4 July 2004
Voice, monthly magazine
The Mojahedin-e-Khalq is probably the most bizarre terrorist group around. Verging on a cult the Iranian revolutionary group boasts a matriarchal philosophy and admires former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Mahan Abedin explores a tale of incompetence and misplaced loyalties.
"Immediately before the declaration of war on the Islamic Republic, the MKO leader, Massoud Rajavi, had fled Iran aboard an aircraft dressed as a female. Rajavi settled in France and in the months after the failure of their terrorist campaign the surviving MKO cadres and supporters fled Iran and joined their leader in Paris."
Somewhere in the Diyala wastelands of Iraq, 65 miles northwest of Baghdad, lies a military town that seems to exist on a parallel universe. Ashraf camp is the home of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organisation (MKO) a bizarre Iranian revolutionary group dedicated to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its replacement by a Pol Pot style "people’s dictatorship".
The military town is 14 square miles of Diyala desert that has been turned into a mini-state by the Mojahedin. The town boasts two hospitals, parks, a university, artillery ranges, a shopping centre and last but not least a large prison. When US forces entered the town in May 2003 they found a bizarre world of middle aged female tank commanders and a disciplinarian and regimented society that makes North Korea seem like a paragon of liberal democracy.
The Mojahedin-e-Khalq had been an intrinsic feature of Saddam Hussein’s security-military apparatus since 1986. Saddam gave them a sizeable chunk of Iraqi land and in return expected them to do his bidding, not only against Iran but also in Iraq against the Baathist regime’s opponents. The Mojahedin gained notoriety in 1991 when they helped Saddam’s shock troops suppress the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.
The downfall of Saddam Hussein has been the greatest strategic blow ever suffered by the Mojahedin. Many observers thought that they would be summarily expelled from Iraq upon the Baathist regime’s collapse and it is indeed surprising that nearly 15 months since the fall of Saddam Hussein the MKO remain ensconced inside Ashraf. The Iraqi Governing Council called for their expulsion in December 2003, but the American occupation authorities have been unwilling to enforce this decision. This is perplexing for many reasons, not least because the US State Department designated the MKO a terrorist organisation back in the 1990’s.
The fate of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq remains on a tight rope, as Iraq regains its symbolic sovereignty on 30 June. Again many observers believe that the new Iraqi government will move quickly to expel this foreign terrorist organisation from Iraqi soil, but the Mojahedin’s fate will, ultimately, be decided by the Americans. A true test of whether the 30 June transfer of power constitutes a genuine re-investment of sovereignty on the Iraqis will revolve around whether the new Iraqi government can influence the Americans to dismantle and expel an organisation that has Iraqi blood aplenty on its hands.
The Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organisation was formed in the 1960’s by a group of idealistic students who fused revolutionary Islam with Marxism-Leninism. Although the group constituted little more than a tiny cell of activist students, nevertheless the Shah’s regime was determined to crack down hard on any form of dissent. The endgame for this small activist network seemed to have arrived in 1971 when the Shah’s secret police, the notorious SAVAK, rounded up the group’s leaders. All of the leaders were subsequently executed, with the exception of Massoud Rajavi. Former Mojahedin activists contend that the only reason the SAVAK spared Rajavi’s life is because he had "cooperated" and had agreed to become their informant. Moreover the jailed leaders of other organisations have given credible testimonials that Massoud Rajavi had been the SAVAK’s "antenna" in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Shortly after the victory of the Iranian revolution, Massoud Rajavi and a few close confidants revived the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. They capitalised on their organisation’s anti-Shah activities to establish a presence in the immediate post-revolutionary environment. They had some successes in mobilising sections of the young revolutionary youth, as the Mojahedin’s exotic mixture of Islam and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism held some appeal.
But soon afterwards the Mojahedin fell out of favour with the revolutionary regime led by the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. The principal problem was the Mojahedin’s insistence on operating an armed militia in a desperate effort to steal the limelight in the post-revolutionary scene. This was a policy doomed to fail, for although the Mojahedin enjoyed a measure of popularity, whatever support they had was dwarfed by the epic appeal of Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Mojahedin’s inability to influence the character of the Islamic republican regime coalescing around the charismatic leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini was the major factor behind their decision to wage an armed campaign against the Iranian government. This terrorist campaign started in earnest in June 1981, as the Mojahedin mobilised all their resources in a desperate effort to destabilise the Islamic Republic. The Mojahedin strategy was simple; they hoped that the nascent post-revolutionary government would collapse in the face of both an external war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and an internal terrorist campaign waged by the Mojahedin. In fact they had badly miscalculated not only their own capabilities but also the determination of the Islamic Republic to put down armed challenges.
The veteran Iranian-Armenian academic and writer, Ervand Ebrahamian in his The Iranian Mojahedin, which continues to be the only authoritatively researched book on the subject, explains that support for the MKO was confined to a sub-section of the religious and left wing modern middle classes. The Mojahedin did not have a constituency beyond this parochial social class and therefore the failure of their "armed struggle" was sociologically predetermined.
The MKO’s badly planned terrorist campaign resulted in the destruction of their organisation inside Iran. Some 3,000 MKO members were executed and a further 5,000 were killed in armed clashes with Iranian security forces. Another 7,000 were detained by the Iranian authorities, many of whom subsequently turned against the organisation and returned to civilian life. At the same time the Mojahedin’s terrorist campaign badly tarnished its image inside Iran and beyond. Whilst the Mojahedin succeeded in assassinating some of the key officials of the Islamic Republic, the vast majority of their victims were ordinary and innocent people.
The Rajavi Cult
Immediately before the declaration of war on the Islamic Republic, the MKO leader, Massoud Rajavi, had fled Iran aboard an aircraft dressed as a female. Rajavi settled in France and in the months after the failure of their terrorist campaign the surviving MKO cadres and supporters fled Iran and joined their leader in Paris.
Rajavi soon developed a personality cult and gradually turned his organisation into a totalitarian and Stalinist machine. But these developments paled into insignificance to the bizarre set of events that rocked the Mojahedin in January 1985. The drama basically centred on Rajavi stealing the wife of his right-hand man Mehdi Abrishamchi and presenting the theft as an "ideological revolution". Abrishamchi’s eventual acquiescence to the theft of his wife, Maryam Azdanlou, turned the whole affair into a particularly ugly and bizarre form of cuckoldry.
Rajavi’s marriage to Maryam Azdanlou and the latter’s subsequent promotion to joint-leader of the organisation, was marketed as a "feminist" revolution. This unusual set of events provoked widespread unrest within the organisation. The first ramifications of it were mass desertions of the organisation by veteran cadres who saw the affair for exactly what it was; the sexual lust of one man being trumpeted as a socio-cultural and political breakthrough. According to the critics of the organisation, these mass desertions were exactly what Massoud Rajavi wanted, for he had been determined to purge the organisation of non-conformists from the beginning. According to the critics this internal purge was the key mechanism used by Rajavi to establish his irreversible centrality within the organisation. It is at this point, say the critics, that the Mojahedin assumed the trappings of a cult.
The Mojahedin’s ideological revolution changed the organisation beyond recognition. It not only feminised the organisation — largely achieved by placing females, irrespective of competence, in all the top positions — but also enabled the Mojahedin to develop a matriarchal ideology. In Mojahedin-speak, their organisation, by virtue of its feminist credentials, had become the very antithesis of the misogynist Khomeini regime.
In reality the "ideological revolution" turned the Mojahedin into a baffling, bizarre and ultimately irrelevant cult. Like all cults the Mojahedin used the denial of sex and sexuality as a form of repression. The organisation went so far as to organise mass divorces and banning sexual relations between its cadres—for this was seen as a powerful means with which to destroy the individuality of members. Mass meetings were held during which members confessed to their sexual "crimes" and promised to purge themselves of all vestiges of individuality. Thus the 5,000 remaining MKO members were all transformed into the embodiments of Massoud Rajavi.
These developments destroyed the political prospects of the Mojahedin. In the first instance it engineered the collapse of the "National Council of Resistance", a coalition of political forces set up by the Mojahedin in 1981, as other organisations immediately severed their links with the increasingly bizarre MKO. In the longer term it destroyed the reputation of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in Iran and amongst exiled Iranian communities across the world. This process of alienation was completed by the MKO’s alliance with the Saddam Hussein regime.
MKO & Saddam Hussein
Alarmed by the increasingly bizarre posturing of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, the French government ordered the expulsion of Massoud Rajavi and demanded the organisation scale down its activities in France. The Mojahedin subsequently concentrated their resources in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The organisation’s links with the Baathists in Baghdad go back to January 1983, when Massoud Rajavi held a meeting with Tariq Aziz in Paris. Thus even if the French government had not curtailed their activities, they are likely to have settled in Iraq anyway.
Once in Iraq the Mojahedin set up a "National Liberation Army" (NLA) and went to battle alongside Saddam’s forces against their own countrymen. This brazen act of treachery destroyed whatever was left of their reputation in Iran. The end of the Iran-Iraq war might have heralded the demise of the Mojahedin’s "NLA", had it not been for Saddam’s wish to keep the MKO as an internal tool of repression.
This bore fruit in March 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, when the Mojahedin played a significant role in the suppression of the Shia and Kurdish uprisings. In a letter to the London Independent in September 1996 Hooshang Pirnia, a former MKO member, claims that Maryam Rajavi ordered MKO forces to run over Kurdish fighters and civilians with their tanks. This claim is backed up in Elizabeth Rubin’s article in the New York Times in July 2003, entitled "The Cult of Rajavi", which asserts that Maryam Rajavi commanded her forces to: "Take the Kurds under your tanks and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards".
The Mojahedin’s alliance with the Baathist regime was not only tactical, but was in fact premised on certain ideological affinities. The MKO genuinely regarded Saddam Hussein as a great "Socialist" leader and a friend of the "new" Iranian revolution. Moreover the organisation admired Baathist discipline and its totalitarian grip on Iraqi society. This was vividly manifested by the behaviour of the diminutive Massoud Rajavi whose mannerisms, moustache and military uniform likened him to a miniature version of Saddam Hussein.
The downfall of Saddam Hussein has proved to be the greatest misfortune ever to beset the Mojahedin. The coalition armies that invaded Iraq in March 2003 bombed the organisation’s bases throughout the country and after the war disarmed their mini-army and consolidated all their forces in the Ashraf town. Currently the Mojahedin are quarantined in Ashraf and anxiously await their fate.
The only reason the Mojahedin have remained in Iraq for the past 15 months is that it enjoys the support of the neo-conservatives and the pro-Israel factions in the Pentagon and other branches of the U.S. administration who hope to use the organisation as a bargaining chip against Iran. It remains to be seen whether the Iraqi will to be rid of this murderous cult is stronger than the will of the "Likudniks" in the Pentagon who dream of destabilising the Islamic Republic.
The problem for the MKO is that it can no longer re-group in Europe as the EU branded it a terrorist organisation back in the late 1990’s. This was underscored by a massive raid by French anti-terrorist police on the Paris HQ of the organisation in June 2003, which netted Maryam Rajavi and more than 160 senior members of the organisation. Maryam Rajavi is currently awaiting trial in Paris on terrorism-related charges. There have also been raids by anti-terrorist Police on MKO offices and safe houses in Germany, Italy and Britain.
As for the veteran cult leader Massoud Rajavi, not a word has been heard from him since the downfall of Saddam Hussein. But reliable reports suggest that he is hiding in Ashraf town with the acquiescence of the Pentagon. Many Iraqi leaders have indicated that they wish to put Rajavi and other senior MKO leaders on trial for crimes against the Iraqi people. But any move against Rajavi, or any forced expulsion of the Mojahedin from Ashraf is likely to provoke mass-suicides. When French anti-terrorist Police detained Maryam Rajavi in June 2003, dozens of MKO members and sympathisers set themselves on fire in Paris and other European cities in protest. Should a similar move be made against Massoud Rajavi these self-immolations are likely to take place on a far greater scale. It seems that a human catastrophe in the Diyala wastelands of Iraq is almost inevitable as the Mojahedin’s bizarre world collapses all around them.
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