Background Briefing

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III. Rise of Dissent inside the MKO

Former MKO members interviewed for this report cite the following reasons for their decision to leave the organization: military failure of the MKO to dislodge the Iranian government during the July 1988 military operation, forced mass divorces instituted as part of the “ideological revolution” and their persecution and torture by the MKO operatives during “security clearances” in 1994-1995. These three developments are discussed below.

Operation Eternal Light

The MKO trained its fighters under the banner of the National Liberation Army (NLA) inside Iraq. The NLA established several military camps in Iraq and trained thousands of guerrilla fighters to fight against the Iranian regime.

During the Iran-Iraq war, the NLA fighters regularly attacked Iranian troops along the Iran-Iraq border and made several incursions into Iran. The largest operation by the NLA took place after Iran accepted U.N. resolution 598, calling for a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq. Iran accepted the U.N. resolution on July 18, 1988. The NLA forces, estimated at nearly 7,000 fighters, were immediately mobilized for an attack on Iran. This operation was named Eternal Light.

The MKO’s leadership, believing that the Iranian government was weak and susceptible to a popular uprising, reasoned that an incursion by the NLA forces would incite such an uprising and would pave the way for their forces to march to Tehran and bring down the government. On the eve of launching the operation, Masoud Rajavi told his troops:

We will not be fighting alone; we will have the people on our side. They are tired of this regime, and especially since the ceasefire, they have every incentive to get rid of it forever. We will only have to act as their shields, protecting them from being easy targets for the [revolutionary] guards. Wherever we go there will be masses of citizens joining us, and the prisoners we liberate from jails will help us lead them towards victory. It will be like an avalanche, growing as it progresses. Eventually the avalanche will tear Khomeini’s web apart. You don’t need to take anything with you. We will be like fish swimming in a sea of people. They will give you whatever you need.29

On July 24, 1988, the NLA fighters left their camps crossing the Iranian border at Khosravi checkpoint.30 They initially met little resistance as they approached the provincial capital of Kermanshah, nearly 100 miles inside Iranian territory. But Iran’s military and Revolutionary Guard responded massively to defend Kermanshah, forcing the NLA fighters to retreat towards the Iraqi border after suffering heavy losses.31 According to Masoud Banisadr:

About ten years later, when the organization published names and photographs of martyrs from the operation for the first time, the number of martyred was announced as 1,304. Our other losses were officially 1,100 injured, of whom 11 subsequently died.32

The NLA’s defeat was a defining moment for many of its fighters who realized their military might was far from sufficient to overthrow Iran’s government. “The level of pessimism and lack of trust in Rajavi’s leadership was rising daily. Many were asking to leave the organization. Our broken spirits and injured bodies were a sign of the NLA’s tactical and strategic defeat,” wrote Mohammad Reza Eskandari, another former MKO member who was injured during the operation.33

Masoud Banisadr also recalled the aftermath of the operation as a significant turning point for many MKO members:

Operation Forogh [Eternal Light] dashed our political hopes. Worse, it signified the end of ideology, of moral belief and expectation –for me and, as I soon discovered, many others. Our basic values no longer had any meaning and ceased to sustain us. We had all become actors playing to each other, encouraged by each other. This lie reached its intolerable climax when our “ideological leader” failed to admit his predictions and judgment had been wrong…once, we had been told that belief in Mojahedin was based on two premises: the sacrifice they were willing to make and their honesty. After Forogh the well of honesty completely dried up, and from then on the organization rested on only one foundation: “sacrifice” and more “sacrifice.”34

Compulsory Divorce

The “sacrifice” required of the members was articulated in a series of “ideological revolutions” promoted by the leadership.35 The leadership asked the members to divorce themselves from all physical and emotional attachments in order to enhance their “capacity for struggle.” In case of married couples, this phase of the “ideological revolution” required them to renounce their emotional ties to their spouses through divorce. Masoud Banisadr reports how this process unfolded during an “ideological meeting for ‘executive and high ranking members’” following MKO’s defeat in Iran:

The first thing I was required to do in Baghdad was watch a videotape of an ideological meeting for “executive and high-ranking members.” The meeting, called “Imam Zaman,”36 started with a simple question: “To whom do we owe all our achievements and everything that we have?”… Rajavi did not claim, as I thought he might, to be the Imam of our times, but merely said we owed everything to Imam Zaman… The object was to show that we could reach Tehran if we were more united with our leader, as he was with Imam Zaman and God. He was ready to sacrifice everything he had (which in fact meant all of us!) for God, asserting that the only thing on his mind was doing the will of God,….we were expected to draw the conclusion that no “buffer” existed between Rajavi and Imam Zaman; yet there was a buffer between ourselves and him [Rajavi] … which prevented us from seeing him clearly. This “buffer” was our weakness. If we could recognize that, we would see why and how we had failed in Operation Forogh [Eternal Light] and elsewhere. Masoud and Maryam [Rajavi] had no doubt that the buffer was in all our cases our existing spouse.37

The organization’s order for “mass divorce” caused much mental anguish and confusion. Masoud Banisadr details the atmosphere inside Ashraf Camp during this period:

The atmosphere on the base was completely different….The mood was one of unremitting misery…It seemed everyone was in the process of the new phase of the “ideological revolution.” The only legitimate discussion was about the revolution and the exchange of relevant experiences. Apart from that nothing was important; there was no outside world….Even poor single people were required to divorce their buffers, having no idea whom that meant; apparently the answer was to divorce all women or men for whom they harboured any feelings of love. Only later did I realize the organization demanded not only a legal divorce but also an emotional or “ideological” divorce. I would have to divorce Anna [his wife] in my heart. Indeed I would have to learn to hate her as the buffer standing between our leader and myself.

Rajavi announced at the meeting that as our “ideological leader” he had ordered mass divorce from our spouses. He asked everyone to hand over our rings if we had not already done so. That meeting was the strangest and most repugnant I had ever attended. It went on for almost a week….38

“Security Clearances”

During late 1994 and early 1995, many members of the MKO were arrested by the organization’s operatives inside their camps in Iraq. They were interrogated and accused of spying for the Iranian government. They were released in mid-1995 after being forced to sign false confessions and stating their loyalty to the leadership. Five former MKO members interviewed for this report were arrested during this period: Farhad Javaheri-Yar, Ali Ghashghavi, Alireza Mirasgari, Akbar Akbari, and Abbas Sadeghinejad. According to their testimonies—detailed in the next section—the purpose of these arrests was to intimidate dissidents and obtain false confessions from them stating that they were agents of Iranian government. This period was known as the “security clearance” (check-e amniyati).

In late 1994, the organization informed its fighters in Iraq of its plans to send small teams of fighters into Iran to carry out operations. Farhad Javaheri-Yar, a former member, told Human Rights Watch:

A message was broadcast on behalf of Masoud Rajavi stating that the domestic situation in Iran was chaotic. It called for volunteers who wanted to go inside Iran, perform revolutionary operations and instigate people to rise up. Many members responded immediately; long lines were formed by applicants. The application forms were nearly forty pages long and included hundreds of questions.39

Another former member, Alireza Mirasgari, told Human Rights Watch that discontent and dissent were spreading throughout Camp Ashraf at this time:

During the second half of 1994, the wave of questions and dissent was reaching a climax inside the organization. Since most military activities had stopped, there was little to do and much time to reflect. Many fighters wanted to leave the organization. I began to note that some people around me were “disappearing.” I was told they had left for special operations inside Iran. However, later we found out that they had been arrested and imprisoned inside the camp. I was myself imprisoned in January 1995.40

[29] Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel, p. 283.

[30] “Incursion by rebels threaten cease-fire,” The Washington Post, July 30, 1988.

[31] “Rebels routed in push for Tehran,” The Guardian, September 6, 1988.

[32] Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel, p. 292.

[33] Mohammad Reza Eskandari, Bar Ma Che Gozasht Khaterat Yek Mojahed (Paris: Kahvaran, 2004), p. 83.

[34] Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel, p. 306.

[35] The concept of ideological revolution started with the “ideological marriage” of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi in 1985. Subsequently, the organization required all of its members to make an “ideological leap” by cleansing their character. This process required all members to write self-criticism reports outlining their character flaws and past mistakes. See footnote 8.

[36] Imam Zaman is the twelfth Shia Imam. According to the Shia Twelver belief, Imam Zaman is the Twelfth Imam in descent from the prophet Mohammad, who went into “occultation” in the Tenth century and will reappear on earth as a messiah at a time of God’s choosing.

[37] Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel, p. 307.

[38] Banisadr, Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel, p. 311.

[39] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Farhad Javaheri-Yar, February 3, 2005.

[40] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Alireza Mir Asgari, February 10, 2005.

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