The Cult of Rajavi
New York Times Magazine/July 13, 2003
By Elizabeth Rubin
As Ervand Abrahamian, a historian and author of ''The Iranian Mujahedeen,'' told me: ''Rajavi said he was emulating the prophet'' -- Muhammad -- ''who had married his adopted son's wife to show he could overcome conventional morality. It smacked of blasphemy.''
Rajavi liked having women around him and overhauled the command structure to replace the men with women -- this time calling it a ''constitutional revolution.'' It was also politically astute and added alluring spice for their public-relations campaign in the West.
"Rajavi, Rajavi, Iran, Iran, Maryam, Maryam, Iran, Iran,'' shouted a dozen young women commandos, trotting with their Kalashnikovs on a scrubby field, camouflage leaves and twigs bouncing on their helmets, their faces blurred by green paint. ''Run, run, fire, fire.'' They rolled, crouched, crept, fired and regrouped around their commander. One stepped forward: ''We weren't coordinated.'' Another shouted, ''The distance between us was too much.'' Another shouted, ''Our speed wasn't adequate.'' They were given a rest and then, spotting me, skipped up on cue, sweating and out of breath. Nineteen-year-old Sahar began: ''My mother was pregnant with me when she was arrested, and I was born in Evin Prison in 1983. When I was 1 year old, my father was executed for supporting the Mujahedeen. Now I drive a Cascavel. My mother is at another base. It's one of the reasons I decided to join the army.''
As the leaders like to boast, the Mujahedeen is a family affair. (''We have three generations of martyrs: grandmothers, mothers, daughters.'') Most of the girls I was meeting had grown up in Mujahedeen schools in Ashraf, where they lived separated from their parents. Family visits were allowed on Thursday nights and Fridays. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, many of these girls were transported to Jordan and then smuggled to various countries -- Germany, France, Canada, Denmark, England, the United States -- where they were raised by guardians who were usually Mujahedeen supporters. When they were 18 or 19, many of them decided to come back to Iraq and fill the ranks of the youngest Mujahedeen generation. Though ''decided'' is probably not the right word, since from the day they were born, these girls and boys were not taught to think for themselves but to blindly follow their leaders. ''Every morning and night, the kids, beginning as young as 1 and 2, had to stand before a poster of Massoud and Maryam, salute them and shout praises to them,'' Nadereh Afshari, a former Mujahedeen deep-believer, told me. Afshari, who was posted in Germany and was responsible for receiving Mujahedeen children during the gulf war, said that when the German government tried to absorb Mujahedeen children into their education system, the Mujahedeen refused. Many of the children were sent to Mujahedeen schools, particularly in France. The Rajavis, Afshari went on to say, ''saw these kids as the next generation's soldiers. They wanted to brainwash them and control them.'' Which may explain the pattern to their stories: a journey to self-empowerment and the enlightenment of self-sacrifice inspired by the light and wisdom of Maryam and Massoud.
As we cruised around the grounds, Hossein Madani said: ''Did you know that they built all this from scratch? That's why the combatants love their base so much.'' And it was true; the Mujahedeen had managed to cultivate out of the desert their own little paradise with vegetable gardens, rows of Eucalyptus and poplar trees, sports fields and Thursday night movies. When I asked about the fact that the land -- along with all clothing, ammunition, gas and the like -- had been donated by Saddam Hussein and that the Mujahedeen was, in effect, fighting one dictatorship under the wings of another, both Madani and Bahshai insisted that the Mujahedeen's precondition for setting up bases in Iraq was independence from Iraq's affairs. ''All we've used is the soil,'' Bahshai insisted. Either she was an adept liar or in deep denial, since everyone I spoke to -- Iraqi intelligence officers, Kurdish commanders and human rights groups -- said that in 1991 Hussein used the Mujahedeen and its tanks as advance forces to crush the Kurdish uprisings in the north and the Shia uprisings in the south. And former Mujahedeen members remember Maryam Rajavi's infamous command at the time: ''Take the Kurds under your tanks, and save your bullets for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.''
Though for years the Mujahedeen preached a Marxist-Islamic ideology, it has modernized with the times. Today, one of the standard lines of the Mujahedeen's National Council of Resistance to politicians in Europe and America is that it is advocating a secular, democratic government in Iran, and that when it overthrows the regime, it will set up a six-month interim government with Maryam as president and then hold free elections. But despite its rhetoric, the Mujahedeen operates like any other dictatorship. Mujahedeen members have no access to newspapers or radio or television, other than what is fed them. As the historian Abrahamian told me, ''No one can criticize Rajavi.'' And everyone must go through routine self-criticism sessions. ''It's all done on tape, so they have records of what you say. If there's sign of resistance, you're considered not revolutionary enough, and you need more ideological training. Either people break away or succumb.''
Salahaddin Mukhtadi, an Iranian historian in exile who still maintains communications with the Mujahedeen because it is the strongest armed opposition to the Iranian regime, told me that Mujahedeen members ''are locked up if they disagree with anything. And sometimes killed.''
Afshari, who fled the group 10 years ago, told me how friendship was forbidden. No two people could sit alone and talk together, especially about their former lives. Informants were planted everywhere. It was Maryam's idea to kill emotional relationships. ''She called it 'drying the base,''' Afshari said. ''They kept telling us every one of your emotions should be channeled toward Massoud, and Massoud equals leadership, and leadership equals Iran.'' The segregation of the sexes began almost from toddlerhood. ''Girls were not allowed to speak to boys. If they were caught mingling, they were severely punished.''
Though Maryam and Massoud finagled it so they could be together, they forced everyone else into celibacy. ''They told us, 'We are at war, and soldiers cannot have wives and husbands,''' Afshari said. ''You had to report every single day and confess your thoughts and dreams. They made men say they got erections when they smelled the perfume of a woman.'' Men and women had to participate in ''weekly ideological cleansings,'' in which they would publicly confess their sexual desires. It was not only a form of control but also a means to delete all remnants of individual thought.
One of the most disturbing encounters I had in Ashraf was with Mahnaz Bazazi, a commander who had been with the Mujahedeen for 25 years. I met her in the Ashraf hospital. Bazazi was probably on drugs, but that didn't explain the natural intoxication she was radiating, despite -- or perhaps because -- she had just had her legs amputated after an American missile slammed into the warehouse she was guarding. The doctor told me he never heard her complain. ''Even in this way, she's confronting the Mullahs,'' he said. Bazazi interrupted him. ''This is not me personally,'' she said in a soft high voice. ''These are the ideas of the Mujahedeen. It's true I lost my legs, but my struggle will continue because I have a wish -- the freedom of my country.'' At the foot of her bed, surrounded by candles, stood a large framed photograph of Maryam in a white dress and blue flowered head scarf.
In the chaotic days after the fall of Baghdad, several Mujahedeen members managed to flee the military camps and were in Kurdish custody in northern Iraq. Kurdish officials told me they weren't sure what to do with them. One was Mohammad, a gaunt 19-year-old Iranian from Tehran with sad chestnut eyes. He hadn't heard of the Mujahedeen until one day last year when he was in Istanbul desperately looking for work. A Mujahedeen recruiter spotted him and a friend sleeping on the streets, so hungry they couldn't think anymore. The recruiter gave them a bed and food for the night, and the next day showed them videos of the Mujahedeen struggle. He enticed them to join with an offer to earn money in Iraq while simultaneously fighting the cruel Iranian regime. What's more, he said, you can marry Mujahedeen girls and start your own family. The Mujahedeen seemed like salvation. Mohammad was told to inform his family that he was going to work in Germany and given an Iraqi passport.
The first month at Ashraf, he said, wasn't so bad. Then came the indoctrination in the reception department and the weird self-criticism sessions. He quickly realized there would be no wives, no pay, no communication with his parents, no friendships, no freedom. The place was a nightmare, and he wanted out. But there was no leaving. When he refused to pledge the oath to struggle forever, he was subjected to relentless psychological pressure. One night, he couldn't take it anymore. He swallowed 80 diazepam pills. His friend, he said, slit his wrists. The friend died, but to Mohammad's chagrin, he woke up in a solitary room. After days of intense prodding to embrace the Mujahedeen way, he finally relented to the oath. He trundled along numbly until the Americans invaded Iraq, when he and another friend managed to slip out into the desert. They were helped out by Arabs, and then turned themselves over to the Kurds, hoping for mercy. Mohammad fell ill, and the next thing he knew he was in prison. ''The Mujahedeen has a good appearance to the outside world, but anyone who has lived among them knows how rotten and dirty they are,'' he said.
Another Iranian whom I met at the Kurdish prison told me that he had been a zealous Mujahedeen supporter for years in Iran, and when he finally made it to the Iraqi camps, he was horrified to discover that his dream was a totalitarian mini-state.
Before I left Camp Ashraf, Massoud Farschi, one of the Mujahedeen spokesmen who was educated in the United States, told me that he thought the Mujahedeen was in the best position it had ever been in. ''We've said all along that the real threat in the world is fundamentalism, and now the world has finally seen that.'' The Mujahedeen, he said, is the barrier to that fundamentalism. Nevertheless, two days later, in early May, Gen. Ray Odierno of the Fourth Infantry Division was dispatched to the camp to negotiate the Mujahedeen's surrender. American tanks were posted outside Ashraf's gates, and two B-52's were circling the skies above. After a day of discussion, the Mujahedeen commanders reached a capitulation agreement in which they would consolidate their weapons and personnel into two separate camps. Lt. Col. John Miller, also with the Fourth, attended a ceremony in which the men and women bid farewell to their tanks. ''We saw folks kissing their vehicles, hugging them,'' he said. One 50-year-old man broke down in front of them, wailing. The women, he said, were much more controlled. Not so the women in Europe, who until recently were crying on the streets for the release of their beloved Maryam. They got their wish; a court ordered her released on bail. As for Massoud Rajavi, he has not uttered a peep. In fact, he seems to have disappeared. Some Iraqis claim to have seen him a few days before Baghdad fell boarding a helicopter south of the capital.
After the negotiations with the Mujahedeen, it was reported that Odierno said he thought that the group's commitment to democracy in Iran meant its status as a terrorist organization should be reviewed. There are also Senate staff members, Pentagon officials and even some people in the State Department who have said that if all the Mujahedeen is doing is fighting the ''evil regime'' in Iran, it quite likely that it will be removed from the State Department's terrorist list. ''There is a move afoot among Pentagon hard-liners,'' one administration official said, ''to use them as an opposition in the future.'' Recently Brownback submitted an Iran Democracy Act modeled on the Iraqi Liberation Act, which would set aside $50 million to help opposition groups overthrow the regime. The Mujahedeen, their U.S. supporters say, has provided the United States with key intelligence on Iran's nuclear program. One Congressional staff member working close to the issue said that there was a national security directive circulating ''that includes a proposal for limited surgical strikes against the Iranian regime's nuclear facilities. We would be remiss if we did not use the Mujahedeen to identify exactly what the Iranians have and in the longer term, to facilitate regime change.''
Meanwhile, inside Iran, the street protesters risking their lives and disappearing inside the regime's prisons consider the Mujahedeen a plague -- as toxic, if not more so, than the ruling clerics. After all, the Rajavis sold out their fellow Iranians to Saddam Hussein, trading intelligence about their home country for a place to house their Marxist-Islamist Rajavi sect. While Mujahedeen press releases were pouring out last month, taking undue credit for the nightly demonstrations, many antigovernment Iranians were rejoicing over the arrest of Maryam Rajavi and wondering where Massoud was hiding and why he, too, hadn't been apprehended. This past winter in Iran, when such a popular outburst among students and others was still just a dream, if you mentioned the Mujahedeen, those who knew and remembered the group laughed at the notion of it spearheading a democracy movement. Instead, they said, the Rajavis, given the chance, would have been the Pol Pot of Iran. The Pentagon has seen the fatal flaw of hitching itself to volatile groups like the Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and, more recently, the Iraqi exile groups who had no popular base at home. It seems dangerously myopic that the U.S. is even considering resurrecting the Rajavis and their army of Stepford wives.