Background Briefing

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II. Background

The MKO was founded in September 1965 by three graduates of Tehran University: Mohammad Hanifnezhad, Saeed Mohsen and Asghar Badizadegan.14 The three shared a history of political activism within the religious-nationalist movement and its affiliated Islamic Students Associations. They believed that opposition forces against the Pahlavi government lacked a cohesive ideology and required revolutionary leadership. They reasoned that peaceful resistance against the government was fruitless, and that only a revolutionary armed struggle could dislodge the monarchy.

The organization’s founding trio focused their initial thrust on creating a revolutionary ideology based on their interpretation of Islam that could fuel an armed struggle by persuading masses of people to rise up against the government. This ideology relied heavily on an interpretation of Islam as a revolutionary message compatible with modern revolutionary ideologies, particularly Marxism.

Initially, the founding members recruited some twenty like-minded friends to form a discussion group. Their first meeting, on September 6, 1965, in Tehran, is considered the genesis of the MKO. The group’s discussions centered on intense study of religion, history and revolutionary theory. In addition to religious texts, the group also studied Marxist theory at length. For its first three years, the group held regular secret meetings. By 1968, these discussions led to the creation of a Central Committee “to work out a revolutionary strategy” and an Ideological Team “to provide the group with its own theoretical handbooks.” 15

During its first five years, the MKO did not carry out any operations against the government. It primarily focused on developing a revolutionary ideology and training its members in urban guerilla warfare. In 1970, thirteen MKO members traveled to Jordan and Lebanon and received military training inside Palestinian Liberation Organization camps. They returned to Iran after a few months.

Prior to carrying out any armed activities, the group planned to focus on developing its ideology and training its new recruits.  However, this strategy was thwarted by the emergence of a competing Marxist guerilla group, the Fadaian Khalq Organization. On February 8, 1971, members of the Fadaian launched their first operation by attacking a police station in the village of Siahkal in the northern province of Gilan. This incident marked the emergence of armed struggle against the shah’s government.

The MKO’s leadership, surprised by the Siahkal incident, decided to expedite their plans for armed operations by organizing a spectacular attack in Tehran. At this time, the government was in the midst of promoting a large-scale celebration marking 2500 years of monarchy in Iran. The MKO planned a series of bombings that would target Tehran’s electric power grids prior to the opening eve ceremonies.

During their efforts to acquire explosives, the MKO were infiltrated by the security forces who tracked their activities. On August 23, 1971, just days before the scheduled onset of their first operation, thirty-five members of the MKO were arrested by the authorities. Within the next few months, half of MKO’s member were arrested and put on trial by a military tribunal. “They were all accused of possessing arms, planning to overthrow the ‘constitutional monarchy,’ and studying such subversive authors as Marx, Mao, and Che Guevara.”16

The three founding members of the MKO, along with six others from the group’s Central Committee, were sentenced to death and executed on May 25, 1972. Only two members of the Central Committee, Masoud Rajavi and Bahman Bazargani, escaped firing squads when their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

The 1971-72 waves of arrests, executions and imprisonments dealt a severe blow to the MKO, but its remaining members who escaped detection by the security forces continued to recruit new members as well as carrying out a number of armed operations. In 1975, intense ideological differences among the MKO members led to the departure of a sizable number of members, who argued that religious thought was incompatible with revolutionary struggle. This offshoot of the MKO was briefly known as the Marxist Mojahedin and was later renamed Peykar Organization. The MKO members who stayed loyal to the group’s original ideology referred to this event as an internal coup.

On the eve of the 1979 Iranian revolution, the imprisoned MKO members were released along with other political prisoners. The group quickly turned its attention to building a nation-wide organization. Masoud Rajavi emerged as the top MKO leader. The group was particularly successful in gaining the sympathies of middle class educated youth. It established offices throughout Iran and built a network of militia that were highly active inside university campuses and high schools.

While supporting the leadership of Khomeini in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, the MKO leaders never managed to gain his trust, and as a result were excluded from power-sharing arrangements in the post-revolutionary government. An intense rivalry developed between the MKO and the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), formed by Khomeini’s disciples.

The first president of the republic, Abol-Hasan Banisadr, elected in 1980, also faced serious opposition from the IRP. In the first months of 1981, differences among competing political factions reached a critical juncture. President Banisadr came under intense political pressure from the IRP, which controlled the parliament and most branches of the government and security forces. The MKO and Banisadr formed an alliance to try and thwart the IRP’s drive to consolidate its control over every part of the state.

The MKO started its armed conflict against the Iranian government on June 20, 1981. Thousands of its members inside Iran were imprisoned, tortured and executed during the 1980s.17 In 1988, the Iranian government summarily executed thousands of political prisoners, many of them MKO members.18

On June 19, 1981, Banisadr and Rajavi called for massive demonstrations nationwide. They hoped to duplicate the pattern of the anti-shah revolution by instigating a popular uprising. On June 20, 1981, large-scale street demonstrations were held in Tehran and many major cities. However the authorities used Revolutionary Guards to suppress the uprising, killing hundreds of demonstrators in street clashes.

In the aftermath of the June 20 uprising, the MKO was forced underground and both Banisadr and Rajavi went into hiding. A few weeks later, on July 29, 1981, Banisadr and Rajavi fled Iran and went into exile in Paris. From this point on, the MKO moved its headquarters to Paris and continued to fight the Iranian government by carrying out assassinations and bombings targeting government officials and the IRP leadership.19

In Paris, Rajavi and Banisadr consolidated their alliance by declaring the establishment of the National Council of Resistance (NCR) as a coalition of opposition forces, advertising itself as “the democratic alternative” to Iran’s government. The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and a number of prominent intellectuals and individuals also joined the NCR.

However, the NCR’s role as a broad coalition was diminished within a year of its founding. Banisadr’s disagreements with Rajavi led to his departure in April 1984.20 The KDPI followed suit and withdrew in 1985.21 According to Masoud Banisadr, who served as the NCR’s chief representative in Europe and the United States until 1996, the NCR has since functioned primarily as the political wing of the MKO, serving the MKO’s lobbying efforts in Europe and North America:

It was obvious to everyone but ourselves that politically the Mojahedin had failed to create the broad coalition Rajavi had promised….We repeated to each other that the NCR was Rajavi’s means of staying on the political scene in Europe and America and nothing more. Its main use was to deceive the Americans and Europeans against thinking of us as the same Mojahedin responsible for assassinating American citizens in Iran…22

The MKO’s leadership was transformed when Masoud Rajavi announced his marriage to Maryam Uzdanlu on March 18, 1985.23 The husband and wife team became co-leaders of the MKO. The organization hailed their marriage as an “ideological revolution” that was the result of an immense sacrifice made by Masoud and Maryam Rajavi. Prior to this, Maryam Rajavi had been married to Masoud Rajavi’s deputy, Mehdi Abrishamchi. The leadership asked all its members to undertake their own “ideological revolution” by identifying their personal shortcomings in self-criticism sessions.24 Immediately following Masoud and Maryam Rajavi’s marriage, the military command of the MKO issued a directive stating:

In order to carry out your organizational duties under the present circumstances there is an urgent need to strengthen and deepen this ideological revolution. You must pay the necessary price by allocating sufficient time and resources for absorbing related teachings…Thus in your daily routines give priority to listening to radio messages and explanations provided by your commanders. Believe in the central committee’s proclamation that “this ideological revolution will enhance the Mojahedin’s capacities enormously; it will ever more unify and cleanse our ranks.”…Be certain that your deep belief in the novel leadership of the new democratic revolution of the heroic Iranian people, meaning Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, and by making a direct connection with this leadership and setting it as your example….you will be able to correct your work habits and be able to deal with and resolve personal, organizational, and military difficulties.25

The Social Division of MKO also issued a directive to the members initiating the self-criticism tradition within the organization:

To understand this great revolution…is to understand and gain a deep insight into the greatness of our new leadership, meaning the leadership of Masoud and Maryam. It is to believe in them as well as to show ideological and revolutionary obedience of them…By correcting your old work habits and by criticizing your individual as well as collective shortcomings, we shall gain much awareness in confronting our enemies…Report to your commanders and superiors in a comprehensive manner your progress, its results and outcomes that you gain from promoting and strengthening this ideological revolution.26

In 1986, the French government engaged in direct talks with the Iranian government to normalize ties. As a result of these negotiations, the French government asked Masoud Rajavi to leave France. On June 7, 1986, he left Paris for Baghdad. The MKO relocated many of its resources from Paris to Iraq. On June 20, 1987, the MKO announced the formation of National Liberation Army (NLA) inside Iraq.27 For the next year, the NLA made several incursions into Iran as the Iran-Iraq war was entering its eighth year. The largest operation, code-named “Eternal Light,” took place in the immediate aftermath of Iran’s acceptance of the U.N.-brokered cease fire agreement on July 18, 1988 (see below).28

After the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein limited the MKO’s military activities against Iran. The lack of military activity inside the MKO camps in Iraq coupled with an acceleration of the “ideological revolution” led to a rising tide of dissent inside the organization.

[14] “For the first time in the history of the Iranian people’s liberation struggle, an organization with a monolithic ideology, populist ideals, and a policy of revolutionary armed resistance was founded in September 1965.” Mojahedin Khalq Organization Bonyangozaran, downloaded on March 10, 2005, See alsoErvand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1989.

[15] Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin,  p. 89.

[16] Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin,

[17]“Iran: Violations of Human Rights 1987-1990,” Amnesty International, Index: MDE 13/2/90.

[18]“Iran: Political Executions,” Amnesty International, December 1988, Index: MDE 13/29/88. See also Ayatollah Montazeri’s letters protesting summary executions in 1988, published in his memoirs. Ayatollah Montazeri was Ayatollah Khomeini’s heir apparent in 1988. Ayatollah Montazeri, Khaterat,, last accessed March 18, 2005.

[19] Among the most spectacular attacks include the bombing of the IRP headquarters in June 28, 1981 and the assassination of President Mohammad Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammad Javad Bahonar in 1981.

[20] “Khomeini’s Foes Split,” Washington Post, April 4, 1984.

[21] Mojahed, No. 240, March 14, 1985.

[22] Masoud Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel (London: Saqi Books, 2004), p. 219. Masoud Banisadr is a relative of former president Abolhasan Banisadr.

[23] Mojahed, No. 241, April 4, 1985.

[24] See footnote 8.

[25] Mojahed, No. 242, April 12, 1985.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “Iran rebels form Iraq-based army,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 20, 1987.

[28] “Iran accepts UN truce call in eight year war with Iraq,” Associated Press, July 19, 1988.

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