The Sazeman-e Mojahedin-e Khalq, Persian for “Organization of People's Crusaders,” was established in 1965 by six former members of the Liberation Movement, a nationalistic, liberal and lay-religious party formed in the early 1960s by Mehdi Bazargan (Abrahamian 81).
The founders of the Mojahedin were all either university students or recent graduates who had become discontented with the Liberation Movement's moderate stance and interpretation of Islam as well as its strategy of peaceful struggle against the Shah of Iran. In order to dislodge the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, the Mojahedin devised a radical interpretation of Islam and adopted the strategy of armed struggle, claiming “armed struggle is a historical necessity” (85).
The Mojahedin ideology was devised through the merging of Shiite Islam and Marxism. The Mojahedin maintained that true Muslims should not concentrate on the ritualistic and ceremonial aspects of their religion but should seek to emulate the example set forth by Imam Hossein, a Shiite imam who sacrificed his life in the struggle against tyranny and injustice (Zahedi 129).
They declared that “it was the duty of all Muslims to continue [Imam Hossein's] struggle to create a classless society and destroy all forms of oppression . . . [including] imperialism, capitalism, despotism, and conservative clericalism” (Abrahamian 92). In essence, they embraced the Marxist-Leninist political economy, including the notions of class struggle and the exploitative nature of capitalism, while regarding Islam as the only ideology capable of inciting the masses to rebel against the monarchial order.
The Mojahedin made its presence known in August 1971 with its first series of military operations (Zahedi 130). They were intended to disrupt the extravagant celebrations of Iran's 2,500-year anniversary of uninterrupted monarchial rule (Abrahamian 128). The Mojahedin bombed the main electrical plant in Tehran, throwing all the festivities into darkness, and attempted to hijack an Iran Air plane (Zahedi 130).
The Shah responded by arresting and executing a large number of Mojahedin members, including the organization's entire original leadership (130). Obtaining financial assistance from the Liberation Movement, the Mojahedin responded with a series of violent attacks (Abrahamian 136). These included the robbing of six banks, the assassination of a U.S. military adviser as well as the chief of the Tehran police, and the bombings of several foreign-owned business establishments (Zahedi 130).
In 1975, the group became plagued with conflicting internal divisions when a portion of the new leadership, deducing that Islam was a “middle-class ideology” incapable of bringing “salvation” to the working class, sought to abandon the group's predominantly Islamic tendencies for a wholesale adoption of Maoism (Abrahamian 146). Ultimately, the organization split into two groups, with the Islamic wing retaining the name Mojahedin as the Marxist wing later adopting the name Paykar (Zahedi 130).
The two groups, now having split their social base, continued to oppose the regime actively. Following the 1975 split, the deeds of the Islamic Mojahedin included a bank robbery in Esfehan, a bombing of a Jewish emigration office in Tehran, and a strike at Aryamehr University (Zahedi 133). The Marxist Mojahedin bombed the offices of ATT, American Telephone and Telegraph, and assassinated two American military advisers (131). The government retaliated as the Marxist Mojahedin, from their formation in 1975 until the Islamic revolution of 1979, lost thirty of their members (131). In their eight years of armed struggle against the monarchy, the Islamic Mojahedin lost seventy-three members (131).
During the 1979 Islamic revolution, the Mojahedin-e Khalq, composed of remnants of the Islamic Mojahedin, came under the control of Masoud Rajavi (Zahedi 139). Rajavi, trained in Lebanon and Jordan in the art of guerilla warfare with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), was arrested in 1971 by the SAVAK, the Shah's internal security forces, and sentenced to life imprisonment (Benliot 99). A month before the Shah's monarchy collapsed, he was released in January 1979 during one of the Shah's amnesties and took full control of the Mojahedin (99).
Despite ideological differences with the clerics and other supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Mojahedin cooperated with the pro-Khomeini forces in order to topple the Shah. The Mojahedin assisted in battles against the Shah's army and SAVAK forces. According to eyewitnesses and Mojahed, the Mojahedin's official paper, the Mojahedin supported the November 4, 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and allegedly argued against an early release of the hostages (Benliot 100).
Khomeini, however, once in power made it clear that he was not interested in establishing a democracy or in sharing power with another group, least of all the Mojahedin. Khomeini refused to allow Masoud Rajavi to run in the January 1980 presidential elections after the Mojahedin boycotted a referendum on the Islamic republican constitution (Benliot 101). The Mojahedin soon began to openly denounce Khomeini's tyrannical rule as the authorities responded by closing the group's newspapers, which had been outselling the ruling mullah's newspapers by sixteen to one, banning its activities, and arresting several of its leaders (Abrahamian 1).
On June 19, 1981, the Mojahedin and Iranian President Abdol Hassan Bani-Sadr called upon the whole nation to take over the streets the next day arguing that the “dictatorship of the Mullahs was a hundred times worse than the detestable Pahlavi regime” (Abrahamian 207). On June 20, vast crowds emerged in cities throughout the country.
The demonstrations in the capital of Tehran drew as many as 500,000 determined participants (218). The regime reacted swiftly as Khomeini declared those speaking against the religious authorities must also be against the whole of Islam (210). In the vicinity of Tehran University alone, fifty were killed, 200 injured, and 1,000 arrested (219). Bani-Sadr was removed as president the next day (Benliot 101).
The executions carried out those couple of days would ignite a reign of terror unprecedented in modern Iranian history. Between June 23 and June 27, the regime executed another fifty demonstrators and leaders (Abrahamian 219). Following the crushing of the June uprisings, two substantial explosions killed approximately 100 members of the theocracy's ruling elite including Ayatollah Beheshti, the head of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), newly elected President Ali Rajai, and Prime Minister Javad Bahonar (Benliot 101). The bombings were blamed on the Mojahedin, but even today it is unclear who was responsible.
The Islamic Republic used these incidences to declare war on the Left in general, but the Mojahedin in particular. By December of 1981, the number of announced executions reached 2,500 (Abrahamian 220).
The Mojahedin retaliated by carrying out daily attacks, assassinating officials, ambushing security forces, bombing IRP offices and the homes of prominent clerics. On December 8, for instance, a 21-year-old woman killed herself and Ayatollah Dastghayb, the prayer leader of the city of Shiraz, by walking up to him after his Friday sermon and detonating a hand grenade hidden under her full chador (221).
Gradually the number of armed attacks and assassinations instigated by the Mojahedin fell from the peak of three per day in July 1981 to five a month by December 1982 (223). The regime's retaliation throughout this duration of time left many more Mojahedin dead. In all, the four years following June 21, 1981 claimed the lives of 12,250 political dissidents, three-quarters of whom were Mojahedin members or sympathizers (223).
In the midst of the turmoil, Masoud Rajavi and Abdol Hassan Bani-Sadr secretly fled Iran in July 1981, initially taking refuge in Paris, France (Benliot 101). While in exile, the two formed the National Council of Resistance (NCR), of which Rajavi became chairman, to provide a foundation for a broad-based opposition coalition (Abrahamian 243). Rajavi began to feel the organization's leadership was too far from Iran to influence events there and thus grew close to Iraq, then fighting a war with Iran (Benliot 101). His contacts with Iraq sparked a falling out with Bani-Sadr, who ultimately parted with Rajavi in April 1984 (101).
While in France, Masoud Rajavi married Maryam Azodanlu in early 1985 (Abrahamian 251). On January 27 of that year, Rajavi announced that he had appointed her to be his co-equal leader (251). The appointment was geared towards giving women equal say within the organization, thus launching a great ideological revolution within the Mojahedin, Iran, and the whole Muslim World. On October 22, 1993, the NCR selected Maryam Rajavi to be Iran's president if the group were to assume power in Tehran (Benliot 97).
In June 1986, France sought to improve relations with Iran and thus expelled the Mojahedin (Benliot 101). President Saddam Hussein of Iraq acknowledged the value of possessing an anti-Tehran Iranian military force on Iraqi soil to fight alongside with Iraqis against Iran and thus agreed to allow Rajavi and his Mojahedin into Iraq (O'balance 149). In June 1987, Rajavi organized some 7,000 armed militants and formed the National Liberation Army (NLA), a military arm of the Mojahedin (Abrahamian 260).
Base camps were set up along the Iran-Iraq border for military exercises as well as attacks inside Iran. NLA troops are reported to have assisted Iraq in the last series of Iraqi offensives that ended the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 (Benliot 102). The NLA has also been accused of assisting Iraqi suppression of the Kurdish uprising following the 1991 Gulf War, an allegation the Mojahedin strongly deny, as a Clinton Administration official claimed that “Saddam looked on the Mojahedin as more loyal than some of his own army units” (102).
The Nation Liberation Army currently operates from several bases in Iraq, about sixty miles from the border with Iran (Benliot 106). The press estimates the NLA's strength to range from 15,000 to 40,000 troops while the U.S. Department of State places it strength at several thousand fighters (106). A former member who has fled Iraq asserts that the group currently holds no more than 700 fighters (Zahedi 141).
Roughly a third of the NLA's combatants are women and the group's artillery consists of a few hundred tanks along with light weaponry and ammunition (Benliot 106). As the only Iranian opposition group that possesses an organized armed force capable of engaging in combat with the regime's forces, they are up against an Iranian military of about 600,000 (106). The Mojahedin's military campaigns against Iranian state targets, mainly targeting Revolutionary Guard border town outposts, have been ineffective in threatening the Islamic Republic (Zahedi 142).
The Mojahedin, however, remain the only organized Iranian opposition with a group of devout followers in Iran willing to risk their lives occasionally in order to assassinate prominent government figures. They demonstrated their global reach in April 1992 after they attacked Iranian missions in thirteen countries, including Iran's U.N. mission in New York, in retaliation for an Iranian air strike on one of its Iraqi bases (Benliot 105). Concluding a ten-year period of inactivity within Iran, the Mojahedin in 1998 assassinated longtime chief warden, Assadollah Ladjevardi (Zahedi 142).
Following a Mojahedin attack against Iran in August of 1988, the Islamic Republic set out to kill most of the Mojahedin political prisoners it had captured (142). Ladjevardi, as head of Tehran's notorious Evin prison, oversaw the executions of more than 1,000 Mojahedin prisoners (142). In 1998 the Mojahedin also bombed the headquarters of the Revolutionary Courts, resulting in the deaths of three people (142). Later that year, they attacked Revolutionary Guards stationed in Tehran as well (142). The Mojahedin went on to assassinate Lieutenant General Ali Sayyad Shirazi, the deputy chief of the General Command Headquarters of the armed forces of the Islamic Republic, as he was driving his son to school in 1999 (142).
The Mojahedin today lack the skill of coalition building as they continue to insist that by relying on the resources of their own organization and its small band of sympathizers, they will be able to dislodge the regime in Iran. They often refer to their critics as pro-Khomeini traitors. According to a former Mojahedin member, “[the Mojahedin] attack all groups and exiles who don't agree with them” (Zahedi 142).
Under the control of Masoud Rajavi, they are also viewed by many as undemocratic. One must question the democratic zeal of a group who has already chosen Maryam Rajavi as future President, disregarding Iranian popular will. But perhaps nothing has ruined the appeal and credibility of the Mojahedin as much as their collaboration with Iraq. It has also turned them into potential pawns as they must operate under the close supervision of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who might eventually decide to use them as a bargaining chip if his relations with Iran improve.
Despite such inadequacies, the Mojahedin have mastered the art of self-promotion and lobbying in Western democracies. One of their petitions against the “bloodthirsty medieval regime” in Iran gathered the signatures of some 1,700 politicians, labor organizers and university professors in Europe and the U.S. (Abrahamian 245).
In attempts to ensure their agenda would receive support from Washington, the Mojahedin have donated funds to the campaigns of various congressmen (Benliot 107). According to Kenneth R. Timmerman of the Middle East Data Project in Washington D.C., members of the Mojahedin have contributed more than $200,000 to congressional campaigns between 1993 and 1996 (Zahedi 143).
There are implications, on the other hand, that even American support of the Mojahedin is the fading. On October 31, 1994, the State Department branded the Mojahedin as terrorists, criticizing its attacks on Americans during the 1970s, its support for the takeover of the U.S. Embassy, and its current ties to the Iraqi Government (Zahedi 143).
The State Department went on to list the Mojahedin-e Khalq as a terrorist organization in October 1997, banning them from raising funds in the United States in addition to freezing their bank accounts (144). In response to the State Department's portrayal, the Mojahedin have attempted to prove themselves worthy of U.S. support by claiming they are committed to values compatible with the United States such as democracy, free market economics, protection of the rights of women and minorities, and peaceful relations with Iran's neighbors (Benliot 107).
The Mojahedin have gradually evolved over the years. At their height, especially in June 1981, they had truly been a mass movement, capable of calling thousands into the streets to demonstrate against the Islamic Republic. The Mojahedin had become by far the largest opposition force challenging the regime, as acknowledged by Ayatollah Khomeini himself in 1981 when he stated, “our real enemy is neither in Iraq, nor in Kurdistan, nor anywhere else but here in Tehran. It is the monafeqin,” meaning hypocrites, a reference to the Muslim-Marxist opposition group (Abrahamian 159).
The Islamic Republic fought back, unlike its predecessor in the form of the Pahlavi monarchy, possessing the means and the will to unleash a reign of mass terror. In the summer of 1982, the state openly declared that it would execute anyone if they dared to demonstrate against the government (Zahedi 140).
Ultimately, the failure of the 1981 uprising, the flight of the leadership into exile, the destruction of the rank and file within the organization, and the internal changes that took place in Paris combined to transform the Mojahedin into an insular faction. They have become increasingly isolated, with their numbers declining in both the Iranian and international communities, labeled by some as a cult praising the virtues of their “flawless” leaders and perceived by many as living in a world of their own.