The cult headquarters is evidently located in the respectable Berlin district of Wilmersdorf, in a quiet cross street between two tennis clubs. The villa is painted beige, neatly trimmed bushes adorn the front garden, flower boxes the window sills, behind the windows hang blue curtains. Here, behind the bourgeois façade, an Iranian political cult is said to have largely isolated about 50 women and men from the outside world until a few years ago.
The name of this organization: the People’s Mojahedin. These are Iranian exiles who want to overthrow the clerical regime in their home country. Externally, these Iranian resistance fighters pretend to be democratic and freedom loving. But, according to former residents, members were manipulated and detained in the villa using psychological techniques. They also describe ideological sessions in which they had to criticize themselves and confess their sexual thoughts to a group. Speaking about “mind control” and “brainwashing.”
When asked, the People’s Mojahedin did not respond to these allegations. In a public statement, however, they described them as “lies and slander”. In previous statements, the organization also denied using psychological techniques. Through a law firm, it announced that information about the People’s Mojahedin was largely controlled by the Iranian secret service. This portrayal is apparently also supported by some prominent supporters: for example, German politicians who have been advocating for the People’s Mojahedin for years.
Can it be? A kind of political cult centre, in the middle of Berlin-Wilmersdorf?
ZEIT ONLINE has spent months researching, evaluating archive material and internal documents, interviewing not only dropouts but also experts – and considers the reports of the former residents of the villa to be credible.
Psychological techniques and lobbying
For years, allegations have been known that the People’s Mojahedin are supposed to make members abroad, for example in Albania, submissive by means of psychological techniques. Two weeks ago, ZEITmagazin also reported that the organization allegedly smuggled dozens of children from Cologne to Iraq in the nineties and detained them there with the help of such techniques (ZEIT No. 44/2021), which they deny. For the first time, there is now evidence that the People’s Mojahedin have allegedly used similar methods in Germany in recent times.
The People’s Mojahedin have changed many times in the course of their history. Until 2009, they were on the EU’s terror list. In the meantime, they no longer appear militant, so they are no longer an object of scrutiny for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Today, they mainly engage in lobbying. For example, they organize signature campaigns and call on politicians to break off all diplomatic relations with Iran. They are currently drumming against the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which the EU wants to resume at the end of November.
In Europe and the USA, they are active under the label National Council of Resistance Iran (NCRI). The headquarters are located near Paris, the German headquarters are located in the Villa in Berlin. The organization presents itself as the main democratic opposition to the Iranian regime, with thousands of members and supporters worldwide.
The US government saw the People’s Mojahedin as an ally
This has made them some friends among politicians, such as members of the Trump administration. Just recently, in late October, former US Deputy Secretary of State Mike Pence called the leader of the People’s Mojahedin, a 67-year-old Iranian woman named Maryam Rajavi, an “inspiration to the world.” And in Germany, an association called the German Solidarity Committee for a Free Iran (DSFI) has been campaigning for the People’s Mojahedin for many years. Former Bundestag President Rita Süssmuth sits on the advisory board. When asked, she did not want to comment on the allegations against the People’s Mojahedin.
Again and again, members of the Bundestag also took part in the events of this support committee – in a video conference in November 2020, for example, the two Hamburg CDU deputies Christoph Ploß and Christoph de Vries. “A democratic alternative to the ruling mullah’s regime in Iran,” de Vries calls the people’s Mojahedin’s front organization, the National Council of Resistance. Thomas Erndl (CSU), Lukas Köhler (FDP) and Bernhard Daldrup (SPD) also took part in such conferences, as did former Bundestag President Norbert Lammert (CDU) – and the People’s Mojahedin leader Mariam Rajavi.
Democratic inspiration or dangerous cult – opinions on the People’s Mojahedin could hardly be further apart. Why that is can be explained in part by their history. The People’s Mojahedin was founded in Tehran in 1965 – initially as an Islamic and in parts Marxist and anti-imperialist inspired clandestine organization. They helped overthrow the Shah in 1979. But the ensuing clerical regime did not involve them in power and instead persecuted them – and executed thousands of People’s Mojahedin. Those who survived carried out attacks on public officials and eventually fled into exile, most of them to Iraq. From there, they fought alongside Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war against their own country.
“Personality cult in its most extreme form”
In Iraq, they became more and more of a cult, as the US historian Ervand Abrahamian describes it. Around the then leader Massoud Rajavi “a personality cult in its most extreme form” had developed. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, married couples had to divorce for ideological reasons, and children were separated from their parents. The U.S. State Department concluded in a 1994 report that the organization was an “opposition cult.” Members in the West would sometimes live in community houses, they would get little money of their own there and would have strictly structured days – this is exactly what dropouts now claim about the villa in Berlin. And German security circles also see the People’s Mojahedin to this day as a self-contained group with cult-like structures.
The fact that the organization nevertheless managed to paint a positive picture of itself in the West has a lot to do with August 14, 2002, the day on which the People’s Mojahedin surprisingly entered the stage of geopolitics: At that time, the US spokesman for the National Council of Resistance presented evidence at a press conference in Washington that Iran was working on a secret nuclear programme. A sensation. As the New Yorker later revealed, the Israeli secret service Mossad had leaked the information to the People’s Mojahedin. But to this day, the organization benefits from the credibility it enjoyed back then.
Apparently some of the US soldiers who invaded Iraq seven months later also let themselves be wrapped up by the People’s Mojahedin. This is suggested by a report by the RAND think tank, which advises the US armed forces. According to the report, the People’s Mojahedin presented themselves as friends of America who could provide information about Iran.
The charm offensive was successful: In June 2004, the US Department of Defense classified the People’s Mojahedin in Iraq as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention – even though the organization was still on Washington’s terror list at the time. According to media reports from the time, hardliners such as Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney wanted to keep the resistance fighters warm as a possible weapon against Iran. Later, starting in 2005, U.S. Special Forces trained some People’s Mojahedin in the Nevada desert, according to research by the New Yorker. According to NBC, they also killed nuclear physicists in Iran on behalf of the Mossad. The organization has always denied this.
“They controlled us – mentally, socially, financially”
From 2009, however, it became dangerous for many members of the People’s Mojahedin. More than 3,000 of them were still living in a camp in Iraq at that time, without weapons, because the Americans had taken them from the ordinary members. Pro-Iranian militias attacked them, many people died. At the time, politicians such as Rita Süssmuth campaigned with the “German Solidarity Committee for a Free Iran” to take in at least some of the resistance fighters. With success: About 100 came to Germany. After their arrival many of them ended up in the said villa in Berlin-Wilmersdorf – according to the former residents, with whom ZEIT ONLINE was able to speak.
All these informants want to remain anonymous, nothing in this text should indicate their identity. Neither their age, their gender nor the period of their stay in the Berlin villa, not even the exact number of them can therefore be mentioned here. This much only can be said: They are several, and their observations are a few years old. ZEIT ONLINE was able to talk to them personally for many hours for months. Their details have been examined and verified wherever possible. They all still want freedom and democracy for Iran. But at some point, they agree, they should have realized that this goal does not justify ‘any means’.
“We thought we were coming to Europe, to freedom,” says one of these people about arriving in Germany. “But in Berlin, the executives of the organization continued to control us – mentally, emotionally, socially, financially.” Ordinary members of the People’s Mojahedin, the dropouts report, could only leave the Berlin villa for sports or on behalf of the organization, and never alone –they should have been at least in pairs so as to spy on each other.
At that time, women would have slept in the attic, men in the basement, usually four or five people each in a room, sometimes ten. For some members in leadership positions – mostly women – however, there were special rights: they often had single rooms with televisions and could live more freely. Like all the other women, however, they would have to wear a headscarf. Members also had to pray three times a day. Supporters of the organization regularly came by, sometimes Rita Süssmuth. But they only got to see what they were supposed to see.
Thoughts of sex and family were forbidden
According to the dropouts, the organization’s cadres had their everyday lives strictly structured: they had to get up at seven o’clock, after breakfast they worked all day for the organization, for example collecting donations in the street. In the evening, there were ideological sessions in which they had to disclose forbidden thoughts – such as thoughts about their own family. Because, it was said, family is a “demotivator” in the fight against the Iranian regime. They also had to confess to sexual thoughts. “You had to bring everything out, from bottom to top, and write it on a piece of paper,” says a former member. “Like: I saw someone on the street and wanted to sleep with the person.” It was degrading.
The members were also kept docile by methods that are typical of cults, such as sleep deprivation. There were sometimes political meetings until late at night, the dropouts report, from about 10 p.m. to four o’clock in the morning. The residents of the villa were often overtired. And another manipulation technique of cults has also been used: the destruction of social ties. Consequently, the residents of the villa, say the dropouts, were rarely allowed to see their own children, their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, many only about once a year. The yearning for family had been instrumentalized to manipulate the members – for example, by allowing contact only if someone behaved particularly docilely. A person who secretly visited a family member was then criticized for weeks and psychologically drained.
In addition, they were largely shielded from information about the outside world, the only television station put in front of them was that of the People’s Mojahedin. Anyone who read newspapers and magazines or listened to the radio was criticized. Listening to one’s own music was forbidden, as was accessing the internet on a mobile phone. The internet on the computers in the villa had been censored. And from the films, which they were allowed to watch about once a week, the kissing and sex scenes were cut out.
Pictures of torture victims and starving children
At the same time, the cadres had frightened them about the world outside, of Berlin, of Germany. The Iranian secret service lurks on every corner, it was said. “And they said the people outside were selfish, self-centred and aimless, only we were real freedom fighters,” says a former member. They portrayed life in the organization as heaven on earth, life outside as hell. Theoretically, you could leave at any time, says a former member. Due to such manipulation techniques of the organization, however, this step seemed enormously difficult to them: “I could no longer imagine that a liveable world was waiting for me outside.”
What was the purpose of this alleged manipulation, what did the members in the villa have to do? The dropouts say: They were cheap labour. From morning to night, they report, they had to undertake tasks for the organization, six to seven days a week. Some, for example, looked after politicians and supporters or kept the organization’s German-language websites up to date. Others organized demonstrations. For this purpose, they recruited extras from Eastern Europe. This practice, at least, lives on to this day: In July, ZEIT ONLINE was able to talk to Slovaks in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, who stated that they had gotten a trip to Berlin, including a hotel stay, for a mere 45 euros. “All we had to do was come to this demonstration,” said a woman waving a People’s Mojahedin flag. She had been recruited via Facebook. What is it about? “About human rights for Iran.”
Most of the residents of the Berlin villa, however, according to the dropouts, collected donations for the People’s Mojahedin. For example, they went to the homes of wealthy people and specifically courted them. Other members would have to stand in pedestrian zones and show pictures of torture victims and starving children – these collectors were at times an everyday sight in Berlin. Especially in the run-up to Christmas; this brought in a lot of money. This then flowed to several fake associations, which had been run from the Berlin villa.
“We never told people that the money goes to the People’s Mojahedin”
Some of these associations are still active today. They have names such as Aid for Human Rights in Iran, Association for People and Freedom or Association for Hope of the Future. In the past, the German Central Institute for Social Affairs (DZI), which examines the use of donations, has already warned that some of these associations were not managed transparently. In fact, the dropouts say: These associations were led by completely different people than stated in the register of associations. Donors were also deceived about the true goal of their donations. “We never told people that the money would go to the People’s Mojahedin,” says a former member. “But said for example: This is to save a woman in Iran from the death penalty.” In fact, the money had flowed, for example, into the demonstrations and campaigns of the People’s Mojahedin.
However, the former residents say that they themselves were hardly paid for their work: they received about 50 to 100 euros per month in cash, plus some cigarette money. At times, they did not even have health insurance. When asked, the People’s Mojahedin did not respond to these accusations either.
Politicians are surprised at who they got involved with
Cult structures, deception, fraudulent donation collections: Again and again in the past there have been such accusations against the People’s Mojahedin, again and again they managed to get away with minor penalties or to not be prosecuted at all and to dismiss the accusations as a propaganda campaign by the Iranian regime. In public, the image of the slandered freedom fighters was partly believed in – probably because it has some basis in reality: In fact, the regime in Tehran repeatedly campaigned against the People’s Mojahedin and spied on it in Europe, as is also stated in German reports on the protection of the constitution. As recently as February, a Belgian court sentenced an Iranian diplomat to 20 years in prison: he had planned an attack on the annual meeting of the People’s Mojahedin in France in 2018. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani also spoke there.
However, the Iranian-born foreign policy expert Omid Nouripour (Greens) warns against seeing this persecution as proof of trustworthiness – the motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is misleading in the case of the People’s Mojahedin: “They must also ask themselves to what extent they guarantee democratic principles and human rights,” he says. For years, Nouripour has been trying to educate his colleagues in the Bundestag about the organization. They, says Nouripour, persistently try to lure parliamentarians with slogans such as “freedom” and “human rights” for their own purposes.
If you ask the two Hamburg CDU members of parliament Christoph Ploß and Christoph de Vries why they took part in the conference with the leader of the People’s Mojahedin in November 2020, a spokesman for the CDU Hamburg justifies it with very similar values: The two stand “on the side of the Iranian people, who strive for freedom, democracy and equality,” he writes. “In this, we fully agree with the DSFI, in which well-known personalities such as Rita Süssmuth are also involved.” On the accusation that the People’s Mojahedin are a cult, the spokesman writes: Such accusations correspond “in part in the wording to the statements of the mullah’s regime, its secret service and its militias”.
Trusted the request because of Rita Süssmuth
Other participants of the conference are surprised after inquiries from ZEIT ONLINE, about who they got involved with. It was not apparent from the invitation to the conference that it had to do with the People’s Mojahedin, says a member of the Bundestag, who does not want to identify himself by name. Only the DSFI had asked him. He decided to participate because he found the issue of human rights in Iran important. Since the former President of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert, was also on the list of participants, he had no concerns. Norbert Lammert, on the other hand, told ZEIT ONLINE: He trusted the request because not only his predecessor and party colleague Rita Süssmuth is involved in the DSFI, but also other long-standing colleagues in parliament.
This refers, for example, to the recently deceased former CDU member of parliament Otto Bernhardt, long-time chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. And Martin Patzelt (also CDU), who until recently sat in the Bundestag. Both are still listed on the board of the DSFI. When asked, Patzelt says he supports the People’s Mojahedin because he considers it the most powerful democratic opposition to the Iranian regime. However, he followed the developments of the People’s Mojahedin attentively and critically.
“They are deceived by the People’s Mojahedin”
“You only need one or two famous names,” a former member of the People’s Mojahedin explains of its lobbying strategy. You have to invest a lot of energy in the first contact person. You have to shower the person with attention and compliments, give them gifts – and give them the feeling of being committed to a meaningful, noble cause. In the second step, one would then slowly introduce the idea that the person could establish an association or a society that advocates for the People’s Mojahedin. “It’s a psychological trick: when you ask someone for a favour after so much flattery, people think they owe you something and can hardly say no.” With a single respected politician, you can attract many more prominent supporters. In Germany, Rita Süssmuth and the DSFI fulfil this function.
The former residents of the Berlin villa believe that the German politicians would not receive any money for their commitment. “They want to do good, but they are deceived by the People’s Mojahedin,” says a former member.
In other countries, however, it is proven that the organization also pays lavish fees for speeches. Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, for example, received $40,000 from the People’s Mojahedin for a speech in 2017, the Guardian reported. And the organization was already involved with party donations. In 2014, for example, People’s Mojahedin sympathizers financed the European election campaign of the right-wing populist Spanish Vox party on a large scale, as the newspaper El País revealed. Its founder Alejo Vidal-Quadras is a long-time supporter of the People’s Mojahedin. If you believe the dropouts, then similar fees to foreign politicians were processed via the villa in Berlin – to whom, and whether these payments were also financed from donations, none of them wants or can testify exactly.
Do people still live here?
A sunny Sunday in October in Berlin, in front of the Wilmersdorfer Villa a green-white-red flag with a golden lion waves, the flag of the People’s Mojahedin. In addition, a surveillance camera is filming. In front of the villa there is hustle and bustle. Cars drive away and come back, men with moustaches smoke, make phone calls in the front yard. Again and again, women come out of the glass door of the villa or disappear back into the house – some wear headscarves and uniforms, the typical clothing of the female, full-time members of the Iranian Mojahedin Khalq.
Is it a kind of office, an office where the last one turns off the lights in the evening and everyone goes home?
Or do some of these people live here? Is the villa your home?
If so, this could mean that the cult-like methods that the dropouts speak of are still being used there. Such practices make up the core of the organization, says a person who once lived in the villa. However, members would be urged to vehemently deny this to outsiders. “From the inside,” says another person, “many things look different with the People’s Mojahedin or Iranian Mojahedin Khalq than from the outside.”
Luisa Hommerich, Zeit Online,
Contributor: Julia Kanning
(In German, translated by Iran Interlink)