Washington Post, June 21, 2003
By Karl Vick, Washington Post Foreign Service
ISTANBUL, June 19 — When French riot police stormed the suburban Paris headquarters of the People’s Mujaheddin earlier this week, the Iranian dissident group put up little resistance. Officers seized satellite phones and $1.3 million in cash, and detained 159 people, including the wife of the group’s leader.
But in days following the arrest, members retaliated with self-immolations. One after the other, nine people set themselves on fire, often as TV cameras rolled, to protest the continued holding of Maryam Rajavi. One of them died, others were severely burned.
In its four-decade history, the People’s Mujaheddin has had many identities — mass political movement in Iran, tank-equipped army-in-exile in Iraq, U.S.-designated terror group. Now, former members and people who watch the group say it has become essentially a cult.
The group shrank during exile into an isolated band of a few thousand whose every behavior is governed by their charismatic leader, Massoud Rajavi, according to academics, fellow activists and former members.
“They use the term democracy,” said Ervand Abrahamian, a City University of New York professor and author of “The Iranian Mojahedin.” But “there’s no shred of democracy in the Mujaheddin. Rajavi decides who you sleep with, who you marry, who he sleeps with — everything.”
“They stopped being a mass movement with Marxist roots and became basically a cult,” he said.
Over the years, the group has enjoyed substantial support on Capitol Hill, largely because of its opposition to the fundamentalist government of Iran. An affiliated umbrella organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, maintains an office in the National Press Building, from which spokesmen argue that the State Department added the People’s Mujaheddin to the terrorism list to appease Iran’s mullahs when the Clinton administration was looking to renew relations with Tehran.
French officials said their raid followed intelligence indicating that the Mujaheddin, with its Iraq contingent disarmed and no longer a threat to Iran, was plotting attacks on Iranian diplomatic posts in Europe. The State Department contends that is what the group did in 1992, when Iranian facilities in 13 European countries were hit almost simultaneously.
Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, the head of France’s counterintelligence agency, called the group’s compound in suburban Paris “an operational center for terrorism.”
“That’s preposterous to begin with,” said Ali Safavi, a National Council spokesman in London. Saying the French sided with “the real terrorists, the ones in Tehran,” he disputed descriptions of the group as a cult.
The self-immolations, Safavi said, are the desperate actions of “people who are willing to put everything on the line to liberate their countries.” Maryam Rajavi issued a statement from jail asking for an end to the immolations, but they continued.
Safavi said that former members critical of the group are “all of them paid agents of the Iranian intelligence ministry.”
The group emerged in Tehran in the 1960s, combining Marxism with Islam in a philosophy the Economist magazine called “more or less what liberation theology is to Christianity.” Its first target was the Western-leaning Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his U.S. supporters. In 1971 the group was blamed for the killing of seven American military advisers in Iran.
Eight years later, the Mujaheddin supported the Islamic revolution that swept aside the Pahlavi monarchy, but it soon ran afoul of the clerics who consolidated power under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Human rights researchers say the ruling clerics imprisoned and executed thousands of Mujaheddin supporters in the early 1980s. Rajavi, who escaped the sweeps, moved the headquarters to Paris and allied with Saddam Hussein in the war with Iran.
Historians said the decision to side with Iraq cost the group most of its support inside Iran. At the same time, former insiders said the group grew into a hermitic society controlled by its only surviving leader.
“The people, they didn’t have any contact with the world,” said Karim Haggi Moni, a resident of the Netherlands who said he was a member from 1980 to 1991. “They can’t listen to news, read the newspaper, the Internet. During two years in Paris, I left the base just two days.”
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, has collected testimony that Mujaheddin members were threatened or imprisoned if they tried to quit. Many who did leave were first “obliged to make a taped confession of being a spy” for Iran, according to researcher Elahe Hicks. Hicks wrote that some ex-members were handed to Iraqi security agents, who reportedly tortured them.
Rajavi even asserted control over the sex lives of members, according to analysts and former members. He married Maryam Abrishamchi in 1985 after ordering her husband, Rajavi’s assistant, to divorce her, according to Abrahamian. “It looked like wife-swapping; he claimed it was an ideological revolution,” he said. “If you had any objection to this, he’d say you’re not revolutionary enough and don’t believe in women’s rights.”
The number of female followers grew substantially, accounting for a third of the rank and file and two-thirds of officers, by some reports. But Rajavi, who members are instructed to call “brother,” ordered married couples to live apart in the name of focusing on war.
“I was seeing my husband once a month, maybe once every two months,” said Mahra Haji, a former member who now lives in Canada. Haji said she quit after the Rajavis moved the Mujaheddin to Iraq, “where we saw the whole system was killing and violence.”
With tanks and other heavy weapons provided by Hussein, the group launched an offensive into Iran in 1988, and was beaten back. In 1991, according to Iraqi Kurds, the Mujaheddin helped Hussein’s forces put down a rebellion in the north of Iraq following Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait.
Mujaheddin positions in Iraq were battered by U.S. airstrikes during the war this year. A cease-fire followed, and an initial U.S. decision to let the group keep its heavy weapons infuriated Iran. It was later disarmed.
That tentative move toward a U.S. alliance with Rajavi betrayed a double standard toward terrorism, moderate Iranians have said. They contend it could complicate efforts to coax cooperation from the Iranian government, which U.S. officials say may be harboring al Qaeda operatives.