The New York Times

July 13, 2003

The Cult of Rajavi


For more than 30 years, the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People's Mujahedeen, has survived and operated on the margins of history and the slivers of land that Saddam Hussein and French governments have proffered it. During the 1970's, while it was still an underground Iranian political movement, you could encounter some of its members on the streets of New York, waving pictures of torture victims of the shah's regime. In the 80's and 90's, after its leaders fled Iran, you could see them raising money and petitioning on university campuses around the United States, pumping photographs in the air of women mangled and tortured by the Islamic regime in Tehran. By then, they were also showing off other photographs, photographs that were in some ways more attention-grabbing: Iranian women in military uniforms who brandished guns, drove tanks and were ready to overthrow the Iranian government. Led by a charismatic husband-and-wife duo, Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, the Mujahedeen had transformed itself into the only army in the world with a commander corps composed mostly of women.

Until the United States invaded Iraq in March, the Mujahedeen survived for two decades under the patronage of Saddam Hussein. He gave the group money, weapons, jeeps and military bases along the Iran-Iraq border -- a convenient launching ground for its attacks against Iranian government figures. When U.S. forces toppled Saddam's regime, they were not sure how to handle the army of some 5,000 Mujahedeen fighters, many of them female and all of them fanatically loyal to the Rajavis. The U.S soldiers' confusion reflected confusion back home. The Mujahedeen has a sophisticated lobbying apparatus, and it has exploited the notion of female soldiers fighting the Islamic clerical rulers in Tehran to garner the support of dozens in Congress. But the group is also on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, placed there in 1997 as a goodwill gesture toward Iran's newly elected reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatami.

With the fall of Saddam and with a wave of antigovernment demonstrations across Iran last month, the Mujahedeen suddenly found itself thrown into the middle of Washington's foreign-policy battles over what to do about Iran. And now its fate hangs precariously between extinction and resurrection. A number of Pentagon hawks and policy makers are advocating that the Mujahedeen be removed from the terrorist list and recycled for future use against Iran. But the French have also stepped into the Persian fray on the side of the Iranian government -- who consider the Rajavis and their army a mortal enemy. In the early-morning hours of June 17, some 1,300 French police officers descended upon the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where the Mujahedeen established its political headquarters. After offering the Iranian exiles sanctuary on and off for two decades and providing police protection to Maryam Rajavi, the French mysteriously arrested Rajavi along with 160 of her followers, claiming that the group was planning to move its military base to France and launch terrorist attacks on Iranian targets in Europe. Immediately, zealous Mujahedeen members in Paris, London and Rome staged hunger strikes, demanding the release of Maryam, and several set themselves ablaze.

In Washington, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on South Asia, accused the French of doing the Iranian government's dirty work. Along with other members of Congress, Brownback wrote a letter of protest to President Jacques Chirac, while longtime Mujahedeen champions like Sheila Jackson-Lee, Democrat of Texas, expressed their distress over Maryam's arrest. But few, if any, of these supporters have visited the Mujahedeen's desert encampments in Iraq and know how truly bizarre this revolutionary group is.

Recently, I went to visit Camp Ashraf, the main Mujahedeen base, which lies some 65 miles north of Baghdad in Diala province, near the Iranian border. Ashraf is 14 square miles of ungenerous desert surrounded by aprons of barbed wire, gun towers and guards in trough-like bunkers, shaded by camouflage netting and dehydrated palm trees, their trunks thickened by dust. As you pass the checkpoints and dragons'-teeth tire crunchers into the tidy military town, you feel you've entered a fictional world of female worker bees. Of course, there are men around; about 50 percent of the soldiers are male. But everywhere I turned, I saw women dressed in khaki uniforms and mud-colored head scarves, driving back and forth along the avenues in white pickups or army-green trucks, staring ahead, slightly dazed, or walking purposefully, a slight march to their gaits as at a factory in Maoist China.

Pari Bahshai, a stocky Iranian woman in her mid-40's and the military commander of Ashraf, was my tour guide for the day. We drove through the grounds in her white Land Cruiser out to a dry, burning plain where dozens of young women were buried in the mouths of their tanks -- adjusting, winching, tinkering with the circuits and engines that keep their fighting machines alive. There were neat rows of Brazilian Cascavel tanks, Russian BMP armored vehicles and British Chieftains, most of them captured from Iran at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Some of the women smiled shyly; others were expressionless as Bahshai -- who was tough but indulgent and whom they clearly loved -- made her introductions. ''When they first come here, it's hard for them to deal with these armored vehicles,'' she said. ''They don't believe in themselves. They think only men can do it. But as they see the others, they overcome their insecurity. I went through this process myself.'' Hossein Madani, a Mujahedeen political spokesman who was my minder for the day, said, ''These young women are all new from Iran or countries abroad.''

One by one, the youngest Mujahedeen sprang to life to recite their stories. A dark-haired beauty blurted out fast and robotically in Farsi, with a comrade translating into English: ''I came from Tehran six months ago. I'm 20 years old. I was in a very unstable psychological situation in the last days of my stay in Iran. I wanted to commit suicide. Why? Because we had no right to express dissent. There was no freedom. Even personal things young people wanted to do like go out to parties or wear makeup or just go out freely. Many of my friends were burning themselves to die or becoming addicted to drugs. On the Internet, I came across a saying of Maryam Rajavi, 'You're capable and you must,' and I felt after that, that I was also capable. I got my self-confidence. I always believed women were weak, but when I read Maryam Rajavi's words, I got the self-confidence to come here.''

I asked her a question to slow her down, but she simply pushed the pause button in her mind, released it when my question ended, and the tape rolled on. ''My two brothers were supporters of the Mujahedeen,'' she said, ''and were executed by the Khomeini regime.''

Several months ago, she e-mailed the Mujahedeen, who then facilitated her passage to Turkey, where she was met at the border, put on a train to Ankara and then Iraq. ''I was educated in courses of Mujahedeen history, Iranian history and the current political situation,'' she carried on. ''Now I'm in artillery class.'' She explained what it was like to be in Iraq during the U.S. bombing. ''I was scared, but I reminded myself that I came to struggle against fundamentalism, and the fact that I was a member of the Mujahedeen family gave me strength.'' And then she stopped, said thank you and went away.

There were three more just like her. ''When I was in Iran, I didn't think I could drive a tank and shoot a gun, but when I saw sister Maryam Rajavi, I got hope that I can do everything,'' said Shiva, a 21-year-old tank driver. ''Now that I know Maryam Rajavi, I want other people to know about her too, because the freedom of Iran depends on her.''

After the parade of testimonials, I was whisked onto a tank for a spin around the training ring. The women were giddy, affectionate and proud of their vehicles. They all told me how much self-confidence they had gained through Maryam. I had heard that the Mujahedeen must take a vow of ''eternal divorce,'' that the young ones can never marry or have children and that the older ones had to divorce their spouses sometime in the late 1980's. I asked Sima, a woman in her late 20's, whether she ever regretted making that celibacy commitment. ''When I feel that I'm getting closer to my goal,'' she shouted in English against the wind, ''it's a more beautiful feeling than anything else. It's love.'' And what was her goal? ''I have to teach the women in Iran to feel like I feel inside and rebuild what Khomeini destroyed. He is killing the soul of every person.'' I noticed that everyone, young and old, at Camp Ashraf referred in the same programmed way to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini as if the charismatic icon of the Iranian revolution hadn't died 14 years ago. Sima said that whenever she lapsed into the ''normal girl dreams'' of marriage and children, she looked around her and said she felt proud. ''In the difficult situations, I see happiness in the faces of my sisters.''

Nadereh, an Iranian woman who had grown up in Toronto, told me she had broken off her engagement to come to Iraq. ''I was living the best life in Toronto,'' she said. ''I was studying physiotherapy and body mechanics. I had friends and family. But I was lacking something.'' Then one day in 1998 she lay on her bed staring at the ceiling, and heard on Iranian TV that Assadollah Lajevardi, known as the butcher of Evin, the political prison in Tehran where thousands of Mujahedeen were tortured and executed, had been assassinated. The Mujahedeen claimed to have carried out the celebrated operation. ''I couldn't stand it anymore. I thought, What are you doing for your people?'' Now she drives a Katyusha rocket truck.

After we stopped and dismounted, I noticed my minder, Madani, asking the girls what words we had exchanged out there in the wind. And when he came back, Bahshai picked up her feminist cant about the ''crimes of the misogynist regime'' in Tehran and how Maryam paved the way for women to ''qualify for a hegemonic role'' in the army's general staff. As she would say later, ''Women under Khomeini commit suicide; women here become responsible.''

Though Maryam Rajavi spends most of her time in France or lobbying in the West, her smiling green eyes stalk Camp Ashraf almost as ubiquitously as the image of Saddam in Iraq or Khomeini in Iran. Her photographs in flowery blouses grace bedsides, dining tables, lecture halls and even tanks. Back in the 1960's, the founders of the Mujahedeen were students who melded revolutionary Islam with Marxism, and they were among the few to battle the shah with weapons. Like other radical students in the 60's, they rejected bourgeois values, spurned individualism and found respite in the militarized life of a cause. They were also vehemently against U.S. involvement in Iran and killed several Americans working in Tehran. Most of the student leaders -- except Massoud Rajavi and a few others who were in prison -- were executed in the 1970's.

After the shah was overthrown in 1979, Rajavi, with his charismatic style, gathered thousands of followers. He initially supported Khomeini, but quickly fell out with him and his ring of clerics. And in 1981, he plotted to bring down the Islamic regime. Rajavi dispatched his people into the streets of Tehran, and many were summarily executed. The Mujahedeen detonated a powerful bomb that killed more than 70 officials in the Iranian theocracy. (Today's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, lost the use of his right arm in one such explosion that year.) In retaliation, thousands of Mujahedeen members were arrested and then executed or tortured inside Evin Prison -- including many of today's Mujahedeen commanders in Iraq.

Rajavi fled to Paris in disguise. There, he established the National Council of Resistance in Iran, the political umbrella of the Mujahedeen. In 1986, the French began forging ties with Khomeini and kicked out Rajavi and his squads of assassins, who ran into the arms of Saddam Hussein. Hussein had been welcoming the Mujahedeen for several years. (Many Mujahedeen political supporters did stay on in France as political refugees.) Rajavi, in return, betrayed his own countrymen, identifying Iranian military targets for Iraq to bomb, a move most Iranians will never forgive. Then, right after the Iran-Iraq cease-fire in 1988, as if orchestrating the tragic turning point in his own Rajavi Opera, he launched thousands of his warriors on ''Operation Eternal Light'' across the border to capture Iranian territory. Two thousand Mujahedeen fighters -- many of them the parents, husbands and wives of those who are now in Iraq -- were killed by the Revolutionary Guard.

The coup de grace that metamorphosed the party into something more like a husband-and-wife-led cult was Massoud's spectacular theft of his colleague's wife, Maryam. Massoud fell in love with her and invented an entire political program to elevate her into a revolutionary queen and to justify her divorce from her husband. Women should be equal to men, Massoud claimed, and Maryam should be an equal leader by his side. But working together without being married would be a violation of Islamic law. So he maneuvered her divorce and called it a ''cultural revolution.''

As Ervand Abrahamian, a historian and author of ''The Iranian Mujahedeen,'' told me: ''Rajavi said he was emulating the prophet'' -- Muhammad -- ''who had married his adopted son's wife to show he could overcome conventional morality. It smacked of blasphemy.''

Rajavi liked having women around him and overhauled the command structure to replace the men with women -- this time calling it a ''constitutional revolution.'' It was also politically astute and added alluring spice for their public-relations campaign in the West.

"Rajavi, Rajavi, Iran, Iran, Maryam, Maryam, Iran, Iran,'' shouted a dozen young women commandos, trotting with their Kalashnikovs on a scrubby field, camouflage leaves and twigs bouncing on their helmets, their faces blurred by green paint. ''Run, run, fire, fire.'' They rolled, crouched, crept, fired and regrouped around their commander. One stepped forward: ''We weren't coordinated.'' Another shouted, ''The distance between us was too much.'' Another shouted, ''Our speed wasn't adequate.'' They were given a rest and then, spotting me, skipped up on cue, sweating and out of breath. Nineteen-year-old Sahar began: ''My mother was pregnant with me when she was arrested, and I was born in Evin Prison in 1983. When I was 1 year old, my father was executed for supporting the Mujahedeen. Now I drive a Cascavel. My mother is at another base. It's one of the reasons I decided to join the army.''

As the leaders like to boast, the Mujahedeen is a family affair. (''We have three generations of martyrs: grandmothers, mothers, daughters.'') Most of the girls I was meeting had grown up in Mujahedeen schools in Ashraf, where they lived separated from their parents. Family visits were allowed on Thursday nights and Fridays. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, many of these girls were transported to Jordan and then smuggled to various countries -- Germany, France, Canada, Denmark, England, the United States -- where they were raised by guardians who were usually Mujahedeen supporters. When they were 18 or 19, many of them decided to come back to Iraq and fill the ranks of the youngest Mujahedeen generation. Though ''decided'' is probably not the right word, since from the day they were born, these girls and boys were not taught to think for themselves but to blindly follow their leaders. ''Every morning and night, the kids, beginning as young as 1 and 2, had to stand before a poster of Massoud and Maryam, salute them and shout praises to them,'' Nadereh Afshari, a former Mujahedeen deep-believer, told me. Afshari, who was posted in Germany and was responsible for receiving Mujahedeen children during the gulf war, said that when the German government tried to absorb Mujahedeen children into their education system, the Mujahedeen refused. Many of the children were sent to Mujahedeen schools, particularly in France. The Rajavis, Afshari went on to say, ''saw these kids as the next generation's soldiers. They wanted to brainwash them and control them.'' Which may explain the pattern to their stories: a journey to self-empowerment and the enlightenment of self-sacrifice inspired by the light and wisdom of Maryam and Massoud.

As we cruised around the grounds, Hossein Madani said: ''Did you know that they built all this from scratch? That's why the combatants love their base so much.'' And it was true; the Mujahedeen had managed to cultivate out of the desert their own little paradise with vegetable gardens, rows of Eucalyptus and poplar trees, sports fields and Thursday night movies. When I asked about the fact that the land -- along with all clothing, ammunition, gas and the like -- had been donated by Saddam Hussein and that the Mujahedeen was, in effect, fighting one dictatorship under the wings of another, both Madani and Bahshai insisted that the Mujahedeen's precondition for setting up bases in Iraq was independence from Iraq's affairs. ''All we've used is the soil,'' Bahshai insisted. Either she was an adept liar or in deep denial, since everyone I spoke to -- Iraqi intelligence officers, Kurdish commanders and human rights groups -- said that in 1991 Hussein used the Mujahedeen and its tanks as advance forces to crush the Kurdish uprisings in the north and the Shia uprisings in the south. And former Mujahedeen members remember Maryam Rajavi's infamous command at the time: ''Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.''

Though for years the Mujahedeen preached a Marxist-Islamic ideology, it has modernized with the times. Today, one of the standard lines of the Mujahedeen's National Council of Resistance to politicians in Europe and America is that it is advocating a secular, democratic government in Iran, and that when it overthrows the regime, it will set up a six-month interim government with Maryam as president and then hold free elections. But despite its rhetoric, the Mujahedeen operates like any other dictatorship. Mujahedeen members have no access to newspapers or radio or television, other than what is fed them. As the historian Abrahamian told me, ''No one can criticize Rajavi.'' And everyone must go through routine self-criticism sessions. ''It's all done on tape, so they have records of what you say. If there's sign of resistance, you're considered not revolutionary enough, and you need more ideological training. Either people break away or succumb.''

Salahaddin Mukhtadi, an Iranian historian in exile who still maintains communications with the Mujahedeen because it is the strongest armed opposition to the Iranian regime, told me that Mujahedeen members ''are locked up if they disagree with anything. And sometimes killed.''

Afshari, who fled the group 10 years ago, told me how friendship was forbidden. No two people could sit alone and talk together, especially about their former lives. Informants were planted everywhere. It was Maryam's idea to kill emotional relationships. ''She called it 'drying the base,''' Afshari said. ''They kept telling us every one of your emotions should be channeled toward Massoud, and Massoud equals leadership, and leadership equals Iran.'' The segregation of the sexes began almost from toddlerhood. ''Girls were not allowed to speak to boys. If they were caught mingling, they were severely punished.''

Though Maryam and Massoud finagled it so they could be together, they forced everyone else into celibacy. ''They told us, 'We are at war, and soldiers cannot have wives and husbands,''' Afshari said. ''You had to report every single day and confess your thoughts and dreams. They made men say they got erections when they smelled the perfume of a woman.'' Men and women had to participate in ''weekly ideological cleansings,'' in which they would publicly confess their sexual desires. It was not only a form of control but also a means to delete all remnants of individual thought.

One of the most disturbing encounters I had in Ashraf was with Mahnaz Bazazi, a commander who had been with the Mujahedeen for 25 years. I met her in the Ashraf hospital. Bazazi was probably on drugs, but that didn't explain the natural intoxication she was radiating, despite -- or perhaps because -- she had just had her legs amputated after an American missile slammed into the warehouse she was guarding. The doctor told me he never heard her complain. ''Even in this way, she's confronting the Mullahs,'' he said. Bazazi interrupted him. ''This is not me personally,'' she said in a soft high voice. ''These are the ideas of the Mujahedeen. It's true I lost my legs, but my struggle will continue because I have a wish -- the freedom of my country.'' At the foot of her bed, surrounded by candles, stood a large framed photograph of Maryam in a white dress and blue flowered head scarf.

In the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad, several Mujahedeen members managed to flee the military camps and were in Kurdish custody in northern Iraq. Kurdish officials told me they weren't sure what to do with them. One was Mohammad, a gaunt 19-year-old Iranian from Tehran with sad chestnut eyes. He hadn't heard of the Mujahedeen until one day last year when he was in Istanbul desperately looking for work. A Mujahedeen recruiter spotted him and a friend sleeping on the streets, so hungry they couldn't think anymore. The recruiter gave them a bed and food for the night, and the next day showed them videos of the Mujahedeen struggle. He enticed them to join with an offer to earn money in Iraq while simultaneously fighting the cruel Iranian regime. What's more, he said, you can marry Mujahedeen girls and start your own family. The Mujahedeen seemed like salvation. Mohammad was told to inform his family that he was going to work in Germany and given an Iraqi passport.

The first month at Ashraf, he said, wasn't so bad. Then came the indoctrination in the reception department and the weird self-criticism sessions. He quickly realized there would be no wives, no pay, no communication with his parents, no friendships, no freedom. The place was a nightmare, and he wanted out. But there was no leaving. When he refused to pledge the oath to struggle forever, he was subjected to relentless psychological pressure. One night, he couldn't take it anymore. He swallowed 80 diazepam pills. His friend, he said, slit his wrists. The friend died, but to Mohammad's chagrin, he woke up in a solitary room. After days of intense prodding to embrace the Mujahedeen way, he finally relented to the oath. He trundled along numbly until the Americans invaded Iraq, when he and another friend managed to slip out into the desert. They were helped out by Arabs, and then turned themselves over to the Kurds, hoping for mercy. Mohammad fell ill, and the next thing he knew he was in prison. ''The Mujahedeen has a good appearance to the outside world, but anyone who has lived among them knows how rotten and dirty they are,'' he said.

Another Iranian whom I met at the Kurdish prison told me that he had been a zealous Mujahedeen supporter for years in Iran, and when he finally made it to the Iraqi camps, he was horrified to discover that his dream was a totalitarian mini-state.

Before I left Camp Ashraf, Massoud Farschi, one of the Mujahedeen spokesmen who was educated in the United States, told me that he thought the Mujahedeen was in the best position it had ever been in. ''We've said all along that the real threat in the world is fundamentalism, and now the world has finally seen that.'' The Mujahedeen, he said, is the barrier to that fundamentalism. Nevertheless, two days later, in early May, Gen. Ray Odierno of the Fourth Infantry Division was dispatched to the camp to negotiate the Mujahedeen's surrender. American tanks were posted outside Ashraf's gates, and two B-52's were circling the skies above. After a day of discussion, the Mujahedeen commanders reached a capitulation agreement in which they would consolidate their weapons and personnel into two separate camps. Lt. Col. John Miller, also with the Fourth, attended a ceremony in which the men and women bid farewell to their tanks. ''We saw folks kissing their vehicles, hugging them,'' he said. One 50-year-old man broke down in front of them, wailing. The women, he said, were much more controlled. Not so the women in Europe, who until recently were crying on the streets for the release of their beloved Maryam. They got their wish; a court ordered her released on bail. As for Massoud Rajavi, he has not uttered a peep. In fact, he seems to have disappeared. Some Iraqis claim to have seen him a few days before Baghdad fell boarding a helicopter south of the capital.

After the negotiations with the Mujahedeen, it was reported that Odierno said he thought that the group's commitment to democracy in Iran meant its status as a terrorist organization should be reviewed. There are also Senate staff members, Pentagon officials and even some people in the State Department who have said that if all the Mujahedeen is doing is fighting the ''evil regime'' in Iran, it quite likely that it will be removed from the State Department's terrorist list. ''There is a move afoot among Pentagon hard-liners,'' one administration official said, ''to use them as an opposition in the future.'' Recently Brownback submitted an Iran Democracy Act modeled on the Iraqi Liberation Act, which would set aside $50 million to help opposition groups overthrow the regime. The Mujahedeen, their U.S. supporters say, has provided the United States with key intelligence on Iran's nuclear program. One Congressional staff member working close to the issue said that there was a national security directive circulating ''that includes a proposal for limited surgical strikes against the Iranian regime's nuclear facilities. We would be remiss if we did not use the Mujahedeen to identify exactly what the Iranians have and in the longer term, to facilitate regime change.''

Meanwhile, inside Iran, the street protesters risking their lives and disappearing inside the regime's prisons consider the Mujahedeen a plague -- as toxic, if not more so, than the ruling clerics. After all, the Rajavis sold out their fellow Iranians to Saddam Hussein, trading intelligence about their home country for a place to house their Marxist-Islamist Rajavi sect. While Mujahedeen press releases were pouring out last month, taking undue credit for the nightly demonstrations, many antigovernment Iranians were rejoicing over the arrest of Maryam Rajavi and wondering where Massoud was hiding and why he, too, hadn't been apprehended. This past winter in Iran, when such a popular outburst among students and others was still just a dream, if you mentioned the Mujahedeen, those who knew and remembered the group laughed at the notion of it spearheading a democracy movement. Instead, they said, the Rajavis, given the chance, would have been the Pol Pot of Iran. The Pentagon has seen the fatal flaw of hitching itself to volatile groups like the Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and, more recently, the Iraqi exile groups who had no popular base at home. It seems dangerously myopic that the U.S. is even considering resurrecting the Rajavis and their army of Stepford wives.

Elizabeth Rubin is a frequent contributor to the magazine. Her last article was about political reformers in Iran.

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