A Review of "Enemies of the Ayatollahs"


Mohammad Mohaddessin’s recent work, Enemies of the Ayatollahs, published by Zed Books, is a detailed and informative history of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), the largest and oldest resistance organization in Iran. As the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI)-a coalition of forces opposed to the theocracy in Iran that was founded by the PMOI and other like-minded groups and individuals-his insight is that of an insider. Judging from the text’s point-of-view, it seems that the audience Mr. Mohaddessin is hoping to reach (other than his fellow Iranians) is that audience that resides in the political center in Europe and the United States. This approach limits the book’s appeal to those further to the left of that audience, but remains a valuable read for those in this part of the political spectrum who wish to achieve a greater understanding of the resistance to Tehran’s fundamentalist leadership. Indeed, if there were one complaint to be made about Mohaddessin’s approach, it would be that PMOI’s politics are not discussed in enough detail here. The details of its history, however, are quite complete.

For those who think that a blind eye should be turned to the excesses of the regime in Iran because of its opposition to US imperial ambitions, this book proves that a humane alternative to both Tehran and Washington exists. Unlike the leadership in Washington, the PMOI not only opposes the clerical tyrants in Tehran without compromise, it also opposed the tyranny of the Shah. Consequently, its claim to carry the mantle of the genuinely democratic and revolutionary spirit of the Iranian people is hard to dispute. Not only has it carried this mantle long after many of its allies either disappeared in the confusion after the Shah’s departure or made peace with the theocrats, its members have paid for it in blood and prison time. Indeed, part of the text details some of the attacks on the group, describing torture and death.

Perhaps the most important theme in Enemies of the Ayatollah, at least in terms of its Western audience, is the presentation of an alternative vision of Islam. This vision is a cornerstone of the PMOI’s opposition to the Tehran regime and is based on the premise that Islam “not only fully compatible with democracy, human rights and the values of modern-day civilization, but that it is an inherently tolerant and democratic religion.” Furthermore, it is a dynamic and progressive religion that furthers, not impedes, tolerance. Mohaddessin explains that the Koran is a book that contains unalterable precepts and those that change with history, just like the Bible. The Islamic fundamentalists do not see this as being the case, just like fundamentalists in Christianity, Judaism and other religions, and try to present their literal interpretation as the only possible interpretation. The founders and members of the PMOI, on the other hand, see the Koran in a different light, subject to a reinterpretation that remains true to the essence of the words, yet takes into account the differences between today and the time when Mohammed wrote it down. This approach is no different than that of liberal Christian and Jewish denominations.

This text is very instructive as regards the current situation in Iraq and its near future. While rumors fly regarding the amount of influence the Tehran government has on various Shia clerics in Iraq, the author points out that the PMOI’s vision of a revolutionary and tolerant Islam could have an equal influence in the eventual government of Iraq. He explains in detail the relationship between the deposed government of Saddam Hussein and the PMOI, as well as the relationship between the PMOI and the Iraqi people. In short, the PMOI operated completely independent of Hussein and was supported by the Iraqis who interacted with the group. This relationship enabled the PMOI to ride out the various disinformation campaigns conducted by Iran’s intelligence agencies that were designed to isolate the PMOI in Iraq. Furthermore, states Mohaddessin, this relationship and the PMOI model of a revolutionary and tolerant Islam struck a resonant chord with many Iraqis who find the fundamentalist strains in both Sunni and Shia Islam repellent. This holds especially true for Iraqi women, given PMOI’s clear statements supporting women’s rights and the fact that its membership is around fifty percent female, with many leadership positions held by women.

One disturbing aspect of Mossaddessin’s text is his referral to the support that the NCRI and PMOI have received from various members of the US government. Especially disturbing is his quoting of Daniel Pipes, the neoconservative apologist for the worst of Israel’s oppressive tactics in Palestine. One would think that he would see this support for what it truly is: an attempt to manipulate these organizations into doing Washington’s dirty work in replacing the theocratic regime in Iran. Conversations I have had with grassroots supporters of the PMOI, however, make it clear that the majority of its members understand that their revolutionary vision of Islam is no more palatable to US goals for the region than that of the fundamentalists. If they didn’t see that before the clampdowns on the organization by the EU and US in the late summer and fall of 2003, they certainly must understand it now. In a related note, one has to wander what the PMOI and its supporters think of US “support” now, after US forces bombed their bases, “consolidated” their weapons, and shut down their offices in the United States.

Overall, Enemies of the Ayatollah is a very important book for people of all political persuasions who want to understand today’s world. It is a well-crafted religious, political and social history that gives the reader the rest of the story about one of the twentieth century’s most important revolutions-the 1979 overthrow of the Shah. It also reminds us that that revolution is far from over.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is being republished by Verso.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu


Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com