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Iran: Cult Or Opposition Group? A Look At The Mujahedin Khalq

  • Kathleen Moore

The U.S. has struck a cease-fire in Iraq with an unlikely group -- the Mujahedin Khalq, or People's Mujahedin. The armed Iranian opposition group has sought for decades to overthrow Iran's Islamic government, activity that's earned the group's political front some support among politicians in Europe and the United States. But the United States still lists it as a terrorist organization -- and some have likened it more to a cult than an opposition movement.

Prague, 7 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the Iraqi desert near the border with Iran, Iranian fighters are training to overthrow Tehran's Islamic government.

The rebels driving tanks and learning to use artillery in this unit in Ashraf are distinctive in one key respect -- they're all women, many of them Iranian exiles from around the world, like Laleh Tarighi, who grew up in Britain.

"It is the best decision I made in my life," Tarighi said of joining the group. "I would say it is the best place here for any Iranian or other people, as well. I'd say we have a goal: we have been fighting for Iran to get Iranian people out of that situation."

Tarighi and her fellow rebels-in-headscarves belong to the Mujahedin Khalq, or People's Mujahedin, an armed Iranian opposition group of several thousand men and women with bases in Iraq.

It has sought the overthrow of the Iranian government for decades and is held responsible for a string of bombings and mortar attacks that have killed a number of top Iranian government and military officials -- as well as several U.S. soldiers and civilians in the 1970s.

The United States considers the Mujahedin Khalq a terrorist group and bombed its bases in the first stages of the latest Iraq war. But in recent weeks, U.S. forces have taken a softer line on Mujahedin Khalq fighters. Last month, they struck a cease-fire so the rebels can keep their weapons in what's described as a "non-combat formation."

The deal rattled the Iranian government. The Foreign Ministry in Tehran said this week that it's unacceptable for the United States to be in partnership with what it called "terrorist hypocrites." And it warned the United States not to allow the group to attack Iran from Iraq.

The cease-fire has also raised questions of double standards. Critics say a cease-fire is a strange way to deal with terrorists who've killed more Americans than any other Iranian group.

But despite the cease-fire and recruits such as Tarighi, analysts say the outlook for the Mujahedin Khalq has never been bleaker. They say the cease-fire is a temporary arrangement to create security on the ground. And they say it's not likely to lead to broader backing for the group, which ultimately will probably have to disarm or leave Iraq.

The Mujahedin Khalq was formed in the 1960s on a platform that mixed Marxism with Islamism. The group took part in the 1979 revolution that replaced the Shah with the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But it soon split with Khomeini. Many of its leaders were killed, and it was forced to leave Iran in 1981.

Aside from a brief stint in France, the group has been based in Iraq ever since. It received financial and military support from Saddam Hussein's regime and even sided with Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s -- a move that cost it most of its credibility at home.

The organization is really made up of three overlapping groups. The fighters belong to the National Liberation Army (NLA) of Iran, which is the armed wing of the Mujahedin Khalq. That, in turn, controls the political front, called the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Ali Ansari, head of the Center for Iranian Studies at Durham University in the United Kingdom, told RFE/RL: "They used to get a lot of money from Saddam Hussein. They were based north of Baghdad, and they used to do a lot of the dirty work of the Saddam Hussein regime. They were essentially Iranian mercenaries. They did very little agitating in Iran, and frankly they didn't have the credibility to do it."

Ansari says the movement has evolved into a leadership cult centered around Masud Rajavi and his wife, Maryam. There are reports that members are not allowed to marry -- as well as some older claims that married members were forced to divorce.

"Masud Rajavi takes the role of leader, in an imitation of the leader in Iran, and then his wife has been sort of 'elected' -- in very thick inverted commas -- as president," Ansari said. "So they have this dual structure of husband and wife team, and frankly it's caused quite a bit of discomfort from those Iranian families who find that their young idealistic types have headed off to Iraq to be part of the armed wing of the mujahedin."

Rajani joined the group early on while he was still a law student at the University of Tehran. He appears to have taken control of the group while in prison in the 1970s.

RFE/RL tried to contact the National Council of Resistance officials in France and Britain, but they were unavailable for comment. In previous interviews, however, they have denied that members of the Mujahedin Khalq are terrorists. And they dismiss other criticism as propaganda put out by their opponents or agents for the Iranian government.

Certainly, the group's talk of women's rights and the need for greater democracy has earned it support among politicians in Europe and America. Some see it as the best alternative to Iran's current regime. But that support can hardly be described as unwavering.

A few years ago, 30 U.S. senators asked the administration to reconsider its designation of the Mujahedin Khalq as a terrorist group. Some of them later backtracked on that request.

In 1997, London representatives of the National Council of Resistance associated with top government officials -- but one month later, Maryam Rajavi was banned from the United Kingdom.

Ansari said the current cease-fire is only a temporary measure and is unlikely to lead to broader backing for the group. "The Americans have made it very clear and the [British] Foreign Office has been quite adamant on this -- and also expressed quite a lot of concern at the initial reports -- that this is purely a temporary measure to restore order before they proceed with the disarming of various groups, not just the Mujahedin Khalq but various militias in Iraq, and then they will sort problems out from there. I think there will be very strong agitation in America both ways, but I think those who have concrete interests in Iran will realize that to back the Mujahedin Khalq in any sort of anti-Iran policy would be a cataclysmic mistake," he said.

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst with the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said he would be very surprised if Iraq's future government allows Mujahedin Khalq fighters to stay on Iraqi territory, since it's likely to be much more friendly toward Tehran than was Saddam Hussein's regime.

"I would certainly envision some sort of arrangement between Iran and this new Iraqi government to have the NLA expelled from Iraq," Katzman said. "I very much doubt that this cease-fire is going to reflect a permanent situation where the NLA is going to continue to base itself on Iraqi territory and especially if the Shi'ite Islamic parties are dominant in a new Iraqi government, like [SCIRI leader Ayatollah] Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim. He's very close to the Iranian leadership, and it's not a stretch of the imagination to say that he would try to move very quickly to get the People's Mujahedin army out of Iraq."

But at the Ashraf base, commander Pari Bakhsai said that prospect does not concern her. "We are not worried about the future because the Iranian resistance [was] not born in Iraq and is not going to die in Iraq, even if the new Iraqi government and the Tehran regime reach an agreement about us," she said. "Our roots are deep in Iranian history, and we are confident that our destiny will be in Iran."

(Azam Gorgin and Amir Katouzian of RFE/RL's Persian Service contributed to this story.)