Not too long ago I wrote a piece that was a reaction to recent U.S. threats against Iran. The underlying argument of the article was that even though the Iranian people want a change in their government, they would be ill advised to look to the United States government for any genuine assistance. After all, the history of Washington in regards to Iran in the past fifty years is a primary reason the Iranians are in their current situation.
Like most articles I have written on Iran since the events now known simply as 9/11, this one received a number of responses from Iranians living abroad. The response that interested me the most (and one that has led to a few conversations with its composer) came from a gentleman who has lost two relatives to Iranian government security forces-one to those of the Shah and the other to the forces of the theocratic dictatorship now in power.
This fellow’s concerns about my piece were not with the warnings against seeking and trusting U.S. assistance. Instead, he was more concerned with my remarks concerning the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) wherein I implied that one of the council’s founding organizational members-the Peoples Mujahedin (hereafter the Mujahedin)-were funded by the now-defunct Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. According to my acquaintance, this was fundamentally untrue. He further encouraged me to take a look at the history of this organization. In response, I asked him if it was the same group whose supporters I had worked with during the 1970s in Maryland and California when the movement to overthrow the Shah was developing. He stated that yes; it was one and the same, although its leadership and certain parts of its ideology had undergone some changes. It was apparent to me, though, that these were the so-called Islamic progressives who considered Khomeini’s Islamic revolution to not only be anti-Islamic, but also counter-revolutionary. I remembered conversations in 1980 with various Iranian Marxists who took the same position.
Who Are the NCRI?
The NCRI is an organization composed of five groups opposed to the current government in Iran. The group was founded by parts of the Mujahedin leadership that fled Khomeini’s Iran in 1981 after a murderous crackdown on protesters by his regime. In its early incarnations the NCRI was a broad coalition of groups and individuals who were opposed to the Khomeini regime. Some of its foremost members were the exiled president of Iran, Bani-Sadr-a supporter of the revolution who espoused social democratic policies–, an Iranian Kurdish organization (both left the coalition after they agreed to negotiate with the Khomeini regime-a decision that resulted in the Kurdish negotiator being killed by Khomeini’s security forces), and various leftist popular organizations who were, despite their work in opposition to the Shah, under continued persecution by Khomeini’s regime.
The NCRI’s goal is to rid Iran of the theocratic regime now in power in Tehran and to establish a secular government. The council is committed to a representative democratic government that guarantees democratic freedoms like the freedom of religion, the press, and speech. Furthermore, it is dedicated to equal status and rights for women (half of its membership is female), equal access to education, an end to all debts owed to the government by peasants and workers, the guarantee of basic necessities to those without them, and a more equitable economic reality for all Iranians.
The council stands opposed to outside intervention in the Middle East, and supports a foreign policy based on cooperation. Furthermore, it recognizes and supports the rights of national minorities in Iran. It does not support the aspirations of the shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, and hopes for a peaceful transfer of power via a UN supervised referendum of the Iranian people. However, their intention is to rid Iran of the current regime and the Mujahedin do have an armed force trained and able to fight in battle should the perceived need arise. Since they are the driving force behind the NCRI, this piece will take a deeper look at the Mujahedin.
The Mujahedin were formed in 1965 by three activists who knew each other at Tehran University. All three had been active in demonstrations against the rule of the Shah and all three took part in various ways in the 1963 uprising against the Shah that ended in failure and a wave of repression. Through an ongoing series of discussions amongst members of the expanding underground organization, a form of revolutionary Islam was developed. Perhaps the best comparison one would find in Christian theology would be the liberation theology developed amongst Catholic priests working in the Latin American slums and poverty-stricken rural villages during the 1960s. This ideology stands in stark contrast to the reactionary philosophy expounded by Khomeini and Islamic notables like Osama bin Laden.
Over the years, various factions within the organization had greater pull than others. This is quite typical in revolutionary organizations. In the early 1970s, the three founders (along with most of the central committee) were executed by the Shah. The rest of the organization split into two factions-one group becoming, in essence, Marxist urban guerrilla and the other maintaining their version of revolutionary progressive Islam. What developed over time in terms of ideology was a program opposed to western imperialism, for democratic freedoms, equal rights for women, and the protection of national minorities within Iran. Three months before the Shah’s overthrow, the group’s leader, Rajavi, was freed (along with many other political prisoners) and took over the leadership of the Islamic branch. The Marxist wing went on to form a separate group, most of who were killed by the Khomeini regime’s security forces.
In terms of practice, the Mujahedin has usually operated as an underground organization and usually alone, although it agreed with and operated in spirit along with other leftist and progressive democratic forces. This practice was most prevalent during the final years of the struggle against the Shah and in 1981-1982. This was when many Iranian revolutionary groups banded together to oppose the clerical dictatorship being installed by Khomeini after those groups realized that Khomeini’s ideology was fundamentally reactionary, his economics corrupt and crudely capitalist, and his so-called revolutionary police supporters even more brutal than the Shah’s security forces-the SAVAK.
In addition to all this, Khomeini’s government was in secret negotiations with the United States. These negotiations involved trading arms for the hostages that students and others (some who were members of Khomeini’s organization) were holding at the U.S. Embassy compound in Tehran. The secret negotiations were taking place at the same time that Khomeini was verbally attacking the U.S. on an almost daily basis. One result of the negotiations was that the Mujahedin, who had been in conversation with various legislators and their representatives in Washington, were cut off from discussions with anyone in official Washington. (They eventually ended up on the State Department’s “terror list” in the 1990s.) According to the Tower Commission report about the Iran-Contra affair, this was one of the preconditions set by the Khomeini regime before these negotiations began. Also, according to Mujahedin documents, this was not the first time the clerics around Khomeini had negotiated with the U.S. Indeed, these documents claim that some of these clerics were in secret talks with the Carter administration during the fall and winter of 1978-1979, as the movement against the Shah held daily protests in cities across Iran. It was the U.S.’ hope that the clerics could prevent a popular leftist government from taking power once it became clear that the Shah’s days as the ruler of Iran were numbered.
This was not the only maneuvering the United States was doing: it was also trying to put together a government that would not have the taint of the Shah, but would continue his economic policies while liberalizing the political process. No matter what, the Carter administration wanted to prevent a truly anti-imperialist, leftwing revolution-a revolution that had a very real chance of succeeding. Like so many other times in the history of the Cold War, Washington was willing to allow any type of regime to rule in its client states, no matter how reactionary. Iran was no exception. Unfortunately for the Iranian people, the anti-leftism of the United States helped create the vacuum that allowed Khomeini to take power. In addition, his superficial anti-imperialism and manipulation of Islamic religious beliefs blindsided many Iranian progressives into initially supporting him, only to regret that support later. According to another Iranian source, it was the naiveté of the Iranian left which prevented them from seeing Khomeini’s ideology for what it was. In the optimism of the revolution, the left was all too quick to believe the ayatollah.
As the years continued, the hope among these factions that the revolution could be moved forward and Khomeini overthrown diminished as the regime consolidated its power. The NCRI lost some of its members and gained others when some members left to negotiate with the regime (this was against the coalition’s principles). In Iran, people settled into living with the theocratic regime as the reality of daily survival set in. The regime continued a campaign against the Mujahedin, whom it had always considered the greatest threat to its power, demanding that the government of France expel them from their headquarters in Paris. France complied and the group closed its offices there and moved to Iraq, where they began a series of military operations against targets in Iran. In addition, Iranian government hit squads murdered various members in attacks around the world as part of an attempt to further weaken the organization.
The Mujahedin were one of the most popular opposition organizations during the struggle against the Shah. After his exile in 1979 and the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini, they, like most of the groups in the united front that overthrew the Shah’s regime, supported the government, believing it to be a popular organization dedicated to the democratic progressive principles that the revolution was founded on. When it became apparent that Khomeini’s program was, in their words, “medieval in nature”, and counter-revolutionary, they were among the first to challenge him and his program. Since then, the Mujahedin and (later) the NCRI, have been among the dictatorship’s most consistent opponents. However, according to some Iranians here and abroad with whom I have spoken, they are not the most popular nor are they the regime’s biggest threat, although they are certainly the largest and best-organized grouping opposed to the Iranian government.
According to these sources, it is the grassroots reform movement that organized the popular protests of 2000 and continues to build a nonviolent movement of resistance in Iran that is the most popular of the resistance forces. These sources add that much of the Mujahedin’s popularity disintegrated when it moved to Iraq, especially after they attacked some Iranian military bases on the Iran-Iraq border at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Those attacks led to the execution of the Mujahedin prisoners remaining in Iran’s prisons and the further loss of public support for the organization. One assumes that a portion of that support has been regained in the years between. Indeed, its supporters point to popular demonstrations around the world and the continued enmity of the Tehran theocracy to prove their point. However a bitter taste remains for other Iranians when it comes to the Mujahedin because of their move to Iraq.
What About Reza Pahlavi?
Reza Pahlavi is the oldest son of the late Shah. He lives in relative luxury in Maryland with his family. He missed the final months of the revolution that overthrew his father because he was studying in the United States, after spending much of his youth in schools in Europe and the U.S. Although he claims to represent the forces of democracy in Iran, his website introduces him as the Heir to the Throne of Iran and extols the reign of his father. Although supporters of his whom I have spoken with claim that Pahlavi enjoys the support of fifty percent of the Iranian people, I have found no evidence to support this statistic. His basic program calls for a referendum to choose a government, equality for women, and a free press. The differences with the NCRI program began to appear when economics are discussed. Although both formations are committed to a free market, Pahlavi says nothing about guaranteeing basics like housing, education and health care to all. One can speculate that this silence is related to his background-a background that shows little recognition of how the majority of Iranians live. Another possible reason for his failure to highlight any economic issues that might be considered anti-capitalist is his desire to be the choice of Washington in its search for a titular leader to the “popular uprising” Washington hopes to design in its endeavor to replace the clerical regime.
Mr. Pahlavi would be perfect for this role. Already beholden to the United States for Washington’s support for his father and providing the younger Pahlavi with a place to organize against the regime, this Pahlavi is a true believer in the American way of life. Like the U.S., he sees the choice Iranians face as being between either the reactionary theocracy of the mullahs or as a capitalist client of Washington and the global capitalist cabal. He currently sees the latter as a good thing. In addition, he has no connection to the revolutionary movement of 1979-a revolution that continues to leave a bitter taste in Washington’s mouth. Other organizations (or individuals in those organizations) opposed to Tehran’s current dictatorship were either intimately involved in that struggle or had relatives who were and continue to mistrust the motives of the U.S., with good reason. Primary amongst those reasons is these groups’ desire to fulfill the revolution’s goal of an independent and democratic Iran. Perhaps this is another reason the Mujahedin remain on the U.S. and EU’s list of terror organizations (although not the UN’s, because the UN does not consider them to be terrorists)-a status that is currently being challenged by some Iranian exile groups both here in the U.S. and abroad.
Although there have been some minimal overtures to the Mujahedin from a few elements inside the Rumsfeld Defense Department, it appears that Mr. Pahlavi and his supporters are the preferred Iranians in the developing strategy to overthrow the theocracy in Tehran. Their politics are more in alignment with the politics of Washington and their organization seems shallow in terms of organization and support. Although they may not see it that way, Washington’s courtship of Pahlavi is a blessing for the NCRI, the Mujahedin and other opposition groups. After all, given the past role the U.S. government has played in Iran, any suggestion that it might be explicitly involved in the installation of their next government would instantly taint that government.
The scenario that would most likely unfold if the United States keeps its paws off the movement for a new Iran is that a network of organizations opposed to the theocrats in Tehran will coalesce around two or three simple demands that included the release of all political prisoners, restoration of complete freedom of the press, and an internationally sponsored and supervised referendum of all Iranians to determine the nature of a new government. Virtually every organization currently opposed to the clerical regime could agree to these goals and would hope to see them occur with little or no violence. However, the regime is unlikely to go quietly and the more threats that are issued by Washington and its G8 buddies, the more likely the potential for war grows. Besides increasing the likelihood of war, threats from Washington also serve to unite the masses of Iranians behind their government and provide Tehran with a justification for further repression of its opponents. Such repression could in turn, force a situation where the theocracy’s opponents align themselves with those in Washington who wish to invade-a scenario that is surely a step backwards in the Iranian people’s struggle towards the goals of the 1979 revolution. Of course, the likelihood does exist that the current campaign by the Pentagon against Tehran is just a ploy aimed at gaining better oil deals with the current regime. The NCRI’s supporters point out that every time a western government makes a deal with the regime in Iran, pressure just happens to be placed on the Mujahedin and their supporters.
If the Iranian people want to realize the stalled hopes of their revolution, the theocracy must go the way of the Shah and the true voices of democracy and independence must take front and center again. This includes the grassroots reform movements and organizations like the NCRI. At the same time, those of us who are not in Iran must do whatever we can to prevent an armed attack on the Iranian people by the U.S. and its allies. It stands to reason that supporting those forces truly interested in a progressive democracy in Iran is the best way to do this.
A good beginning to such a project is to join those Iranians around the world calling for these groups’ removal from the US and EU’s “terror list.”
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.
He can be reached at: email@example.com