Reality Check: Understanding the Mujahedin-e Khalq

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.