Dissent and defection: An Iranian confession By Mahan Abedin
May 18, 2006
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 lawmakers, hardline 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.
Mahan Abedin: 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 went wrong.
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 nuclear program.
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 assassinations?
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 organization.
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 that?
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 much financially.
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 personalities.
MA: Have you now completed the journey of self-discovery?
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 accordingly.
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 Iranian government.
MA: Explain the dynamics in the MEK-Israel lobby relationship.
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 regime.
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 pretext?
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 Hamas.
MA: You think that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to the normalization of Iranian-American ties?
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 Palestinians ...
MA: But the Iranian government has been for the past 27 years!
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 that.
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 rhetoric?
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 culture.
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 from democracy?
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 Shi'ite.
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.