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Reality Check: Understanding the Mujahedin-e Khalq

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Aside from the clearly false allegations against the MEK, which have been addressed in previous posts, some of the MEK's activities inside Iran prior to 2001 have been cited by the US Department of State and others as providing ostensible justification for the terrorist label against the organization. The MEK's activities have been painted with an unjustified brush of terrorism, thereby conflating instances of otherwise legitimate resistance against a tyrannical system with horrid acts of blind terrorism. Readers are welcomed to comment or ask questions if they so wish.

MEK: Resistance Against Tyranny

"The Islam we profess does not condone bloodshed. We have never sought, nor do we welcome confrontation and violence... We do not fear election results, whatever they may be... If Khomeini had allowed half or even a quarter of the freedoms presently enjoyed in France, we would have certainly achieved a democratic victory." ~ Massoud Rajavi

Immediately after the anti-monarchic revolution in 1979, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) began a nationwide political campaign to promote its belief in the absolute need to respect hard won freedoms and democratic rights. This principled position starkly contrasted with that of the organization's main rival, the clerical regime's founder, Khomeini, who sought to institutionalize his theocratic idea of absolute clerical rule (velayat-e faqih) after hijacking the leadership of the revolution.

The fundamental differences and contrasts between the MEK and Khomeini predated the revolution. In political terms, the MEK had called for the establishment of secular democratic rule while Khomeini had announced his intentions to form an "Islamic" government antagonistic to the modern political notions of popular elections, secularism and the rule of law. Ideologically, while Khomeini's lectures and texts were characterized by a profoundly backward fundamentalist streak, the MEK was committed to a tolerant and modern interpretation of Islam, with a heavy emphasis on freedom.

In a speech in 1980 on Tehran University campus, the MEK's historical leader, Massoud Rajavi, said, "No progress and mobilization for the revolution would be conceivable without guaranteeing freedom for all parties, opinions and writings. If by freedom we specifically have in mind free and just relationships domestically, independence speaks to the same meaning in our foreign and international relations. We do not accept anything less in the name of Islam."[1]

On the other hand, Khomeini unambiguously and consistently rejected all talk of freedoms and fundamental human rights, instead justifying his newly established dictatorship under the cloak of Islam: "Even if they give all freedoms and complete independence to us, but take away the Quran, we would still reject it."[2] On May 23, 1978, he also said, "Freedom may be provided to you, and so may independence ... But did the nation want freedom without the Quran? ... Did it sacrifice its blood for freedom or for God? It wanted Islam."[3]

For the MEK, however, the antimonarchic revolution and sacrifices made by the Iranian people had only one objective: democracy. US historian, and a present-day detractor of the MEK, Ervand Abrahamian, wrote in this respect, "In criticizing the regime's political record, the Mujahedin moved the issue of democracy to center stage. They argued that the regime had broken all the democratic promises made during the revolution; that an attack on any group was an attack on all groups; that the issue of democracy was of 'fundamental importance...'"[4]

In order to fully consolidate his regime's undemocratic rule and his own position as the "Supreme Leader" in the months after the 1979 revolution, Khomeini gradually eliminated all semblances of peaceful political activity, ordering his extremist and fundamentalist followers (known as "hezbollahis") to attack and disrupt rallies by opposition groups, ranging from liberals to leftists. Thousands were arrested and imprisoned between 1979 and 1981.[5] While, in response, several political groups chose to engage in a premature armed resistance against the Khomeini regime, the MEK, as Iran's largest political opposition at the time, did its utmost to prevent the window for peaceful political activity from closing.

More than a quarter century ago, even the Department of State acknowledged these facts. A 1984 unclassified report on the MEK submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives by the Department of State, said in part: "When Khomeini took power, the Mujahedin called for continued revolution, but said they would work for change within the legal framework of the new regime [...] The Mujahedin unsuccessfully sought a freely elected constituent assembly to draft a constitution. [...] The Mujahedin similarly made an attempt at political participation when Mujahedin leader Masud [Massoud] Rajavi ran for the presidency in January 1980. Rajavi was forced to withdraw when Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that only candidates who had supported the constitution in the December referendum - which the Mujahedin had boycotted - were eligible."[6]

The report went on to say, "Rajavi's withdrawal statement emphasized the group's efforts to conform to election regulations and reiterated the Mujahedin's intention to advance its political aims within the new legal system. Between the two election rounds, the Mujahedin announced that its members would disarm to prove that they were not initiating the clashes with the fundamentalists that had become endemic during the campaign. The fundamentalists responded by once again banning Mujahedin representatives from the university campuses. [...] In the early summer of 1980 the Mujahedin staged several rallies in Tehran drawing up to 150,000 people to hear Rajavi promise to carry on the opposition to fundamentalist domination. On June 25 Khomeini responded by a major statement against the Mujahedin, claiming their activities would derail the revolution and bring back 'US dominance.'"[7]

An Iran expert, Shaul Bakhash, recounts some of the suppressive measures against the MEK as such: "In February 1980, 60,000 copies of Mojahed [the MEK's weekly] were seized and burned. In Mashad, Shiraz, Qa'emshahr, Sari, and dozens of small towns, club wielders attacked and looted Mojahedin headquarters, student societies, and meetings. ... Some 700 were injured in the attack on the Mojahedin headquarters at Qa'emshahr in April, 400 in Mashad. Ten members of the organization lost their lives in clashes between February and June 1980."[8]

Even after Khomeini's public threats, Bakhash writes, "The Mojahedin responded by quietly closing all their branch offices."[9] Indeed, the MEK refrained from any confrontation and "participated eagerly in the parliamentary elections."[10]

Similarly, Abrahamian notes that Khomeini's attacks against the MEK "caused three deaths and over 1000 casualties. The attack on the Tehran rally, which drew 200,000 participants, left twenty-three Mojahedin sympathizers seriously injured."[11]

In that rally held on June 12, 1980, in Tehran's Amjadieh soccer stadium, Rajavi had exhorted the crowd to "defend freedoms... freedom of speech, association and gatherings."[12] Two weeks later, Khomeini drew the line. "Our enemy," he said, "is neither in the United States, nor the Soviet Union, nor Kurdistan, but right here, under our nose, in Tehran."[13]

"By early June 1981, the prisons - especially in Tehran, the central cities, and the Caspian towns - contained more than 1,180 Mojaheds."[14]. Furthermore, "the hezbollahis ... began a reign of terror. They shot news stand owners selling Mojahedin publications; beat up suspected sympathizers; bombed homes (including that of the Rezai family); broke into the offices of the Muslim Student Association; disrupted conferences, especially the Congress of Trade Unions; and physically attacked meetings."[15] Abrahamian adds that "by 20 June 1981" these attacks "had left seventy-one mojaheds dead."[16].

Despite tolerating these incredible hardships, which had no justification whatsoever, the MEK did not retaliate for two and a half grueling years. As such, the MEK continued to gain the support of a vast majority of Iranians nationwide, which Khomeini could in no way tolerate. Former President and head of the State Exigency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, acknowledged that the MEK had more than half-a-million full-time and part-time activists around the country.[17] Many experts believed that they would have finished first if free elections were to be held.

The MEK refrained from violent retaliation against Khomeini and his forces because it believed that to prolong the political process is in the interest of the organization and the Iranian people, while violence would serve the interests of Khomeini. It sought to use every tangible and intangible legal and peaceful option, no matter how negligible or insignificant, to reform Khomeini's policies and guarantee the desired freedoms and human rights for the Iranian people without resorting to confrontation.

In the context of the post-revolutionary developments, June 20, 1981 was a historic showdown. The MEK secretly organized a peaceful demonstration that caught the regime completely off guard. Throngs began to march from different parts of Tehran, and converged on Enghelab (Revolution) Street. The crowd was half-a-million strong when it reached Ferdowsi Square in the center of Tehran. They continued to march toward the Majlis (Parliament), and if allowed to continue, the crowd would have swelled to one million and Khomeini would have lost control. So, he personally ordered the Revolutionary Guards to open fire. Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested.[18]

In this way, Khomeini closed the final chapter on peaceful activities, unleashing a bloody reign of terror, in which tens of thousands were slaughtered and tens of thousands more imprisoned and tortured.[19] The MEK, and indeed every patriotic Iranian, was left with only two choices: either surrender to Khomeini's tyrannical rule, thereby betraying commitments to fundamental freedoms and human rights, or wage a legitimate resistance against Khomeini's tyranny. Only after exhausting all possible peaceful options, the MEK chose the latter.

The MEK's resistance against the onslaught by the reactionary clerics was an understandable defensive posture. Simply stated, were it not for the MEK's resistance against the mullahs, the millions of Iranians who fled the mullahs' reign of terror could not have found the opportunity to do so. Some 80 percent of four million Iranian refugees left Iran from 1981 to 1984.

Importantly, there has not been a single credible and independently verifiable finding that the MEK ever targeted any civilians or non-combatants. This is why the Iranian mullahs have been at pains to fabricate plausible cases against the MEK. The US State Department's 1997 assertion, therefore, that the MEK is essentially a violent organization belies obvious historical facts and its own public records and acknowledgments to the US Congress.

The MEK does not believe in violence as a matter of philosophy. More than 26 years ago, Massoud Rajavi said the following on the subject: "The Islam we profess does not condone bloodshed. We have never sought, nor do we welcome confrontation and violence. To explain, allow me to send a message to Khomeini through you... My message is this: If Khomeini is prepared to hold truly free elections, I will return to my homeland immediately. The Mujahedin will lay down their arms to participate in such elections. We do not fear election results, whatever they may be... If Khomeini had allowed half or even a quarter of the freedoms presently enjoyed in France, we would have certainly achieved a democratic victory."[20]

But, Khomeini clearly rejected any ideas calling for democracy and freedoms. "If instead of him," Khomeini once said referring to the deposed Shah, "a regime were to be established like those in Europe or France, which have no relation to Islam, a free government which is also independent and guarantees freedoms, we have never wanted and will never condone such a thing because its freedoms are not in tune with Islam."[21]

To be sure, there is nothing illegitimate about using all options to resist against tyranny when all avenues for peaceful (legal) political activity are, in practice, eliminated. This is supported by the collective historical knowledge of cases where nations were in fact built or liberated by the force of arms. America's War of Independence was violent in nature. Charles de Gaulle and the French partisans used every means available to them to defeat the Nazi occupation of France. Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and his colleagues tried to bring down the Third Reich by eliminating Hitler and his generals, for which they were honored posthumously years later.[22] In Norway, a museum pays tribute those who fought and died in the resistance against the puppet Vidkun Quisling government. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) resorted to bombings, sabotage and armed attacks against the white minority during the fight against Apartheid. Interestingly, in a sign of how out of synch the US terrorist list is with political realities, Mandela remained on the US terror list 15 years after receiving the Novel Peace Prize.[23]

It is an indisputable fact that every citizen has the undeniable right to the basic freedoms recognized by the international community. In view of that, limits placed on attempts to endeavor for liberty and to resist dictatorship are morally and legally inexcusable. There can be no double standards. America's Founding Fathers, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and distinguished Western statesmen have underscored this fact:

  1. Thomas Jefferson said in his "Declaration on Taking up Arms" in 1775, "Against violence actually offered, in defense of that freedom which is our birthright, we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities have ceased on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed have been removed, and not before."[24]
  2. In his inaugural address in 1861, the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln said, "This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it."[25]
  3. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right "to have recourse as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, and take up arms."[26]
  4. The International Committee of the Red Cross's commentary on Article 3 of the First Geneva Convention refers to discussions at the Diplomatic Conference of Geneva to ratify the Conventions in 1949: "It sometimes happens in a civil war that those who are regarded as rebels are in actual fact patriots struggling for the independence and dignity of their country... It was not possible to talk of 'terrorism', 'anarchy', or 'disorders' in the case of rebels who complied with humanitarian principles."[27]
  5. The late U.S. President John F. Kennedy said: "Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable."[28]
  6. The Catholic Church, which in general opposes the use of violence, has also recognized this right. A document "Christian Liberty and Liberation," made public by the Vatican in 1986, states: "Armed struggle is the last resort to end blatant and prolonged oppression which has seriously violated the fundamental rights of individuals and has dangerously damaged the general interest of a country."[29]
  7. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, President Obama talked about the concept of a "juts war," suggesting that it was justified "if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense...," adding, "... make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."[30]

Therefore, armed resistance against the clerical regime, and especially its specific application by the MEK (carried out prior to 2001), was completely justifiable and legitimate, at least according to the universally-established international democratic norms and legal criteria.

Aside from all this, although the end does not always justify the means, in this particular case, too much focus and emphasis on the methods of resistance obscures the noble end and takes the spotlight off the regime's inhumane crimes. The main issue and the reason for the MEK's activities revolve around democracy and popular sovereignty in their home country since day one. That is why, even prior to voluntarily handing over all its weapons in 2003 to Coalition Forces in Iraq,[31] and in fact since the early 1980s, the MEK has repeatedly declared its readiness to take park in a free and fair election under the auspices of the United Nations and fully accept the results of a genuinely democratic plebiscite in Iran.[32]

This explains why before 2001, when the MEK ceased its military actions in Iran, a majority in the US House of Representatives and 32 Senators as well as majorities in the UK House of Commons and in several European parliaments, including Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and Norway, voiced support for the MEK as a "legitimate opposition [movement]," that is "working to establish a democratic and pluralistic system in the country,"[33].

Endnotes
[1] Massoud Rajavi, "Future of the Revolution," speech in Tehran University, January 10, 1980, text published in Mojahed, Vol. 2, no. 19. January 15, 1980.
[2] Sahifey-e Noor [Essays of Light], (A compilation of Khomeini's lectures, speeches and letters), a publication of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, Tehran: 1983, Vol. 7, p. 486.
[3] Ibid., p. 461.
[4] Ervand Abrahamian, Radical Islam: The Iranian Mujahedeen, (New Haven: Yale University, Press, 1989), p. 215.
[5] Ibid., pp. 211-213; 216-217. See also Eric Rouleau, "A report from Tehran", Le Monde, March 29 and June 14, 1980.
[6] The unclassified background report on the MEK accompanied a letter by Tapely Bennet, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, to Representative Lee H. Hamilton, December 14, 1984.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 123.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Abrahamian, op. cit., pp. 195-196.
[12] Mojahed, MEK's official organ, no. 87, June 14, 1980.
[13] Khomeini's speech, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), June 25, 1980.
[14] Abrahamian, op. cit., p. 211.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] See also, Ali Agha Mohammadi, then-Khamenei's advisor on Iraq: "In the early years of the revolution, the Mojahedin had organized about 500,000 activists across the country," State-controlled daily, Asr-e Azadegan, January 4, 2000.
[18] Abrahamian, op. cit., pp. 218-219. Abrahamian described June 20, thus:"On 20 June, vast crowds appeared in many cities, especially in Tehran, Tabriz, Rasht, Amol, Qiyamshahr, Gorgan, Babolsar, Zanjan, Karaj, Arak, Isfahan, Birjand, Ahwaz and Kerman. The Tehran demonstration, drew as many as 500,000 determined participants. Warnings against demonstrations were constantly broadcast over the radio-television network. Government supporters advised the public to stay at home: for example, Nabavi's Organization of the Mojaheds of the Islamic Revolution20 beseeched the youth of Iran not to waste their lives for the sake of "liberalism and capitalism." Prominent clerics declared that demonstrators, irrespective of their age, would be treated as "enemies of God" and as such would be executed on the spot. Hezbollahis were armed and trucked in to block off the major streets. Pasdars were ordered to shoot. Fifty were killed, 200 injured, and 1,000 arrested in the vicinity of Tehran University alone. This surpassed most of the street clashes of the Islamic Revolution. The warden of Evin Prison announced with much fanfare that firing squads had executed twenty-three demonstrators, including a number of teenage girls. The reign of terror had begun."[18]
[19] Ibid.
[20] Massoud Rajavi, interview in L'Unité, Paris, January 1, 1984.
[21] Sahifey-e Noor, op. cit., v. 8, p. 42.
[22] "Hitler plot 'heroes' commemorated", BBC News, July 20, 2004. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3908431.stm
[23] Bernd Debusmann, "America, Terrorists and Nelson Mandela," Reuters, January 15, 2010. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2010/01/15/america-terrorists-and-nelson-mandela
[24] Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Taking Up Arms: Resolutions of The Second Continental Congress, July 24, 1775, Available at: http://www.constitution.org/bcp/takuparm.htm. See also, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, collected and edited by Paul L. Ford (New York), 1892-1899, Vol. I, p. 475.
[25] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1861. Available at: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/inaug/lincoln1.htm
[26] Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the General Assembly, December 10, 1948.
[27] International Humanitarian Law - Treaties & Documents, Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949, [p.32] 2, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Available at: http://www.icrc.org/IHL.NSF/1a13044f3bbb5b8ec12563fb0066f226/466097d7a301f8c4c12563cd00424e2b!OpenDocument
[28] Historical Quotes. Available at: http://www.muckraker-report.org/id88.html
[29] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, L'Osservatore Romano, The Vatican, April 5, 1986.
[30] Remarks by President Obama at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo City Hall, White House Press Release, December 10, 2009. Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-acceptance-nobel-peace-prize
[31] "Update on the Consolidation of the Mujahedin-E Khalq (MEK)," News Release, Headquarters United States Central Command, May 17, 2003. Available at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iraq/2003/05/iraq-030517-centcom03.htm
[32] In a statement addressed to 2,000 members of parliaments around the world who had signed a joint declaration in support of the MEK in November 1997, Massoud Rajavi stressed: "This Resistance has repeatedly declared its readiness to take part in free and fair presidential elections under the auspices of the United Nations..." Lion and Sun, a publication of the Iranian Resistance, vol. 3, July 1998, p. 34.
[33] The House Magazine, The Parliamentary Weekly, No. 1031, Vol. 28, March 31, 2003.