Iranian Mujahideen at the crossroads

Posted in Iran | 04-Oct-04 | Author: Bill Samii| Source: Asia Times

Family members of the Iraq-based Iranian opposition group the People's Mujahideen Organisation hold protest posters and pictures of relatives as police guard the U.S. interest section of the Swiss embassy in Tehran September 9, 2004.
Demonstrations against perceived US injustices are nothing new in Iran. The demonstration that took place on September 9 in front of the US interests section of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, however, was different. This time, relatives of Iranian oppositionists who are based in Iraq were demanding help from the US and the International Committee of the Red Cross in getting information about their family members, according to media reports. The oppositionists - members of the Mujahideen Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK) - are located at Camp Ashraf, which is some 100 kilometers north of Baghdad.

The MKO was designated a "foreign terrorist organization" by the US State Department in 1997, and it retains that status. The MKO is known by a number of other names, including the National Liberation Army of Iran (the militant wing of MKO), the People's Mujahideen of Iran, the National Council of Resistance, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and the Muslim Iranian Student's Society (a front organization used to garner financial support). The European Union (EU) designated the MKO's military wing as a terrorist organization in May 2002.

The MKO was created in the 1960s and its ideology combines Islam and Marxism. It was involved with anti-US terrorism in the 1970s, and it initially supported the 1978-79 Islamic revolution in Iran. In June 1981, it staged an unsuccessful uprising against the Islamic regime; many members were imprisoned while others fled the country.

The MKO transitioned from being a "mass movement" in 1981 to having "all the main attributes of a cult" by mid-1987, Ervand Abrahamian wrote in his book Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin (1989). It referred to its head, Masud Rajavi, as the rahbar (leader) and imam-i hal (present imam), had a rigid hierarchy, created its own vocabulary, and had its own calendar.

After being run out of Iran, the MKO launched a number of attacks against the regime leadership: a 1981 bombing killed president Mohammad Ali Rajai and prime minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar, in 1992 it attacked 13 Iranian embassies, and it is behind other mortar attacks and assassination attempts in Iran.

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein granted the MKO refuge in Iraq, and from there the organization fought Iranian forces in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Hundreds of MKO members reportedly died in the July 1988 Foruq-i Javidan military operation against Iran. The MKO helped suppress the 1991 Shi'ite uprisings in southern Iraq and Kurds in the north.

But Operation Iraqi Freedom brought the MKO's idyll to an end. US and British aircraft bombed MKO bases in late March 2003 and again in early April. On May 10, the MKO agreed to turn over its weapons to US forces. As these events were taking place, there was speculation that the Iranian military would strike at MKO bases. It did not do so, and Tehran offered an amnesty instead.

Ahmad Rahimi, spokesman for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security, said in a March 28, 2003 telephone interview with Dubai-based al-Arabiyah television that members of MKO could come back to Iran if they voiced regret for their "crimes" against the Islamic Republic, media reported. "The Islamic Republic of Iran, out of pity, gave them this new chance," Rahimi said. "We guarantee their life and will not arrest them, although there are some people who committed special crimes inside and outside Iran. If they voice regret for what they did and do not repeat these mistakes, then we will help them solve the problem and lead a respectable life in their country," he added.

Other Iranian officials repeated the amnesty offer throughout the year. Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on April 5 that 100 MKO members had returned to Iran already, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported, and he urged others to return and live a normal life. Yunesi added during a May 10 press conference that many MKO members had returned to Iran and provided the government with information. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said on June 23, 2003 that Iran would treat any returning MKO members with "Islamic compassion" and he stressed that they would not encounter any problems in Iran, IRNA reported. President Mohammad Khatami expressed similar sentiments in Geneva on December 11, 2003.

The offer did not apply to MKO leaders, however. "Monafeqin [hypocrites; MKO] ringleaders who have directly been involved in terrorist operations and crimes against the Iranian people" are not eligible for the amnesty, Ramezanzadeh added.

The Iraqi Governing Council, furthermore, announced in December 2003 that all MKO members would have to leave Iraq by the end of the month. The expulsions never occurred, and the occupation forces in Iraq were not clear on how to deal with the MKO. In July 2004, MKO members in Iraq were granted "protected status" under the Geneva Conventions. It is not clear, furthermore, how many MKO members took advantage of the Iranian amnesty offer, nor is it clear how they are being treated.

The case of two MKO members who were forcibly returned to Iran from Syria could be instructive. Damascus sent Ebrahim Khodabandeh and Jamil Bassam to Iran on June 12, 2003. During a February 2004 trip to Iran, Baroness Emma Nicholson, deputy chairwoman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, saw the two men. She reported that they were in good health and had no complaints about their treatment, but were still awaiting trial. Nicholson met with Khodabandeh again in Tehran in March. The MKO dismissed her comments as lies and said the men were being tortured and faced execution.

Ann Singleton, author of a book on the MKO entitled Saddam's Private Army, wrote in June that she and British members of parliament Sir Teddy Taylor and Win Griffiths, an independent British reporter, and two Iranian lawyers met with Khodabandeh and Bassam in Tehran's Evin prison. Khodabandeh told the visitors that he would not return to the MKO. Bassam said he still regarded himself as an MKO member.

An imprisoned former MKO member, Arash Sametipur, was quoted in The Christian Science Monitor on December 31, 2003 that the organization is "a mixture of Mao and Marxism, and leader [Masud] Rajavi acts like Stalin". Another former MKO member, Hora Shalchi, told the newspaper that the organization's leadership promised that the Iranian people would welcome her actions, but a mob chased her down when her mortar attack on a military base went awry. "We weren't accepted by anybody," Shalchi added. "There was no support." Both said that the Iranian government does not consider the MKO a serious threat, and the executions that MKO told them to expect never took place. According to the many people interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor, imprisoned MKO members are treated like people who need help.

Yet this was not always the case, and MKO warnings were based on fact. Many MKO members who were imprisoned in the early 1980s were tortured into recanting, Ervand Abrahamian wrote in his Tortured Confessions (1999). Furthermore, in early or mid-1988, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an order establishing special commissions tasked with executing imprisoned mujahideen as muharib (at war with God) and leftists as mortad (apostates from Islam). In July 1988, the commissions began isolating and questioning the imprisoned MKO members and executing the unrepentant ones. The total number of executed mujahideen is estimated to be in the thousands. The mass executions stopped in less than a year and the logic behind them is not known, but Abrahamian wrote that this was Khomeini's way of testing the dedication of regime supporters. Others linked the executions with the MKO's unsuccessful July 1988 attack on Iran. And if executions became less commonplace, the use of torture did not.

In 1989 the regime gave amnesty to many political prisoners. It produced one high-ranking MKO member, Said Shahsavandi, who in television interviews, lectures and open letters denounced the MKO and accused its leadership of imprisoning, torturing and executing dissidents. Shahsavandi traveled to Europe to deliver the same message. The MKO has denounced Shahsavandi for alleged involvement in the torture and execution of MKO members.

This policy of granting amnesties reflected a new regime tactic rather than a sense of mercy. The regime sought to portray the MKO as "the principal violators of human rights in Iran", Reza Afshari wrote in Human Rights in Iran (2001). Moreover, it tried to portray itself as a defender of human rights. The regime subsequently trotted out allegedly repentant MKO members, as well as relatives of individuals who allegedly died at the MKO's hands, when United Nations human rights investigators visited Iran.

As of late September, the future of the MKO is unclear. Iraqis continue to have suspicions about the organization. Baghdad's al-Mutamar reported on July 31 that people in Diyala governorate suspect the MKO is "fomenting the ongoing struggle between the new Iraqi government and the armed terrorist groups", and others suspect that Ba'athist officials are hiding in Camp Ashraf. The newspaper added that the MKO is not confined to Camp Ashraf and also runs Camp Habib, 35 kilometers north of Basra; Camp Homayun and Camp Muzarmi, near the city of Amara; Camp Fayzah, near Kut; Camp Ulwi, near Miqdadiya; Camp Anzali, near Jalul; and "scores" of offices and safehouses in Baghdad, Basra and Diyala.

Some US commentators have recommended using the MKO against Iran, citing concerns about Iranian activities in Iraq. A recent example is the commentary by Fox News military analysts Thomas McInerney and Paul Vallely in The Wall Street Journal on September 8. Citing former MKO spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh as an "Iranian expert", they wrote that it is time to create an "armed resistance movement" by removing the MKO from the terrorist list. "It's time to rearm [MKO's] 4,000 trained fighters."

Regardless of Iranians' disgust for this organization, such calls have some resonance in Iran. Jomhuri-yi Islami claimed in an August 5 commentary that an arms shipment seized at the Iranian border was somehow connected with MKO activities, US hostility, and Iraqi claims about Iranian interference.

The MKO, meanwhile, continues its activities against the Iranian government. Approximately 5,000 of its supporters demonstrated in Brussels on September 13 as EU foreign ministers discussed Iran, Agence-France Presse reported. The so-called International Committee for the Support of Victims of MKO condemned the Belgian decision to permit this rally, IRNA reported. The committee said in a letter to Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel that the MKO recruited Afghans and other refugees to participate in the rally by paying for their food and accommodation.

Bill Samii is a regional analysis coordinator with RFE/RL Online and editor of the RFE/RL Iran Report. He earned his PhD at the University of Cambridge. His research articles have appeared in the Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, and the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. He has contributed to several books about the Middle East.

Copyright (c) 2004, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington DC 20036