pressure on the Mojahedin, fourteen of their members were expelled and sent to a prison in Gabon, a former French colony in Africa.
The Mojahedin response was to threaten to uncover all the details of their relations with France and hunger strikes were started in front of French embassies across Europe. Mehdi Abrishamchi was dispatched to Paris where he threatened the French Foreign Minister that they would burn themselves in front of the office (they had already gone on hunger strike) and reveal everything.
Francois Mitterand’s envoy to Iran later explained that he had achieved agreement with Rafiqdoust in Tehran; that Iran free the captured French nationals along with some other deals, and in return, France would free some Iranian terrorists, excluding Anis Naghash. Some other Iranian demands were not accepted. However, at 4 am he received a telephone call saying that there were problems and the deal was off and that he had better come straight to Rafiqdoust's office.
The following day when he was travelling to the airport, the driver told him 'it was your own fault, you did not give as much as the others would give'. The envoy later discovered that while he was negotiating, there was another delegation from Paris representing Jacques Chirac. They had agreed to give Anis Naghash and to expel the Mojahedin. Of course the referendum was near. Later, when the time came to release Naghash, Mitterand as President, refused to sign the paper and started playing up. The same posturing occurred over the Mojahedin, but they took it personally and escalated the issue. France was unwilling to get involved in a bigger crisis, and knowing that the Mojahedin could be easily controlled (by now they had enough people inside the Mojahedin working for them) with the agreement of the Iranian regime, France backed off and returned the deportees. But the telephone lines were withheld and their activities were curtailed.
In some ways, the Gabon crisis was useful to Rajavi as yet another crisis, which he turned to his benefit. He was able to present it to the Iranian community outside Iran as yet another attack by the Iranian regime against the legitimate resistance movement. So that when he wanted to round people up and press-gang them into going to Iraq for Forouq only a few months later, he had a ready audience. That is, many ordinary Iranians who had developed an interest and sympathy over the Gabon episode were persuaded into leaping to their defence and victory in Iraq.
The Mojahedin's role in the Gulf War and afterwards
In March 1991, after the defeat of Iraq at the hands of the allied forces, Rajavi’s troops helped Saddam Hussein contain the Kurdish rebellions in the north. The NLA troops were ordered to raze Kurdish villages and fire on civilian populations there. The Morvarid (Pearl) operation took place in March 1991 when NLA tanks moved in to repress a Kurdish uprising. This was feted as a huge success. For the first time, women only tank crews went into battle. What an achievement! But the success of women tank crews did not divert attention away from the NLA's role in suppressing Kurds. Human Rights Watch later gave out a report on this issue condemning the role of the Mojahedin. Many members had refused to carry out these orders and were later subjected to ‘court martial’, ending up in prisons and then Iraqi refugee camps and forced to endure years of suffering.
This use of the Mojahedin is not surprising. Rajavi has been using the resources of Saddam for them to be deployed on a rainy day like this. The former Director of Saddam’s Military Intelligence, General Vafigh Samerai, who defected from Iraq and now lives in London, revealed a great deal about Saddam’s Intelligence activities. Including the relationship with the Mojahedin, and other groups who are paid for their services. He revealed who was responsible for them, who their contacts were to issue orders from the Intelligence Ministry, what was expected of them and how Rajavi would be paid for each of these services, including intelligence gathering and special assignments.
After the Gulf War, the Mojahedin's star was waning. Though not treated as pariahs in political and media circles, they were certainly looked upon with greater suspicion and distrust. Rajavi, desperate to make up ground, began to field the defunct NCRI again as a democratic alternative. He began to make use of the women's issue in public. He sent Maryam to Europe to court political good will. But none of this had any real success. The West had begun to make its rapprochement with Iran, and after Seyed Mohammad Khatami was elected in 1997, the country looked to have very different prospects to those the Mojahedin was advertising.
One of the choices that hurt the Mojahedin most was their deliberate and close relationship with Saddam Hussein. This has always been a controversial move, and one for which Rajavi has paid a high price. Before anything else, Rajavi could not and still cannot, give up the benefits he enjoys from being in Iraq. He could possibly have moved his organisation elsewhere and especially during the Gulf War in 1991. This was his golden political opportunity to make rapprochement with the West and wash his hands of Saddam, make a new start and, backed by the West, become a serious contender for the future government of Iran. But he couldn't let go of his benefits. Rajavi can't share anything and he can't work to someone else's agenda, even if that coincides with his own. Which is in strange contrast to his mercenary tendencies when it comes to doing all sorts of dirty work for money. In fact he cannot pay the price for later gain, that is, to risk paying from his own pocket.
He would not give up Saddam because this was ‘cash’ and everything else had a condition attached. He tried to keep what he already had and gain more as well. But it doesn't work like that. Now he is thinking of returning to the West because he can see that everything he has is being lost to him, especially now that Iran and Iraq are developing their relations and he is getting less help from Saddam. He can only therefore, survive by creating crises. So, terrorism inside Iran and a restructuring of the organisation itself presented themselves as Rajavi's only way forward.
If Rajavi had done what he was supposed to do when he left Iran, none of this would have come about. The NCRI, had it grown and worked with other opposition groups, had a good future and was backed by the West, desperate to find a way to get rid of Khomeini. But Rajavi didn't want to be a representative or a member of a coalition, he wanted to be the sole leader, and he couldn’t wait until the NCRI was installed as the interim government in Iran.