INTERVIEW 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 lawmakers,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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
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
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'
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
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.
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
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
MA: Why is that
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.
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
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.