It’s difficult to imagine a more indigestible aspect of the Middle Eastern maelstrom than one country’s armed opposition hosted by its neighbor. But there is: when the reverse situation simultaneously applies; that is, when the armed opposition to the first host government is succored and supported by the neighbor.
Such is the case between Iran and Iraq. As Iran faces a widely popular revolution stimulated by its restive youth, and Iraq struggles to regain its civil footing, the situation threatens to further destabilize two already tottering societies.
Iran’s nurturing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim has been anything but a one-way terror transaction. For the past 17 years, the most powerful opposition group to the mullahs, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, has been parked across the border in eastern Iraq.
The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime removed the protected position of the Mujahedeen (a different set of guerrillas from the mostly Arab mujahedeen in Afghanistan) and has correspondingly ushered in new variables in the Iranian power struggle. What follows promises to be a bitter contest among the entrenched clerics of the Islamic Republic, the armed Mujahedeen opposition and the overwhelming majority of Iranians, led by their youth and encouraged by the United States.
America must weigh new strategic options vis-à-vis Iran, concerning its commitment to prevent establishment of an Islamist state in Iraq as well as reform or replacement of Tehran’s terror-prone, autocratic ayatollahs. Some argue that America’s democratic objectives would be furthered by allowing an Iranian opposition led by Massoud Rajavi, head of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (literally, “The People’s Struggle”), to play a role similar to the exiled Iraqi opposition, brought together under the umbrella of the “Iraqi National Congress.” Whereas the INC had some claim to diversified legitimacy, the Mujahedeen’s purported allied groups are mostly made up of paper organizations established by Massoud Rajavi, with titles but few players.
At the start of the invasion of Iraq, American forces had warned Mujahedeen-e-Khalq to disarm or be attacked. However, the ultimatum was withdrawn postwar, with announcement of a ceasefire that included the members of the group giving up their weapons, mostly supplied by Saddam Hussein, as well as their checkpoints (read, shakedown stations), in return for the Coalition allowing the Mujahedeen to remain temporarily in Iraq. The rebel group insisted it had reached “agreement, and not surrender” with the American forces, falsely implying an understanding of mutual interests between the two parties.
Massoud Rajavi’s next objective: to persuade the U.S. State Department and the European Union to remove the undoubtedly terror-based group’s name from their lists of terrorist organizations, a designation it richly deserves.
Founded in 1965 as a Marxist doctrinaire group with a Shiite religious veneer to gain support, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq participated in the 1979 overthrow of the shah of Iran. The group was subsequently expelled from the country, following bloody confrontations with the new government’s forces that left thousands of Mujahedeen killed. The organization continued to confront the mullahs in Tehran, carrying out armed attacks and assassinations inside Iran at the height of Saddam’s eight-year war with Iran, from bases in neighboring Iraq. These increased after the first election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997, but have reduced greatly in recent months.
Rajavi formed the Iranian Liberation Popular Army, which numbered perhaps 5-8,000 (vs. the publicly claimed 15,000) fighters, perhaps a third of them women. Most of its weaponry, including Soviet-made M-8 helicopters, tanks and mortar launchers, was handed over by the Iraqi army, which had seized it from Iranian forces during the 1980-88 war.
The government in Tehran has asked countries to hand over Mujahedeen-e-Khalq leaders for trial, promising to grant non-leadership cadres amnesty. Tehran has recently claimed the surrender of hundreds of Mujahedeen, but the group’s spokesman has denied it.
Variously reported to be in France, Russia, or Jordan, Massoud Rajavi’s precise whereabouts are kept purposely unclear, evidently owing to fears of Iraqi hostility towards him and his organization. Iraqis have long accused the Mujahedeen of participating with Saddam’s Republican Guard in suppressing the Shia and Kurd uprisings in 1991, which Rajavi has denied but is undoubtedly accurate.
In an unusual move designed to broaden its weak base of support, one of several front groups controlled by Rajavi, the so-called National Council of Resistance in Iran designated his wife Maryam, president-elect of Iran in 1993. The resolution called for the longtime anti-shah and anti-mullah activist to be installed immediately following the overthrow of the current regime. (Rajavi had ordered Maryam’s first husband, Mehdi Abrishamchi, to divorce her in 1987, to make way for what would be Massoud’s third marriage “for the sake of the cultural revolution.” Forced divorces, forced removal of children from their families, and old-fashioned brain washing are hallmarks of Rajavi’s would be Stalinist operation.)
Recently arrested with 150 followers in Paris, Tehran contacts report Maryam Rajavi has as little domestic popular backing as the charismatic, corrupted Massoud. (Paradoxically, the French police action against Mujahedeen-e-Khalq had the double effect of mollifying the mullahs in Tehran and the Bush administration. This action coincided with a general move by Europe to re-align more closely with U.S. policy, very much unlike the Quai d’Orsay’s sharply worded admonition to Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to court the Palestinians’ corrupted president, Yasser Arafat, and not Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.)
Because of its cooperation with Iraq during the 1980-88 war and ongoing support for Saddam Hussein’s hated regime — including the murder of thousands of fellow Shiite rebels — the entire Mujahedeen-e-Khalq movement has minimal strength in Iran. The Mujahedeen are particularly weak with dissident 20- and 30-somethings across the land, critical to any group’s success with 60 percent of Iranians under the age of 25.
Nevertheless, in the Byzantine bypaths of Middle Eastern politics, Massoud, Maryam, and their Mujahedeen mates continue to fight twin battles: overthrow the regime in Tehran and gain recognition of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq as legitimate leaders of the opposition. To win either contest, they must first convince their countrymen that their newly professed belief in democracy is genuine. And that appears very unlikely, indeed.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. This was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.