Imagine yourself coming of age in a country where speaking out against the government is severely repressed. Activism of any sort is met with torture, imprisonment and even death, all courtesy of the US-trained secret police employed by a ruler who owes his very existence to the CIA. In turn, the United States has access to the seemingly endless oil resources underneath your country’s sands. Because you oppose the ruler, his decadence and his repressive government, you join an opposition movement. Many of its members are in prison and many have been executed by the regime.
Finally, after years of struggle and countless murders and tortures by the regime, the movement opposing the ruler and his government has reached across class, religion, and social situation to become the majority in the country. After months of mass demonstrations and some acts of resistance, the oppressive ruler is forced out of power. In the period that follows, all of the popular forces vie for a role in the new democratic political climate that has replaced the old regime. Then strange things began to happen. Thanks to a confluence of domestic and foreign influences and intrigue, social and political reactionaries hiding under the cloak of religion began to consolidate their power, taking over the reins of government and stealthily excluding all other popular voices from the discussions about your country’s future. Soon, restrictions are applied to women’s social standing and their employment and attire, worker-run oil wells are taken over by the religious leaders’ militias, and these same militias fire into mass demonstrations opposed to this new repression, killing hundreds. Some groups who were part of the popular opposition to the old regime have joined ranks with the new regime, claiming that the regime’s opposition to foreign powers (esp. the US) is more important than democracy. Your group begs to differ, believing that the only true way to ensure Iran’s independence is by creating a truly democratic, popular and secular government. The next thing you know, the group you belong to is once again the object of repression. This time, more ominously, the government uses religion in addition to the state powers to enforce its will. Your insistence on a secular government makes you the enemy once again.
This is the story, in as few words as possible, of many Iranians, including the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI).
In recent weeks, the US press has printed thousands of lines regarding the Iranian government’s pursuit of nuclear technology. It has dutifully reported outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell’s allegations of an Iranian nuclear weapons program and openly speculated about a possible military attack on the country by the US or Israel. Meanwhile, the EU is attempting to negotiate some kind of agreement with Tehran that is designed to prevent said attack while keeping the trade lines various EU members have with Tehran open. In Iran itself, recent parliamentary elections (of questionable fairness) ensured a continued majority for the mullahs supporters.
What about those allegations made by Colin Powell? Where did they come from? Some believe that the information is from Israeli and US intelligence. The same week, similar claims were presented to the media by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a Paris-based Iranian opposition coalition that the PMOI is a member of. The NCRI claims that the information they have comes from their network inside Iran. This network includes some Iranians who are involved in the project and do not want to see the current government in Tehran have nuclear weapons capabilities. Tehran’s claims of the arrests earlier this month of a “large number” of employees at different nuclear sites following the Iranian Resistance’s revelations about Tehran’s top-secret nuclear programs tend to bolster the NCRI’s assertion. Three members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) were allegedly among those arrested. It was through these sources that the NCRI was able to provide information to the media regarding Tehran’s nuclear plans, not because the group was fed information from Israel or the US, as its detractors claim.
Meanwhile, some individuals in the US media (most recently via an op-ed piece in the December 10, 2004, edition of the Los Angeles Times) have once again stepped up their attacks on the NCRI. The LA Times piece is titled “A Cult Is Trying to Hijack Our Iran Policy.” The columnist, Reza Aslan, who is the author of No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, (to be published by Random House), launches a blistering attack on the NCRI and PMOI. He calls the PMOI a “violent, pseudo-Marxist Iranian religious cult” that rules “with draconian, god-like authority” and “seek(s) to replace Tehran’s religious tyranny with their own.” (These claims are reminiscent of claims made against various groups within the US New Left thirty years ago). Unfortunately for the reader, the op-ed piece provides little evidence to establish this claim. Instead, it gives a brief account of the group’s history, acknowledging its roots in the Iranian democratic movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but downplaying the role it played in the Iranian revolution that culminated in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah. The piece continues, inaccurately comparing the NCRI to the US-funded and designed Iraqi National Congress (INC), the exile group that fed false information to the US media and Congress regarding the presence of WMD in Iraq.
Mr. Aslan’s hatred of the NCRI and PMOI echoes that which I have heard from some other Iranian exiles whenever I have written positively about either of these organizations. Given the often-extreme sectarianism found among Iranian political activists, this is not surprising. However, it makes it difficult for US residents concerned about the possibility of a war between their country and Iran confused and hesitant to take a stand on the very important issues of war and nuclear proliferation. After all, virtually every progressive in the US and the rest of the west does not want to see a war on Iran, yet many do not want to support the socially regressive regime of the mullahs in Tehran. Nor do they want to give credence to a group that they are told is a cult that cozies up to the neoconservative hawks in Washington who are intent on remaking the world in their own image. So, instead, the antiwar movement either places its trust in President Khatami’s so-called reform movement, a movement that seems to have no teeth (much like the antiwar grouping within the Democratic Party in the US) and intends to preserve the pillars of the ruling establishment, or they take no stand at all against the mullahs, preferring to believe that one either supports the hawks in DC in their desire for a US domination of Iran or the hawks in Tehran in their opposition to that desire.
With these concerns in mind, I recently had a phone and email conversation with three Iranian-Americans. None of them are members of either PMOI or NCRI, but consider these groups to represent their hopes for Iran. Just as importantly, they believe that it is this coalition that is most likely to succeed in moving Iran toward a pluralistic, secular, and democratic country beholden to no other nation. They are not fanatics and come across as very reasonable men. They contacted me in the interest of getting out an alternative view of the PMOI and NCRI in the hope that the antiwar movement in the United States would take a longer look at the PMOI and NCRI and hopefully consider their positions as the movement develops a stance vis-à-vis Iran, nuclear proliferation, and the US Empire. What follows is a report of that series of conversations and emails.
All three men emphasized that they hoped to clarify some misconceptions about PMOI and NCRI, whom they call the Resistance. (I will use their terminology from here on out.) In order to make these points, they defined some terms one hears all too often these days. First among them was the phrase “regime change.” When those of us in the west hear this term, we usually think of it as defined by the regimes in London and Washington. That is, some kind of military intervention by the forces of one or both of these capitals designed to incorporate the targeted country into Washington’s new world order. When the Resistance uses the term, they mean the fall of the ruling regime as result of a popular homegrown mass movement-hopefully one that is nonviolent in nature. When speaking of Iran, this mass movement is considered to be a continuation of the popular mass uprisings that overthrew the Shah in 1979 by sharing the same unfulfilled aspirations of that period: Freedom and popular sovereignty. Much of the confusion in the west over this and other terms is the general lack of historical knowledge so prevalent among our populations. Unlike our thirty-minute society where last week’s news is already forgotten, the Iranian Resistance and the people it hopes to organize have a memory longer than the organization’s existence (40 years). Regime change in this instance means going to the people of the nation, not to another nation’s intelligence agencies. Of course, this is not a simple thing, given the oppressive hold that the current regime has on Iran’s media and political space. Indeed, as much as the Resistance detests the cleric’s regime in Tehran, that hatred is returned with equal intensity.
What this means in practice is an unending parade of propaganda against the Resistance inside Iran and in the world. Given this concerted effort by the Tehran regime, it seems that the PMOI and NCRI get little room for a fair hearing inside Iran. Nor, for some reason, do they get much of a fair hearing among progressive forces in the west. This is in spite of their history that lists them as a consistent force for secular, popular democracy. Their unwavering demand for this puts them at odds with other secular groups they fought alongside during the anti-monarchical revolution of the 1979. When organizations like the Tudeh (Iran’s Communist Party) and the so-called majority Fedayin formed a coalition with the Khomeini forces after the Shah’s downfall, PMOI did not. Unlike the former groups, who believed that Khomeini’s anti-democratic fundamentalist policies should be overlooked in the interest of his anti-US stance, PMOI held fast to their belief that the only sure way for the post-Shah Iranian government to remain independent was to build a truly popular and democratic regime that had no religious controls. Because of this theoretical approach, they had no use for forming any front with the religious fundamentalists that Khomeini represented. They were joined in their endeavor by a variety of other groups and individuals who shared their views in this regard. These people later became the nucleus of the NCRI. In the face of unparalleled repressive political atmosphere in Iran in the early 1980s, all of these groups eventually went underground. Many were destroyed following a wave of executions by Khomeini’s regime that lasted several years.
Since the overthrow of the Shah, the members of PMOI have always focused on one objective-the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime. Sometimes this meant that they worked with the democratic and progressive elements in the government; men like Bani-Sadr, who was eventually forced into exile by Khomeini. Other times, it meant holding mass demonstrations demanding an end to restrictions on women’s movements. After the mullahs’ consolidated their power, it meant going underground and waging armed struggle while simultaneously waging a popular political struggle around the issues of democracy and individual rights. Nowadays, it means working with people from all walks of life and of numerous political persuasions as a means of getting their message out. Perhaps it is this single-mindedness that causes many western progressives to shy away from them. Yet, if one accepts the fundamental tenet that the best way to keep foreign exploitation under control in one’s own country is to be as democratic as possible, than it all makes sense.
What about the nuclear question? Although one can easily understand why Tehran would want some kind of nuclear threat to keep potential invaders at bay or intimidate its regional rivals to submit to its regional designs, a longer-term perspective demands that there be no further nuclear proliferation in Iran or any other country. So, to prevent the mullahs from obtaining nuclear weapons capability, the Resistance has made the publication of Tehran’s nuclear plans one of their objectives. Their reasons are these:
1. Nuclear weapons development runs contrary to the best national interests of Iranians by empowering a religious tyranny and exposing Iran to possible foreign military strikes. It is also very expensive and takes money away from urgently needed public services and;
2. A government that believes it is doing god’s will is dangerous enough without nuclear weapons (this dynamic applies to the US as well.)
As I mentioned earlier, the information about Tehran’s nuclear program that the NCRI provides is the result of some of its members inside Iran’s nuclear facilities doing what we here in the US call whistle blowing. It does not come from Israeli or US spy agencies, although one imagines that these agencies pay attention to the NCRI information and then corroborate it with their own. The Iranian Resistance has been involved in exposing the plans of Tehran’s ruling clerics since 1993 via sympathetic Iranians involved in the projects.
Why are individuals known for their right wing and imperialist viewpoints among the NCRI’s diplomatic audience? This is perhaps the most difficult practice of the Iranian Resistance for the US progressive movement to understand. As one of the men I spoke with said, however: What is a neocon to an Iranian living in Iran? The individuals I spoke with emphasized that the NCRI are merely engaging in a practice common among most nationalist movements when it comes to seeking outside support. One seeks support where one can find it. For the Iranian resistance, this means talking to US Republicans and Democrats, French Socialists and Gaullists, western communists and social democrats-whatever it takes to mobilize support. If a group or individual knows their own politics and objectives, it is unlikely that they will be manipulated by others whose agendas are different even if they work together on some issues. Besides, most of the western supporters of the NCRI come from the progressive side of the spectrum. The men and women of NCRI understand quite clearly that the neocons want regime change in Tehran for the benefit of Washington. At the same time, they know even more clearly that they want regime change for the people of Iran and that such a change can only happen through the popular will of the Iranian people, not through foreign military intervention.
One of the primary methods employed by those who oppose the NCRI and PMOI (in Iran and in western capitals) is the designation of these groups as “terrorist.” Washington enacted this designation during Clinton’s presidency as a way of currying the mullahs’ favor. This is the same reason the EU accepted this designation. The ultimate result of this designation, despite the fact that neither of these groups have committed any acts of terror according to the definition in use by the US State Department and its sister agencies in Europe, is that it severely limits their ability to organize opposition to the Tehran regime. If one truly supports the Iranian peoples’ right to resist the tyranny in Tehran, then they should demand that these groups be removed from these lists.
If you recall, this article began by mentioning an opinion piece in the LA Times that argued that the PMOI and NCRI were a cult intent on “hijacking” our Iran policy. The conversations summarized here try to prove otherwise. These two organizations are fundamentally committed to Iran’s independence and are on public record opposing any kind of foreign military intervention in Iran. If there is any cult that is attempting to manipulate our policy, it is the neoconservative cult of war profiteers and wannabe Disraelis currently in power in DC.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org