Ever since the Islamic revolution of February 1979 in Iran that toppled the pro-United States dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran has been at the forefront of news in the Western world, and in particular in the United States. The hostage crisis of November 1979 to January 1981, during which 53 Americans were held hostage after Islamic leftist students had overrun the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, created permanent scars in the American people's conscience and pride. The Iran-Iraq war from September 1980 to July 1988, which began when Saddam Hussein ordered his army to invade Iran after being encouraged and supported by the US, kept Iran in the news. When moderate reformist Mohammad Khatami won Iran's presidential election in a landslide in May 1997 and again in June 2001, there was hope that the US-Iran relations would gradually improve.
But on August 14, 2002, an Iranian opposition group in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), held a press conference in which a spokesman for the NCRI, Alireza Jafarzadeh, revealed the existence of “two secret nuclear facilities in Iran, namely, the Natanz uranium enrichment facility and a plant for producing heavy water in Arak. What many people did not know at that time was that the NCRI is the political arm of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh-e Organization (MKO) of Iran, an exiled opposition group that has been listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997. The revelation, followed by then-president Mohammad Khatami's formal announcement of the two nuclear facilities on February 9, 2003, created a deep new crisis between Iran and the United States that still persists, even though Iran had not violated its international obligations toward the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by not revealing the existence of the facilities. It also put the NCRI and MKO on the political map in the sense that the public in the West began learning more about the two, which are in fact one and the same.
Most recently, US neoconservatives have begun supporting MKO. They have been lobbying the State Department to take MKO off its list of terrorist organizations and have even advocated arming the organization to topple the regime in Tehran, without knowing almost anything about its history, ideology and leadership. What is the ideology of MKO? Who are its leaders? How significant is its base of support within Iran? What kind of government will MKO lead, if it ever comes to power in Iran?
In this article and its sequel, I describe and discuss the history of MKO and address the aforementioned questions. Part I describes the historical background of the political conditions in Iran that gave rise to MKO, its founding in 1965 and its history between that time until June 1981, when its leadership went into exile. Part II will describe what MKO has been doing over the past 30 years and how it has formed an alliance with American neoconservatives.
Those that are interested in a comprehensive account of the history of MKO up to the mid- 1980's can consult Ervand Abrahamian's outstanding book, “Radical Islam: The Iranian Mojahedin.” To understand the historical background of MKO, we must go back at least 60 years.
After the CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 that toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and put Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back in power, Iran experienced a period of dictatorship. Many prominent members of Mosaddegh's political group, the National Front, were imprisoned or forced into exile. Beginning in 1960, however, the shah began loosening the repression and allowing some opposition political groups to form, because he was wary of John F. Kennedy, who was running for president, and the shah knew that Kennedy favored some political reforms in Iran. Thus, the Second National Front was founded in 1960 by Mehdi Bazargan, Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar (deputy minister of labor in Mosaddegh's government), Dr. Karim Sanjabi (minister of education in Mosaddegh's government) and others.
In May 1961 Bazargan, Dr. Yadollah Sahabi, a professor at the University of Tehran, and Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Taleghani, a popular and progressive cleric and a key figure in Iran's 1979 revolution, went their separate ways from the Second National Front and founded their own political group, the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), also known as the Freedom Movement of Iran. Born to a prominent family in Tabriz in northwest Iran in 1907 – the year after Iran's Constitutional Revolution had established the first constitutional government in all Asia – Bazargan studied at the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in Paris, France for seven years to obtain his engineering degree after finishing high school in Iran. He returned to Iran in 1935. A devout Muslim, he began teaching at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran. That was at the height of the power of Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah's father who, despite his regime's considerable work rebuilding Iran, was an absolute dictator. When the Allied Forces invaded Iran in September 1941, they removed Reza Shah from the throne (because he had pro-Nazi tendencies) and put his 22-year-old son in power. That began a period of relative political openness in Iran that eventually led to the election of Mosaddegh as Iran's premier in April 1951.
During this period, Bazargan was highly active in politics. As a faculty member at the University of Tehran, he helped found the Muslim Student Association because he was concerned that secular leftists and communists were taking control of the campuses. At the same time, having experienced life in France, he wanted to show that an enlightened interpretation of Islamic teachings is fully compatible with modern science and social progress. Bazargan also founded the Association of Engineers. Amazingly, 70 years after their establishment, the two organizations still exist. He was also a founder of the Iran Party, a moderately leftist-nationalist group, but he resigned from it in 1945 when it forged an alliance with the pro-Moscow Tudeh (Communist) Party. Bazargan then joined the National Front of Mosaddegh and was later appointed dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Tehran. When Mosaddegh nationalized Iran's oil industry in 1951, he appointed Bazargan as the first head of the National Iranian Oil Company. After the 1953 coup, Bazargan was imprisoned, but when he was released in 1959 and returned to the University of Tehran, he received a hero's welcome from the students, according to a friend who was a student at the university at that time.
The founders of the LMI were progressive Muslims. Sahabi is now considered one of Iran's true democrats. Taleghani was an Islamic leftist, an ardent supporter of Mosaddegh, and very well liked, particularly among the university students. In his popular book, “Eslam va Malekiyat” (Islam and Private Ownership)Taleghani argued that while Islam respects private ownership, it opposes capitalism and its advocacy of unbridled greed. In another popular book, “Hokoomat az Nazar-e Eslam” (Islam's View of Government), Taleghani opposed governance by the clerics. As Bazargan put it once, “Taleghani was convinced that the two worst forms of despotism were the kings and the clerics.” In the first statement issued by the LMI in 1961, its founders declared that their group believed in four pillars: We are Iranian, Muslim, Constitutionalist and Mosaddeghist.
The statement explained that the LMI members were proud of their Iranian heritage; that they did not want “to divorce religion from politics”; that they wanted to push for democracy and were not interested in toppling the shah, but wanted him to be a constitutional, rather than an absolute, dictator; and that they believed in the Mosaddegh doctrine that Iran must be free of foreign control. For a little over two years, the LMI was active in politics. Its leaders were extremely popular, particularly with university students, and Ayatollah Taleghani's public prayers, sermons and lectures in Hedayat Mosque in Hedayat Street in central Tehran (near the author's childhood home) always attracted a large number of people.
Under pressure by the Kennedy administration, on January 26, 1963, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi declared the so-called White Revolution, a program of reforms consisting of six elements: land reform, whereby large agricultural lands were to be distributed among peasants working on them (the landowners were to be compensated), nationalization of the forests, privatization of state-owned industries, granting women the right to vote, workers sharing profits in industry and a nationwide campaign against illiteracy. Land reform had already been set in motion by Dr. Ali Amini, a friend of President Kennedy who had been appointed prime minister by the shah under pressure from the United States and remained in that post from May 1961 to July 1962. The shah claimed the reforms as his own after Amini was forced to resign.
The traditional clerics objected to both land reform and women's suffrage, but they found the former more objectionable. They thought that land would be taken away from the landowners without consent, which is forbidden by Islam. In addition, some clerics saw land reform as an attempt by the shah to reduce their influence among the landlords. The most militant cleric of the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a harsh denunciation of the shah and his plans. To retaliate, the shah moved tanks to Qom and delivered a speech in which he said the ayatollahs were like a caste. (After Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, conservative clerics wanted to take away women's right to vote, but he opposed it. He also formed the Heya't haa-ye Haft Nafareh (seven-member groups) to carry out land reform.)
Shiites mourn the murder of Hossein, their third imam, the quintessential martyr, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and a most revered figure since his death in the battle of Karbala on October 10, 680, which falls on Ashura, the 10th day of the Arabic month of Moharram. The killing of Imam Hossein, and his friends, followers, and family members by a Sunni Caliph, Yazid, has always motivated the Shiites, a minority sect within Islam, to rebel against the ruling elite. They invoke Imam Hossein's famous quote that, “Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.”
In 1963, Ashura fell on June 3. (Because the Islamic calendar is lunar-based, Ashura falls on a different day each year on the Roman calendar.) In the afternoon of that day, Ayatollah Khomeini delivered a fiery sermon at the Feyzieh seminary, in which he drew parallels between Yazid and the shah, calling the latter a “wretched, miserable man.” Two days later, on June 5 (15 Khordad in the Iranian calendar), the ayatollah was arrested, which sparked three days of large demonstrations throughout Iran. Hundreds were killed, but the events gave birth to the 15 Khordad Movement, which laid the foundation for the 1979 revolution. Ayatollah Khomeini was put under house arrest and eventually released in April 1964.
In 1964, the shah and his prime minister, Hassan-Ali Mansur, signed an agreement that granted US military advisers and their families immunity from prosecution in Iran, which was ratified by the Majles, the Iranian parliament. The law became known as the Capitulation Law. In a fiery speech, Ayatollah Khomeini said,
They [the parliament] passed it [the agreement] without any shame, and the government shamelessly defended this scandalous measure. They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted. Even if the shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted. But if an American cook runs over the shah, or the marja' of Iran (who are a source of emulation for the Shiites) or the highest officials, no one will have the right to object.
The shah sent Ayatollah Khomeini into exile, first to Turkey, on November 4, 1964, and later to Iraq. Mansur was assassinated on January 27, 1965, by Mohammad Bokharaei, a 17-year-old member of the Fadayan-e Islam (Devotees of Islam) group, a fundamentalist Islamic group. The shah also banned the Second National Front, the LMI and other opposition groups. Bazargan, Taleghani, Sahabi and many others were arrested, put on trial in military courts, and received long jail sentences. During his trial, Bazargan warned that, “We are the last group that talks to you [the regime] peacefully. The next group will take up arms.” His prediction was prophetic. The shah's dictatorial rule, his elimination of all secular opposition groups Third National Front founded in 1965) and the moderate nationalist-religious LMI gave rise to two guerrilla groups dedicated to overthrowing his regime through armed struggle – one of which was the MKO. ?
The Founding of MKO: Early Years
The defeat of the June 5, 1963, uprising and the subsequent repression brought to the fore a key question: if the political process could not force the shah to open up the political arena for a democratic system, what can? Three young members of the LMI thought that they had found the answer: taking up arms. The three were Mohammad Hanif-Nejad, Saeed Mohsen and Ali-Asghar Badi'zadegan. Born in 1938, Hanif-Nejad received his degree in agricultural engineering. Mohsen was born in 1939 and received his degree in civil engineering. Badi'zadegan, who was born in 1940, was a chemical engineer. They took a similar path: they studied at the University of Tehran, joined the Muslim Student Association there, received their degrees in 1963 and joined the National Front and eventually the LMI. Badi'zadegan and Mohsen received their degrees from Faculty of Engineering, this author's alma mater (1977).
After analyzing what had gone wrong in the June 1963 uprising, the three men criticized the LMI's leaders for not opposing the shah more effectively and declared the uprising a “turning point in Iran's history.” Then, on September 6, 1965, the three men and about two dozen of their close friends met in Tehran and began a secret organization, which was named a few years later Saazmaan-e Mojahedin-e Khalgh Iran, (People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran), or MKO. For three years, extensive studies were carried out on Islamic teachings, the revolutionary theories of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon, and Regis Debray, and on the guerrilla warfare tactics of Ernesto Che Guevara, Carlos Marighella, Abraham Guillen, and Ammar Ouzeghan (head of Algeria's communist party in the 1960's). They also studied Algeria's war of independence, Cuba's revolution, the Chinese Revolution and the Vietnam war, as well as Iran's contemporary history. The studies were undertaken by an ideological group within the MKO.
The central committee of MKO, which was formed in early 1968, consisted initially of 12 members – the three founders, plus nine others: Mahmoud Asgarizadeh (an accountant), Abdolrasoul Meshkinfam (an agricultural engineer), Ali Mihandoust (a civil engineer), Ahmad Rezaei (a high school teacher), Nasser Sadegh (a mechanical engineer), Ali Bakeri (a chemical engineer), Mohammad Bazargani (a civil engineer), his older brother Bahman Bazargani (an accountant) and Masoud Rajavi (a political science student). All – then in their 20's or early 30's – were killed later, except for Rajavi, who is the current supreme leader of the MKO. The ideological team consisted of Asgarizadeh, Bahman Bazargani, Hanif-Nejad, Mihandoust and Rajavi, together with Reza Rezaei (Ahmad's younger brother), Hossein Rouhani and Torab Haghshenas. Of these, only Haghshenas, born in 1942, has survived; he lives in France. The central committee was later expanded in the same year to 16 members – the original 12, plus Reza Rezaei, Rouhani, and two others who dropped out in early 1970 and whose identities remain secret to this day.
The ideology that the original MKO members believed in was a mixture of Islam and Marxism. They rejected the dialectical materialism basis of Marxism because they believed in God (whereas dialectical materialism rejects the notion of God), but accepted Marxist social theories because they believed they were scientific. In arriving at their ideology, the original MKO members were also greatly influenced by the work of Dr. Ali Shariati, the sociologist and distinguished Islamic scholar. He, too, rejected Marx, the philosopher, but accepted much of his social thinking. He opposed the special position and privileges that the clerics had enjoyed for centuries (which is why many clerics despised him), and divided Islam into two: a revolutionary and progressive Islam, and a reactionary one that was always an ally of the sitting power. Shariati is widely considered to be the ideologue of the 1979 revolution and was immensely popular among youth. Thirty-four years after his death in 1977, he is still influential. The original MKO also identified American imperialism and capitalism as Iran's main enemies. Up until at least the mid-1980's, this was still the official position of MKO, although the current MKO claims that it has changed. They also viewed the shah's regime as a puppet of the US.
Note that a large majority of the MKO members were engineers. This is, in fact, something of a tradition in Iran's contemporary history. (This explains why the author, a chemical engineer, writes about politics.) Some of the most influential figures across Iran's political spectrum have been engineers. Even now, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a civil engineer, and his cabinet includes several engineers, while opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi is an architect.
To begin the armed struggle, the MKO sent seven members, including Rajavi, to the camps of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon and Jordan in July 1970 to receive military training. After their return to Iran, another six were sent later that year, but they were detained in Dubai because their passports looked faked to the authorities. When Dubai tried to return the six to Iran, the aircraft carrying them was hijacked by Meshkinfam and Rouhani and taken to Baghdad, Iraq. After a while, the PLO intervened and they were released. Even the Savak, the shah's security apparatus, failed to recognize that they belonged to a new guerrilla group.
The MKO had planned to begin its armed struggle only after a large number of its members had received military training, but fate had other plans. On February 8, 1971, 13 members of a Marxist guerrilla group, People's Fedaei Guerrilla of Iran, attacked a military police station in Siahkal in northern Iran. Fearing that the Marxist guerrillas would be regarded by the people as the vanguard of the armed struggle, MKO prepared a dramatic show of force. The shah had planned to celebrate 2500 years of monarchy in Iran by holding a series of lavish festivities in Persepolis and Tehran in August 1971 that were to be attended by dozens of heads of states. The MKO planned to blow up the electrical power plant in Tehran to disrupt the festivities. However, by then, the Savak had penetrated the organization, and only a few days before implementation on August 23, 1971, 35 members of the MKO were arrested. Later on, another 34 members were arrested. They were put on trial during the winter and spring of 1972. The Savak first thought that it was dealing with the armed wing of the LMI, but during their trials, the MKO members made it clear that they belonged to a new group. Eleven members of the central committee, Asgarizadeh, Badi'zadegan, Bakeri, Bahman and Mohammad Bazargani, Hanif-Nejad, Meshkinfam, Mihandoust, Mohsen, Sadegh, and Rajavi had been arrested and represented the top 11 on trial. They refused to defend themselves. Instead, they all used the court to harshly criticize the shah's regime (and the United States), using the June 5, 1963, uprising as the best example of the regime's bloody nature. Their criticisms were later distributed by MKO. The 11 received the death sentence, and nine were executed. Only Bahman Bazargani and Rajavi escaped because their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. In Rajavi's case, an international campaign by his brother Dr. Kazem Rajavi played the most significant role in sparing his life. The rest of those arrested received sentences ranging from three years to life.
To survive these huge losses, MKO expanded its contacts with other dissident groups, both within Iran and among the diaspora. The LMI published a newsletter, Payam-e Mojahed (Mojahed's Message) in the United States that publicized the plight of MKO members. Other publications also gave publicity to the MKO: Khabar Nameh (Newsletter), published in Paris by Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first post-revolution president of Iran, who at that time was active in the religious faction of the National Front; Bakhtar-e Emrooz (Today's West), published in Beirut by the leftist faction of the National Front; and Shanzdahom-e Azar (7 December), published in Germany by the Maoist faction of the Confederation of Iranian Students. (On December 7, 1953, a little over three months after the CIA coup of 1953, three students at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran were gunned down while protesting the visit to Iran of then-vice president Richard M. Nixon. Ever since then, 7 December is recognized in Iran as University Student Day.)
The MKO received financial help from the Bazaar, and many clerics eulogized the dead MKO members as true Muslim martyrs. It established contacts with the clerics through Ayatollah Taleghani. An MKO member, Vahid Afrakhteh, was in contact with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the future powerful politician in the post-revolution era. Rouhani and Haghshenas, with introductory letters from Taleghani, Sahabi, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (whose son Mohammad was a MKO member), a key figure in the 1979 revolution who supported Iran's Green Movement until his death in 2009, and Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari (a distinguished Islamic scholar). Afrakhteh traveled to Najaf, Iraq, and met with Ayatollah Khomeini several times between 1972 and 1974, although the ayatollah did not provide them with any significant support. Due to its ideology, which mixed Islam with socialism, MKO was popular among the university students, which helped it recruit new members.
Assassinations and Bombing
After surviving the initial shock of losing many of its leading original members, the MKO embarked on a campaign of bombing and assassinations. When President Nixon visited Iran at the end of May 1972, MKO bombs were exploded in the offices of several US-linked organizations and corporations in Tehran. They included the offices of Pepsi, General Motors, Marine Oil Company, Hotel International, the US Information Office and the Iran-America Society. In that era, heads of state visiting Iran would visit the mausoleum of Reza Shah, who was called the “founder of modern Iran,” to pay their respects. An hour before Nixon visited the mausoleum, a bomb exploded there also. When King Hussein of Jordan visited Iran in early August 1972, the MKO bombed Jordan's Embassy in Tehran. In 1973, the MKO attacked the offices of Pan American Airlines, Shell Oil Company, Hotel International again, and a company owned by a Bahai Iranian, a religious minority. In April 1974, Pan American Oil Company's office in Tehran was bombed. When the sultan of Oman visited Iran in the same month, the MKO bombed the reception hall and the Oman Bank office in Tehran, as well as the gates of the British Embassy. In June 1974, five plants whose owners were thought to be linked with Israel were bombed. When then Sec. of State Henry Kissinger visited Iran in the same month, the offices of the American firm ITT and those of an Iranian company representing the interests of American corporations were bombed. On top of all the bombings against the US interests in Iran, MKO also attacked many of the government's buildings.
Many individuals were also assassinated by MKO. The targets, in addition to several notorious figures within the shah's security apparatus, were American advisers in Iran. On the morning of June 2, 1973, Lt. Col. Lewis Lee Hawkins, who was attached to the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Iran, was assassinated by two MKO members. Reza Rezaei was captured later on and executed as the culprit behind that assassination. (Rezaei's older brother Ahmad had already killed himself with a hand grenade in January 1972 in order to avoid capture by the Savak, while another brother, Mehdi, was executed in September 1972 at the age of 19 and dubbed “the red rose of the revolution.”) On May 21, 1975, Col. Paul Schaeffer and Lt. Col. Jack Turner, both of the US Air Force, were assassinated. On August 28, 1976, three Rockwell International employees, Donald G. Smith, Robert R. Krongrad, and William C. Cottrell, were assassinated.
Since the 1990's, in its attempt to gain credibility with and support from the United States, MKO claims that all the assassinations in the 1970's were carried out by a communist faction that took control of the organization in 1975 (see below). The communist faction did take responsibility for the assassinations of the Rockwell employees, but there was no schism between the Islamic and Marxist factions in 1973 (in fact, there was not even any Marxist faction at that time), when Colonel Hawkins was assassinated, even if we ignore the fact that Reza Rezaei, who is still idolized by MKO as one of its heroes, was executed for the murder. Thus, Hawkins' assassination, at least, was irrefutably the work of the original MKO, from which the current MKO leadership tries to derive its legitimacy.
Moreover, the claim that all the assassinations were the work of the communist faction was made beginning only in the 1990's, after all attempts by the MKO to topple the Islamic Republic through military means had failed and the organization began to be more active on the political front. In October 1980, Mojahed, the mouthpiece of the MKO, declared that
Ever since its foundation in 1965, the thrust of the battle against the US advisors fell to the Mojahedin, who targeted and claimed the lives of a number for the first time, while it was the PMOI [People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran ] bombs planted in imperialist and Zionist institutions and destroying them which first caused the imperialists and their domestic mercenaries to be alarmed.
In a May 1981 public letter to Ayatollah Khomeini, the MKO wrote, “In the dark era of the shah, the Mojahedin had taken up arms and never missed an opportunity to gun down the imperialist American advisors.”
The bombings and assassinations came at a heavy price. From its inception until just before the 1979 revolution, the MKO lost 83 members, 17 of whom were executed; 16 died after suffering horrendous torture; four simply disappeared; two were murdered by the Savak after being taken from the notorious Evin prison in Tehran to the surrounding hills and shot, and the rest were killed in street battles with the police.
The Communist Takeover
Early in the morning on a beautiful day in the fall of 1975, I was walking to the coffee shop of the Faculty of Engineering (FOE) of the University of Tehran, when I saw a thick pile of papers by the walls in the back of the first floor of the building. All the opposition groups at that time distributed their statements and pamphlets in the universities. In the FOE, they were usually left by the walls in that corner of the building by a sympathizer. So, I knew that the paper pile must be a new pamphlet by an opposition group. I sat down on the floor, as was customary at that time, to read the thick document. The title of the document was Bayaaniyeh-e E'laam-e Mavaaze'-e eideologik-e Saazmaan-e Mojahedin-e Khalgh-e Iran – the Communique for Declaring the Ideological Positions of the Organization of People's Mojahedin of Iran. As I read the document, a feeling of shock came over me and I felt my face turning red. The document declared that MKO had decided that Marxism was the only true path for the emancipation of the working class, and that it no longer believed in Islam.
The leaders of the Marxist faction were Mohammad Taghi Shahram, Bahram Aram, Vahid Afrakhtehand Sayyed Mohsen Sayyed Khamoushi. Other prominent members of the faction included Rouhani, Haghshenas, Jalil Ahmadian (one of the six men arrested in Dubai), Ali-Reza Sepasi Ashtiani, Pouran Bazargani (Hanif-Nejad's widow and MKO's first female member), two brothers, Morteza and Hassan Aladpoush, Hassan's wife Mahboubeh Mottahedin, and the Rezaei brothers' sister, Sedigheh Rezaei. Shahram was one of the MKO members who had been arrested in 1971, but he had escaped from prison.
However, not every MKO member became a Marxist. A minority faction, thought to be the majority at that time, still believed in Islam as its ideology. But on May 7, 1975, some members of the Marxist faction murdered the leader of the Muslim faction, Majid Sharif Vaghefi, an engineering student at Arya-Mehr University – now called Sharif University in his honor – and burned his body. They also wounded another leader of the Muslim faction, Morteza Samadieh Labbaf, whose doctor handed him over to the Savak; the Savak executed him in January 1976. Both Sharif Vagheif and Samadieh Labbaf had insisted that the MKO was controlled by the Muslim faction, but even Sharif Vaghefi's wife, Leila Zomorrodian, belonged to the Marxist faction and had acted as a spy to monitor her husband's activities.
The takeover of the MKO by the Marxist faction was widely criticized, even by the communist People's Fedaei Guerrilla of Iran and in particular by its legendary leader Hamid Ashraf, who was killed in June 1976. Some clerics attacked the ideology of the MKO as elteghati (eclecticism) and issued a fatwa banning joint work with any Marxist. The shah's regime also used it to “prove” that it was right all along for calling MKO “Islamic Marxists.” The attacks on the Marxist MKO outside Iran were even fiercer. Prominent figures in the diaspora, ranging from Bani-Sadr to Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi, who was the head of the diaspora branch of the LMI, attacked the Marxist faction as monaafegh (hypocrites).
Both the Marxist and Islamic factions continued their anti-shah activities, with the Islamic side referring to the Marxists as “pseudoleftist opportunists.” Between the time of the split and the 1979 revolution, the Marxist faction lost 47 members to the shah's regime, including Aram, one of its leaders. That faction also exploded a bomb on the doorsteps of an office linked with Israel and had several gun battles with the Savak, as did the Islamic faction. After the 1979 revolution, the Marxist faction changed its name to Saazman-e Peykar dar Raah-e Azadi-ye Tabagheh Kaargar (The Organization of Battle for the Liberation of the Working Class), simply referred to as Peykar in Iran.
The Post-Revolution Era: 1979-1981
As the revolution gathered steam in the fall of 1978, the shah began releasing the political prisoners. He and his family left Iran on January 16, 1979. His last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, released the last group of political prisoners three weeks before the victory of the revolution. Among them were Rajavi, Mousa Khiabani – a physics student at the University of Tehran and one of the six who had been detained in Dubai in 1970 – Mehdi Abrishamchi (a chemist), Abbas Davari (who worked for the national railroad system) and Mohammad Reza Sa'adati (an engineer). The group represented the new MKO leadership, with Rajavi being the top man. All but Abrishamchi were among the 69 MKO members who had been put on trial in 1972. Khiabani and Abrishamchi (who had been arrested later) had received life and Davari a five-year sentence, although he had not been released at the end of the five years. Sa'adati and his wife had been arrested in 1973 and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Arbrishamchi family lived a very short distance from where my family and I lived in Tehran and, consequently, I am very familiar with the family.
After the release of its leaders, MKO quickly organized itself for the coming battles. When, in the evening of February 10, 1979, armed clashes broke out between the people and the shah's military, MKO members (and those of the People's Fedai Guerrilla) helped the revolutionaries to defeat the army and topple the monarchy. MKO hailed Ayatollah Khomeini as the “most glorious fighter.” The ayatollah appointed Bazargan, MKO's original spiritual leader, to be prime minister.
The MKO then spent the next several months organizing itself around the nation. It set up a politburo and a central committee, as well as five organizations for youth, women, workers, guilds and a mojahedin army staff, whose leaders were either clandestine or semi-clandestine. In a series of lectures at Tehran Polytechnic, Rajavi also reiterated the ideological beliefs of the early MKO. His organization was trying to compete with the increasing power of the clerics that had organized themselves into the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) and were also benefiting from the charismatic leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. MKO advocated nationalization of all the large banks and industrial enterprises, cutting off relations with Israel, leaving all alliances with Western powers, canceling all treaties with foreign powers that were deemed unfair to Iran, and eliminating all discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities. After a few months, it began its own mouthpiece, the Mojahed, and tried to steer an independent path. And Rajavi urged Bazargan to cut all ties with the United States.
MKO leadership wished to come to power as quickly as possible. When Rajavi and Khiabani met secretly with Khomeini on April 28, 1979, they told him that MKO was ready to run the country and asked him to turn the country over to them, but Khomeini refused. In fact, when he was in Paris in the fall of 1978, Khomeini had reached an agreement with Bazargan and other nationalist-religious and National Front figures that top members of MKO would not be given any sensitive post in the government. Both sides, however, benefited from the peace between them. The clerics were using MKO's martyrs to gain credibility, while MKO recognized Khomeini as the undisputed leader, referring to him as Imam Khomeini and Great Father, hence buying itself some time to better organize.
Over time, however, friction began surfacing between the two camps. First, two of Taleghani's sons were arrested by the revolutionary komitehs (committees), which angered him to the point that he closed his office. MKO sided with him. The crisis ended when Taleghani met with Khomeini. Then, over the next few months, several of MKO's provincial offices were attacked by the komitehs, but MKO avoided confrontation and protested only mildly. In late May 1979, Sa'adati was arrested while leaving the Soviet Union Embassy and was charged with being a spy for the Soviets (no evidence was ever presented). That angered MKO, but Taleghani intervened and promised that Sa'adati would be released soon. He was never released, however, and was executed in July 1981.
Then, the elections for the Assembly of Experts on the Constitution got underway in early August 1979 in order to draft a new constitution, and MKO actively participated in the process. It supported many independent candidates, but also fielded 26 candidates of its own in order to better introduce its program to the nation, including the demand that the constitution commit the nation to eventually become a classless society. None of its candidates was elected, but MKO-supported independent candidates won impressively, including Taleghani, Bani-Sadr, Ezzatollah Sahabi (Yadollah Sahabi's son), who was an early member of the LMI and one of the 69 people put on trial in 1972 (he was the leader of the opposition Nationalist-Religious Coalition, and passed away on May 30, 2011), and Dr. Ali Golzadeh-Ghafouri, a progressive Islamic scholar. But MKO failed to support Bazargan and other nationalist-religious figures so as to prevent the inclusion in the constitution of the principle of Velaayat-e Faghih (VF), which is the root cause of the current crisis in Iran. According to the doctrine of VF, the supreme leader (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) is the deputy to Mahdi, the 12th Imam of Shiites, who disappeared over 1,000 years ago and is supposed to come back one day. Thus, absolute obedience to the supreme leader is a foundation of the VF, which is why Iran's current constitution grants him most of the power.
The Hostage Crisis
On November 4, 1979, the United States Embassy was overrun by Islamic leftist students calling themselves “the Students Following Imam's Line.” The embassy takeover led to the resignation of Prime Minister Bazargan and his cabinet. MKO supported the takeover of the embassy and even formed a paramilitary force called the Militia of People's Mojahedin to supposedly defend the students in case the US attacked Iran. It also called on the people to fully support Khomeini and “to stand united against US imperialism.” When Khomeini ordered the establishment of “an army of 20 million,” MKO supported it enthusiastically. That army degenerated into the Basij militia, which is now a key tool of repression in Iran.
Constitutional Referendum and Elections
In December 1979, MKO openly defied Khomeini by refusing to take part in the referendum on the new constitution and criticizing its draft harshly. That angered Khomeini and his clerical supporters. He retaliated by barring Rajavi from running in the first presidential elections in January 1980, with the excuse that those who did not vote for the constitution could not be trusted to implement it. Rajavi had proposed a totally leftist, anti-imperialist program, and had been supported by a broad spectrum of non-clerical groups. During his campaign, one MKO organizer was killed. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was elected the first president of the Islamic Republic in January 1980.
The presidential elections were followed by those for the first post-revolution Majles, in which MKO took part with 127 candidates (including Rajavi) for various districts and attracted tens of thousands of people to their rallies. However, MKO rallies and campaign headquarters were attacked by fundamentalist thugs all over Iran, resulting in many injuries, some very serious. MKO leadership was cautious, still referring to Khomeini as the “great father,” and in its campaign materials saluted him for liberating Iran from domination by the US. MKO also supported several other candidates who were independent of the clerics, such as the aforementioned Golzadeh-Ghafouri, as well as attorney and human rights advocate Dr. Abdolkarim Lahiji (who is now the Paris-based vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues) and Dr. Mohammad Maleki, the first post-revolution chancellor of the University of Tehran (and currently a member of the opposition). None of MKO's own candidates was elected, but in some districts it attracted up to about 20 percent of the vote. Rajavi himself received over 530,000 votes in Tehran, roughly one-third the number garnered by the top vote-getter, who received a little over 1,568,000 votes.
After the elections, the friction between MKO and the government began to increase dramatically. Although MKO could attract a significant minority of the society, particularly youth, it was still not strong enough to win at the ballot box – at least not as long as the charismatic Khomeini was around. Thus, MKO embarked on extending its organizational reach around the country, stockpiling weapons, expanding its militia, recruiting military officers and so on. It also exploited the discriminatory laws that the clerics were passing against women and the reactionary interpretation of the Islamic teaching by the conservative mullahs to criticize them. Moving further to the left, MKO argued that it was the reactionary interpretation that had allowed a capitalist system to be acceptable to many of the clerics and declared as final the “historical bankruptcy of petit bourgeois” that the clerics were supposedly representing. In a speech, Rajavi said that the MKO was, “to the left of all the leftist organizations in Iran,” and, “the true representative of the working class.” MKO began a strong propaganda campaign against the IRP, the clerical political organization. Most importantly, MKO sided with Bani-Sadr in his increasingly bitter confrontation with the clerics. It stopped referring to Khomeini as the “great father,” and began calling him “Ayatollah Khomeini.”
The clerics and their supporters were not silent either. Conservative marja's warned the nation against the left. Doubts were raised as to how Rajavi had survived the shah's prisons and not been executed. The students who took over the US Embassy in Tehran accused MKO of being closet Marxists. The courts sentenced two MKO members who had been caught stockpiling weapons. Sa'adati was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. The Mojahed publication was banned in November 1980. The MKO offices were closed and, by June 1981, nearly 1200 MKO members and sympathizers had been arrested.
In a speech on April 18, 1980, Khomeini severely criticized the universities. On the evening of that day, right-wing paramilitary forces known as the Phalangists – so named after the right-wing Lebanese Forces during the civil war of 1976 to 1990 – laid siege to the Teachers Training College of Tehran. Over the next two days, offices of leftist students at universities in Ahwaz, Isfahan, Mashhad and Shiraz were ransacked, leaving hundreds injured and at least 20 people dead. The violence then spread to several campuses in Tehran, particularly the University of Tehran, a hotbed of political dissent. Since one power base of MKO was the university campuses, the attacks were interpreted as a form of pressuring the organization. Eventually, all the universities were shut down on June 12, 1980, and did not re-open until two years later. Officially, the goal was the “Islamization” of the universities, which was an absurd notion. In reality, it was just a guise for exercising oppression and repression.
War with Iraq
Saddam Hussein's army invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. Hussein had never been happy with the 1975 Algiers agreement signed by Iraq and the shah to settle a border dispute. Add to that the threat of a revolution led by Shiite clerics next door, especially when the Shiites made up the majority of the population in Iraq. Khomeini declared that, “This war is a gift from God.” Indeed, from his perspective, it was. On the one hand, the war unified a nation that was getting tired of all the chaos and gave it a patriotic cause to rally around. On the other hand, the war gave the extreme right the perfect excuse – the threat to national security and territorial integrity – to brutally repress the opposition, including MKO, with much bloodshed.
Although the nation was at war, MKO was still agitating the political scene. But it was not totally its fault. The right wing, and even some elements of the Islamic left, were opposed to MKO and played an important role in ratcheting up the rhetoric and the confrontation between the two camps. MKO's supporters, even the impressionable youth who were simply selling Mojahed, were constantly harassed and persecuted. Seventy-one MKO supporters were killed between February 1979 and June 1981. In the spring of 1981, Rajavi and Khiabani asked Khomeini for a meeting, but the ayatollah demanded that MKO first put down their arms and reject armed struggle. MKO refused to do so.
MKO leadership then committed a grave mistake: it decided to take up arms against the Khomeini regime, overestimating its own popular appeal and underestimating the charisma and authority of Khomeini and his base of support. That was the beginning of the end for MKO as a legitimate mass movement and political organization, from which it has never recovered. Part II of this series will describe MKO since that historical error.