Dissent and defection: An Iranian confession
By Mahan Abedin
Masoud Banisadr is an Iranian historian and political analyst. He
is a former senior member of the Iranian opposition group the
Mujahideen-e-Khalq Organization (MEK), and was its representative in
the United States from 1990-96. Banisadr left the MEK in in June
1996 and has lived in London since. He finished his PhD research in
chemical engineering and engineering mathematics at Newcastle
University in 1981. Banisadr's book Masoud: Memoirs of an
Iranian Rebel is widely regarded as the most authoritative
ideological exposition of the MEK.
The MEK, which in some countries,
including the US, has been placed on a terror watch list, has been
based since 1986 in Iraq. It has been backed in the US by right-wing
neo-conservatives and retired
military officers, among others, who believe the MEK could be used
to help destabilize the Iranian regime, if not eventually overthrow
it in conjunction with US military strikes against selected targets.
This interview was conducted on May 10 in London.
This June will mark the 10th anniversary of your defection from the
MEK. What is your feeling toward this organization today?
Masoud Banisadr: I am sad for the organization's
members and supporters and those who lost their lives on this path.
I am also sad to see the organization in its current state, when
they are fighting for survival and have abandoned all their original
core principles. At the same time, I am happy that I have at last
freed myself of them, physically, emotionally and ideologically.
When I left the organization I did not have a deep understanding of
what was wrong with it. After 10 years I am confident I know what
MA: And what is wrong with them?
MB: We were attracted to the organization for two
reasons: its sacrifices during the struggle against the shah's
regime and its sincere commitment toward the Iranian people. By
changing from an ideological and political organization into a cult
with a political agenda, the Mujahideen[-e-Khalq] fully disconnected
themselves from this heritage. Many Iranians do not understand the
concept of a "cult". This is partly rooted in language; the word
"cult" is firqah in Persian and as such it has no negative
connotations. When hearing the word firqah, Iranians
immediately think of innocuous Sufi orders, so they don't fully
appreciate the implications of this word.
The MEK is a cult in the conventional sense of the word, and as such
it has no respect for the values to which it was originally
committed. The organization had five original goals and aspirations
for the Iranian people: (1) independence; (2) freedom (as in
individual rights); (3) democracy; (4) progress and social justice,
including some elements of socialism borrowed from Marxist-Leninist
ideology; (5) Islamic culture. When it changed into a cult, the
interests of the cult entirely eclipsed those of the country and the
people. To advance the interests of the cult, they were prepared to
collaborate closely with the worst enemies of the country, in
particular Saddam Hussein, thus jeopardizing our independence.
A cult that is deeply committed to an "ideological leadership"
cannot believe in equality, social justice and democracy. The first
rule of membership in a cult is sacrifice of personal individuality;
therefore a cult cannot believe in Western concepts of freedom and
democracy based on individualism. Merit and personal ability are
prerequisites for progress in any realm, but in a cult where lack of
individuality and blind obedience toward the guru are conditions of
membership and promotion, real progress is impossible.
For instance, despite the proliferation of talent, the Mujahideen
have been unable to solve their financial problems, thus relying on
Iran's enemies for funding. The Mujahideen's deeply rooted cult
culture came to the fore in June 2003 when Maryam Rajavi and dozens
of her closest advisers were detained by French counter-terrorism
police. The Mujahideen's response was to encourage their members to
set themselves on fire in major Western capitals.
How can you justify this level of submission and servitude toward
another human being within the framework of Islamic monotheism? The
real tragedy is the Mujahideen's acceptance that all their
sacrifices and commitment [are] to the leadership and no other
entity. This, by itself, highlights the depth of their ideological
decline and is a stark reminder of their abandonment of all original
values and objectives.
MA: How do you assess the MEK's activities against
Iran's nuclear program?
MB: This goes back to the most important value
outlined above, namely independence. When it was formed back in the
1960s, the organization was a vociferous champion of Iranian
independence, but since its transformation it is exclusively
preoccupied with the interests of the cult rather than the country.
It was this transformation that led it to cooperate with Iran's
national enemy Saddam Hussein, and is now leading it to side with
those who want to sabotage Iranian aspirations for a peaceful
MA: But some people say the MEK has provided a
valuable service by exposing aspects of Iran's nuclear program, not
least the August 2002 exposure of the Natanz and Arak facilities.
MB: Despite being a cult, the organization has a
distinct political agenda, and it uses a variety of methods to
promote that agenda. For instance, it is well known for gross
exaggerations and downright fabrications.
MA: But on that occasion its exposure proved accurate.
My question is whether the MEK is providing a valuable service to
international stability by exposing aspects of the country's nuclear
program that the Iranian government wants to conceal.
MB: The Iranian nuclear program - as long as it
remains peaceful - is a truly national aspiration regardless of the
nature of the Iranian government. This is a national asset, and as
such it belongs to all Iranians. Given this state of affairs, the
MEK's activities are treacherous through and through. Even if there
is any truth to its propaganda, every sensible and conscientious
Iranian is well aware of our country's military weakness, vis-a-vis
the Western powers and our immediate neighbors.
Moreover, every sensible observer knows that Iran has not committed
a single act of aggression in the past 200 years and has, in fact,
been invaded by a coterie of Western and regional enemies. Given
this state of affairs, I don't think many Iranians would object to
possessing nuclear weapons for defensive purposes.
MA: You have recently given media interviews, and the
MEK has hit back through character assassination. I refer
specifically to your interview with the Persian service of Radio
France. How do you assess its reaction to your interviews?
MB: Well, they are very predictable in this regard. I
am happy that they are showing such reaction because it vindicates
my decision to leave the organization. If their reaction was any
different, I would have doubted myself and my achievements in the
past 10 years.
MA: What does it hope to achieve by these character
MB: Since their transformation to a cult in the past
two decades, their only interest is to advance the interests of the
cult. So whatever they do is guided by this central goal. Their
first priority is to safeguard the reputation of their "Guru"
(Masoud Rajavi), and they do this by labeling any dissident member
as a traitor and agent of the Iranian government. This is standard
procedure for them.
MA: What do you think the MEK's reaction to this
interview will be?
MB: (Laughs) Probably the same as always!
MA: But your critics do raise an interesting point,
namely that you left the organization 10 years ago and for most of
that period you were politically inactive. It is only recently that
you have come out to defend yourself and criticize the organization.
How do you explain the long years of silence?
MB: That is a very good question. First and foremost,
it is important to understand that physical separation from a cult
might happen overnight, but emotional, spiritual and, most important
of all, ideological separation needs time and hard work. I had to
understand what had happened to me. I had to get to know myself all
over again. Don't forget that I was a member of a cult and had spent
more than 15 years suppressing my personality.
When I left in June 1996, my personality had been reduced to
virtually nothing, and I needed time to recover from this trauma. I
had to understand what had attracted me to the MEK in the first
place, and this led me to review the organization's history and
ideology all over again. I had to go through this journey to be able
to explain to myself, my children and whoever wants to know, what
went wrong. I am afraid I feel that some of those who have left the
organization and are currently engaged in a single-minded struggle
against it are (despite appearances to the contrary) still trapped
in the Mujahideen's ideological cosmos.
They are still living in the bipolar and black-and-white world of
the Mujahideen-e-Khalq. It seems that their opposition to the
Mujahideen is more born out of personal grudges than a desire to
expose the organization for its betrayal of our people. Furthermore,
their activism (against the Mujahideen) is not even effective. It
serves to make ordinary supporters more committed to the
MA: Curiously the Mujahideen did not attack you for
writing the book. But they started an onslaught of character
assassinations when your book was translated into Farsi. Why is
MB: The book (in its English version) was published
about two years ago. When it was translated into Farsi, it became
immediately accessible to ordinary supporters. The Mujahideen were
terrified of the prospect of supporters questioning them because of
the contents of the book. You should note that ordinary supporters
(as opposed to members and cadres) are more valuable to the
organization as their support is more effective and doesn't cost
Furthermore, holding on to them doesn't require significant
organizational effort. I believe the ordinary supporters are the
real members of the Mujahideen, as they have not been forced to
change their personality and individuality. Therefore, their support
is truly meaningful. This is in stark contrast to the members who
had to change into a new person to be able to remain fully committed
to the organization. Moreover, members have to be supported
financially and have to be kept under constant ideological
surveillance, to prevent them from "rediscovering" their old
MA: Have you now completed the journey of
MB: There is now much more clarity. But on rare
occasions I find myself exhibiting some old organizational behavior.
The difference is that I recognize this instantly and fight it
MA: Let us now discuss anti-Iran lobbying in the US.
You spent many years as the MEK's main representative to the US and
developed impressive lobbying skills in the process. Please
summarize your insights.
MB: First you have to understand the American system.
I don't know how much Asia Times Online readers understand the
American foreign-policy establishment. Direct and intensive lobbying
has a lot of influence on the key foreign-policy centers in the US,
in particular the Senate and the House of Representatives. As for
the State Department, the NSC [National Security Council], the
administration, Pentagon and the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency],
lobbying takes the form of common interests. There is a lot of
common interest between some of these centers, in particular the
Pentagon, and exiled Iranian opposition outfits, regardless of the
meager weight of these organizations. But insofar as the Congress is
concerned, you need conventional lobbying power.
MA: Explain what you mean by lobbying power.
MB: There are three components: numbers of
constituents, money, and organizational strength. There are
basically two anti-Iran lobbies in the US. The first belongs to the
supporters of the former monarchical regime and the second to the
Mujahideen. Both lobbies are very weak and would be completely
ineffectual were it not for the support of the pro-Israel lobby. To
take a hypothetical case, if you need 1,000 lobbying units to
influence Iran policy in the US Congress, 999 of these are provided
by the pro-Israel lobby or the American administration, and the
remainder by the weak and fragmented exiled opposition. Those 999
units constitute the weight and the one unit provided by the exiled
opposition brings a fig leaf of legitimacy to these anti-Iranian
activities. It also enables the pro-Israel lobby in the US or other
American entities to claim there is effective opposition to the
MA: Explain the dynamics in the MEK-Israel lobby
MB: If there is an anti-Iran petition on the table in
the Congress, the two lobbies would work hand-in-hand to promote it,
without necessarily communicating directly.
MA: Are the two lobbies organizationally linked?
MB: To give you an example, we knew which members of
Congress were influenced by AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs
Committee], so when we needed signatures we'd go to these
congressmen first. AIPAC has a lot of weight in Congress, and
without having to communicate with them directly, we benefited
enormously from their deep influence. We also copied their lobbying
techniques. Consequently the Mujahideen's lobby in the US is
organizationally strong but it lacks the two core elements I
outlined earlier, namely numbers and money. They have a tiny
constituency among Iranian-Americans, and even with the addition of
imaginary names and addresses they cannot deliver votes or similar
political advantages to congressmen. It also lacks an independent
financial base. Much of its funding came from the former Iraqi
MA: Your claim that there were no direct contacts
between the MEK and the pro-Israel lobby is undermined by the
organization's intensive and very direct cooperation with the "Iran
Policy Committee", which seems to be a spin off of AIPAC. There are
also regular media reports alluding to direct MEK-Israel ties.
MB: I would not be surprised if these links existed.
As I said earlier, the MEK is exclusively motivated by the interests
of the cult, and as such it will cooperate with any constituency. If
there is any hesitation in collaboration, it stems from Israeli
reluctance, since the Mujahideen, because of its close relationship
with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], is not fully
trusted by the Israelis. On the other hand, from an Israeli
perspective, the MEK is the only viable tool against Iran.
Monarchists are deeply divided and lack organization. However,
Western and Israeli intelligence are well aware of the MEK's
limitations. They are perfectly aware of the cult nature of the
organization and know that it has - at most - around 5,000 members
and active sympathizers (most of whom are stranded in the Ashraf
camp in Iraq) and are in no position to seriously threaten the
Iranian government. This factor - coupled with the organization's
cult-like and totalitarian ideology - dissuades the US State
Department from working with them.
To put it simply, the Americans do not trust Mujahideen-e-Khalq, for
they know they have no principles, save the interests of the cult.
This is why, despite all the efforts of the organization in the past
quarter-century, they have not been able to pass a single
substantial resolution in support of the organization in Congress.
Note also that the US government regards the Mujahideen as a
terrorist organization and does not want to create another al-Qaeda.
MA: Do you think the current US administration is
committed to regime change in Iran, regardless of the actions of the
Iranian government? In other words, is the nuclear issue simply a
MB: Yes, as long as the neo-conservatives remain
influential in the American administration. Moreover, it seems that
most of the foreign-policy establishment and media in the US are
mobilized against the Iranian regime. They are actively seeking to
demonize the Ahmadinejad government, regardless of the nature and
actions of this government.
MA: What is the source of US hostility toward Iran?
MB: The main source of friction is the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Islamic Republic's hostility
toward Israel disturbs the Americans not only because of their
unreserved support for Israel but also because it represents Iran's
clear opposition to American foreign policy, and as such is a
powerful sign of Iranian political independence. This is why year
after year the US State Department identifies Iran as the chief
sponsor of terrorism in the world. This is a very political
designation and is designed to dissuade the Iranians from working
against Israeli interests in the Middle East. This conflict of
interests has been sharpened by the recent election victory of
MA: You think that a resolution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to the normalization of
MB: Yes, as long as the Americans realize that their
current foreign policy does not safeguard US interests and is in
fact promoting instability the world over. From an Iranian
perspective I think we cannot be more Palestinian than the
MA: But the Iranian government has been for the past
MB: That is because they thought the PLO did not
represent the Palestinian people anymore. The situation is very
different today. Iran's allies are in power in Palestine, and if
they strike a lasting deal, Iran would have no option but to accept
MA: Aside from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what
else divides Iran and the US?
MB: I believe that is the main issue, and the rest are
just pretexts and excuses. Take the issue of human rights, for
instance. Iran's record on this - while far from perfect - is in
fact much better than its neighbors', some of which are America's
closest allies in the region. Even the nuclear issue does not worry
the Americans nearly as much as they claim it does. The US is
confrontational because it feels it has been challenged by Islamic
culture in general and by Iranian Islamic culture in particular.
MA: Let us discuss internal Iranian politics. How do
you assess political developments since Mahmud Ahmadinejad's
ascension to power?
MB: Economic issues are the main problem in Iran.
Ahmadinejad won the presidential elections because he promised to
promote social justice and redistribute wealth. Now he has to
deliver on his promises. If he is serious about redistributing
wealth, he will have to confront powerful factions within the
regime. Is he prepared to do that? Alternatively he can promote
greater Iranian integration into the global economy, but this would
contradict his anti-American rhetoric.
MA: Many analysts believe Ahmadinejad is intent on
reforming the Islamic Republic, perhaps even reforming it beyond
recognition. Do you think these analysts are wrong?
MB: Politics and economics are deeply intertwined in
the Iranian establishment. The reasons the previous two presidents
[Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami] failed to reform is
because they focused on only one of these spheres. Rafsanjani wanted
to reform the economy without touching the political setup; he had
the "Chinese" model in mind. And Khatami wanted political reforms,
but he did not endeavor to reform the country's flawed economic
structures. Not surprisingly, both former presidents failed badly.
If Ahmadinejad wants to avoid failure, he will have to pursue
reforms in a truly comprehensive manner. Moreover, 27 years after
the revolution, Iranians have matured politically and are more than
capable of separating fact from rhetoric. Therefore, if Ahmadinejad
does not go beyond slogans and rhetoric, he will not be elected in
four years' time.
MA: How do you assess Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli
MB: He clearly has ideological supporters, and this
rhetoric is intended for that audience. I don't think he is
addressing the Iranian people as a whole when he attacks Israel.
MA: Some people say Ahmadinejad is trying to appeal to
a broader audience, mainly in the Arab world, where anti-Israeli
rhetoric always goes down well.
MB: For what end?
MA: Presumably to mobilize Muslim public opinion in
support of Iran's stance in the nuclear standoff.
MB: If he wanted to do that he would have had to say
something about Iraq, which is currently the main point of grievance
in the Muslim world.
MA: Twenty-seven years on, how do you assess the
dynamics between the ideals of the Iranian revolution and the
country's embattled pro-democracy movement?
MB: To be able to answer this question in depth
without creating any misunderstanding, I'd have to write a book! But
to summarize, we have to go back to the five values I outlined
earlier, namely independence, freedom, democracy, Islam, and
progress. As far as independence is concerned, the main factor is
cultural independence, not least because of globalization and
growing American cultural influence. In this respect Iran can be
viewed as one of the most independent countries in the world,
because the Islamic Republic has fought hard to safeguard Iranian
However, we are faced with problems on the freedom-and-democracy
front. But I don't think the problem necessarily stems only from the
top. In this respect I disagree with the reform movement in Iran,
which believes it can engineer meaningful change by removing the
current rulers. Our problem stems from the society and the
grassroots as well. We have to prepare the grassroots for
understanding and accepting democracy first. People have to
understand their rights and learn how to use and protect them.
MA: But surely if people at the top are obstructing
change, nothing will happen.
MB: Changing the top is the final stage of democracy.
Changing the top before preparing the people only perpetuates the
status quo. Just look at the democratic revolutions in Western
Europe. Democracy was achieved at the grassroots level before it
penetrated the commanding heights of government. We ought to pursue
the same strategy in Iran.
MA: What about freedom, and how do you separate it
MB: When I talk about freedom, I have Western
individualism in mind. The cultural problem in Iran, as in other
Eastern countries, is the lack of individualism. We require a proper
definition of individualism and individual rights. But Iran has a
remarkable advantage over other Islamic countries, because it is
MA: Why is that an advantage?
MB: Shi'ites have two concepts that resolve many
issues and are powerful catalysts for democratization, namely
ijtihad and gheybat [occultation - referring to the
occultation of Imam Mahdi]. Unlike some branches of Sunni Islam,
Shi'ism never suspended or impeded ijtihad, so it has always
been exposed to new ideas and interpretations. Moreover, the concept
and philosophy of occultation is premised on the notion that the
just society can only be established by the Mahdi.
Therefore - absent the Mahdi - endeavors to create utopian states
are futile. This immediately de-legitimizes any form of ideological
government, including a pure Islamic one. Furthermore, the concept
of occultation reinforces cultural relativism. This requires laws to
be relative as well. In this situation the sharia becomes
superfluous, if not obsolete.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor,
which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit
organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and
instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own