Western governments classify the People’s Mojahedin as a terrorist group, but it can still boast allies in the US and UK. Dan De Luce charts its history
Western governments describe the People’s Mojahedin as a terrorist organisation, yet the group has allies in the House of Commons and the US Congress.
When one of its leaders was arrested by French police last month, her followers went on hunger strike. Several set themselves alight in front of television cameras, with two later dying.
French security officials claim that the People’s Mojahedin was planning to stage terrorist attacks throughout Europe, but the group says that it advocates secular democracy and women’s rights in Iran.
So who are the People’s Mojahedin, and where did the group come from?
Its origins lie in the 60s, when opponents of the Shah’s regime in Iran looked to socialist ideals and new readings of Islamic texts for inspiration in their campaign against the US-backed monarchy.
Outraged by the Shah’s brutal suppression of dissent, the People’s Mojahedin, or Mojahedin Khalq Organisation (MKO), chose to take up arms.
Bombings and assassinations, including several attacks that claimed the lives of US military officers and contractors, took a serious toll and provoked further repression by the regime.
The MKO’s blend of Marxism and Islam influenced other opposition figures, and made its mark on the clerics who came to rule Iran after the fall of the Shah. However, divisions among the MKO’s ranks became apparent, with some electing to part from an increasingly radical leadership.
As the only armed and organised opposition group during the final years of the Shah’s rule, many historians say that the People’s Mojahedin played an important role in his eventual overthrow in 1979.
During the chaotic days after the Shah had fled amid mass protests, the MKO seized the state television headquarters and other government buildings.
As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his allies asserted control in what later became known as the "Islamic revolution", the MKO attracted a large following among students, who admired its record of fierce opposition to the Shah’s regime.
Yet the group soon found itself marginalised as Islamic conservatives sought to defeat left-wingers. When the ayatollah demanded that the group disarm, it refused. Violent conflict eventually erupted between the Islamic clerical leadership and the MKO, which had done so much to weaken the Shah.
MKO members resumed the terror tactics practised during the Shah’s era, assassinating senior figures and then speeding away on high-powered motorbikes.
Its underground war against the government reached a peak in June 1981, when a series of bombs exploded in Tehran’s city centre during a major political meeting. The bombing killed 72 people, including chief justice Mohammad Beheshti, a senior figure close to the ayatollah, government ministers, numerous MPs and civil servants.
A month later, the president, Mohammad-Ali Rajei, and the prime minister, Javad Bahonar were killed in a bombing attack.
The government waged a determined campaign against the People’s Mojahedin, using Militant Revolutionary guards and arresting and executing numerous MKO suspects.
In recent years, some journalists have questioned whether all those arrested were proven MKO agents, or whether they were merely rounded up in a sweeping move against all opposition.
Lethal attacks on the clerical leadership failed to bolster the MKO’s position, and civilian casualties cost it support among ordinary Iranians.
"I remember my parents told us we couldn’t go outside because they were afraid of more bombings by the MKO," Mustafa, a computer engineer, recalled.
With western governments backing Iraq in its war against Iran, the MKO decided to link its future with the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. The group acted as infiltrators and a source of military intelligence for Baghdad, and Saddam later used the MKO to help crush Kurdish and Shia opponents.
By siding with a regime bombing Iranian cities and killing hundreds of thousands of young Iranians, the MKO became despised in Iran and lost what support it still retained.
"The one thing in which there is common agreement among all political parties here, reformist or conservative, is that the MKO is a black organisation," Amir Mohebian, a conservative academic, said in an interview.
The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war ended in stalemate, forcing the MKO into permanent exile and subservience to Saddam’s repressive rule. A group that had been born in opposition to one dictatorship became dependent on another.
The recent collapse of Saddam’s government has rendered the MKO homeless. The US bombed MKO bases during its attack on the Iraqi regime, but was slow to negotiate the group’s surrender. Diplomats say that the US coveted intelligence about Iran held by the MKO.
More and more, analysts believe, the MKO may have become a pawn in a bigger contest between Washington and Iran. The George Bush administration sees the MKO as a possible lever in its campaign to restrict Iran’s nuclear programme and force the extradition of al-Qaida suspects in the country.
Although it has staged occasional hit and run raids along the Iran-Iraq border, including mortar attacks, it is the MKO’s skilful public relations effort that has kept it alive outside Iran.
Through its political wing, the National Council for Resistance, articulate spokesmen, fluent in foreign languages, explain the group’s goals in clear terms, delivering user-friendly material to the media. Outsiders already hostile towards Iran’s theocracy respond well to the group’s message.
The MKO’s ability to gain allies in parliaments, and publicity, infuriates Iran, which accuses Washington and other governments of adopting a hypocritical stance in their declared war on terrorism.
The MKO also has managed to raise serious sums of money from exiles and supporters. French police seized some $8m (£4.5m) during a recent raid on the MKO headquarters.
Former members have told horror stories about life inside the organisation, which, they say, resembles a cult. They have accused their former masters of punishing disobedience with torture, or even murder, and allege that the leadership separated some children from their parents.
Ervand Abrahamian, a history professor at Baruch College, in the US, has written a comprehensive history of the MKO. He says that the group has been sustained less by ideology than by a cult of personality surrounding its leader, Massoud Rajavi, and his wife, Maryam.
"If Massoud Rajavi got up tomorrow and said that the world was flat, his members would accept it," he told the New York Times.
Spokesmen for the MKO deny allegations of brainwashing, insisting that the organisation is the target of propaganda by the Iranian government, which it has labelled a "clerical dictatorship".
Whether the People’s Mojahedin is a fanatical cult set on violence or the democratic organisation described by its leaders, its days of influence in Iran faded long ago.
Deprived of a base for its armed resistance, unpopular in its homeland and targeted for investigation by French authorities, it appears to be in terminal decline.
Dan De Luce