Mojahedin-e-khalq: Saddam’s Iranian Allies

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 8

The Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organisation (MKO) is arguably the most controversial and perplexing topic in terrorism today. It is one of the greatest ironies of the recent Iraq war that an organization created in 1965, in part to combat “American Imperialism” and which after the November 1979 seizure of U.S. hostages vowed to turn Iran into a “second Vietnam” in the event of an American invasion, now finds itself under the protection of the U.S. military in Iraq.

The destruction of Iraq’s Baathist regime seriously undermined the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. The recent capture of Saddam Hussein has undermined them even further. Nevertheless, despite the recent announcement by the Iraqi Governing Council that it wants the MKO out of Iraq, U.S. military and intelligence chiefs are likely to play the leading role in determining the fate of the organization’s armed wing in the near future.

MKO in U.S. Discourse

In the United States, discussions on the Mojahedin-e-Khalq are largely driven by functional rather than factual arguments. The “function” in question is whether the MKO can be employed as a useful tool against the Islamic Republic.[1] What is really lacking in U.S. academic and journalistic discourse is a proper analysis of the organization’s origins and history and its current psychological and ideological dynamics.[2]

It is widely assumed outside the United States that the Mojahedin find their most ardent supporters in the neo-conservative bastions of the Pentagon and conversely meet their opponents in the State Department and the CIA. Wherever the fault lines are in the U.S. administration and beyond, the debate over the MKO can be decisively settled by the consideration of three factors. These are the MKO’s anti-Americanism, the defining moments of the organisation’s history and its marginal impact on Iranian politics.

It is now often overlooked that the group of idealistic young men who broke away from the Iran Liberation Movement (ILM) in 1965 and set up the Mojahedin-e-Khalq-e-Iran justified the split on the basis that the ILM was not taking a tough line against U.S. imperialism. The enmity towards the U.S. was both ideological and political. The MKO founders were radical religious left-wingers who conceptualized the U.S. in typical Third World revolutionary terms. On a political and strategic level, the embryonic MKO argued that the U.S. was the main pillar of the Shah’s regime.

It is noteworthy that the MKO’s campaign of violence against the Shah’s regime was initially spearheaded by terrorism against U.S. interests in Iran. In 1970 and 1971, the Mojahedin assassinated five U.S. military technicians seconded to the Iranian military. The MKO also tried to kidnap U.S. Ambassador Douglas MacArthur III in Tehran.[3] Moreover, despite its persistent and sophisticated denials today, the Mojahedin fully supported the seizure of the U.S. embassy in November 1979.

The antipathy towards the U.S. has persisted over the decades. Anti-Americanism is a deep-rooted ideological feature of the Mojahedin. The organization has experienced many changes over the past 38 years, but the so-called anti-imperialist world view has persisted. In more recent years, the U.S.-led military assaults and imposition of sanctions on Iraq’s Baathist regime, the MKO’s chief strategic ally, provided concrete grievances against America. After all, a weakened Baathist regime entailed a more vulnerable MKO.

The defining moment in the Mojahedin’s history is arguably the so-called ideological revolution staged by Massoud Rajavi in January 1985. This revolution essentially entailed Mehdi Abrishamchi, the right hand man of Rajavi, divorcing his wife, Maryam Ghajr-Ozdanlou, who subsequently wed Rajavi. This “marriage” was ostensibly designed to symbolize the “liberation” of women. Of course the real revolution came afterwards as Rajavi and his new wife (who was now promoted to the rank of Joint-Leader) set about “feminizing” the organization. Ultimately the Mojahedin’s ideological revolution was marketed as a feminist assault on the Khomeini regime.

This unusual set of events provoked widespread unrest within the organization. There were many veteran cadres who saw the affair as a bizarre form of cuckoldry. Subsequently hundreds of cadres split from the group. Arguments have been made that these desertions are what Rajavi wanted. Therefore, according to the critics, the ideological revolution was an internal purge of the organization, a mechanism used by Rajavi to establish his centrality. It is at this point, say the critics, that the MKO assumed the trappings of a cult. Despite their accuracy, these arguments fail to capture the complexity of the ideological revolution and its consequences.

The Mojahedin’s ideological revolution changed the organization largely beyond recognition. The only surviving features of the Mojahedin are Rajavi’s leadership and antipathy towards America. The female tank commanders encountered by U.S. soldiers encircling the Mojahedin’s Ashraf camp in Diyala province in early May were a direct product of the ideological revolution.[4] The revolution of January 1985 not only feminized the organization-largely achieved by placing females, irrespective of competence, in all the top positions-but also enabled the Mojahedin to elucidate and promote a matriarchal ideology. In Mojahedin-speak, their organization, by virtue of its feminist credentials, had become the very antithesis of the misogynist Khomeini regime.

In reality, the ideological revolution turned the Mojahedin into an unusual and perplexing entity. Indeed charges that the MKO is a cult stem from the transformations effected by the internal upheaval of 1985.[5] Whatever the merits of these arguments it is evident that the Mojahedin are not a conventional organization. They have a sharply defined set of psychological and ideological characteristics that are not naturally responsive to local stimuli and changing circumstances. This has served to disconnect them from changing political realities in Iran and beyond.

Both sides in the U.S. debate readily admit the Mojahedin have little support inside Iran; however, the extent of the Mojahedin’s isolation both in Iran and amongst the Iranian diaspora in the West is not fully appreciated. The organization’s radical and near-communist origins have always alienated large swathes of Iran’s modern middle and upper classes. The MKO’s alliance with Iraq’s former Baathist regime during the Iran-Iraq war was a huge strategic blunder from which they could never hope to recover. The sight of MKO forces aiding the Iraqi war effort turned them into perennial traitors in the eyes of most Iranians. This perception of the Mojahedin still persists, more than 15 year after the ending of the war.

The Mojahedin have not tried to address the misgivings and grievances against them. Instead they have concentrated on a single-minded effort to overthrow a powerful regime with a flawed strategy, limited resources and bad alliances. In the propaganda world of the MKO, the Islamic Republic is perennially on the verge of collapse. In the words of two notable authors, if even half the successes the Mojahedin claimed were true, the Islamic regime would have been in serious trouble.[6]

U.S. defense policy makers will need to consider the above factors carefully before they formulate a coherent policy on the MKO in Iraq. There is little scope to consolidate the MKO’s position in Iraq. The Iraqi Governing Council has called for the organization’s expulsion and the confiscation of all its assets before the end of the year. While it is unlikely the MKO will be out of Iraq in the next few weeks, it is equally unlikely that the Mojahedin could have any organized presence in Iraq by next summer.

As for the U.S. intelligence community, they have long reached the conclusion that investment in the MKO will not yield significant dividends. U.S. intelligence has developed an in-depth understanding of the organization over the past year, primarily through information indirectly provided by Iranian intelligence. The Iranian Ministry of Intelligence & National Security (VEVAK) has for the past year fed detailed reports to the CIA via the Jordanian intelligence services.[7] Indeed, King Abdullah of Jordan, in his recent visit to Tehran, is understood to have broached the subject of an Iran-U.S. deal on the MKO and al-Qaeda.


The downfall of Saddam Hussein was the greatest misfortune ever to beset the Mojahedin-e-Khalq.[8] In Mojahedin-speak, Iraq is referred to as Manteghe, or “territory”-its centrality to MKO strategising and mythology cannot be overestimated. Iraq was after all designed to be a springboard for the victory of the new Iranian revolution and the subsequent establishment of a monotheistic class-less society.[9] All this has now gone up in smoke.

While expulsion from Iraq is unlikely to signal the end of the organization, nevertheless the formal and symbolic dissolution of its armed wing will have a profound impact on the Mojahedin.[10] Notwithstanding the new realities, the MKO’s elaborate psychological and ideological conditioning will deter it from successfully re-branding itself as a purely political movement. In short, the organization will not renounce violence as a political tool. Consequently the Mojahedin, even without their armed wing and the patronage of Saddam Hussein, are likely to remain on the terror lists of both the U.S. and EU.

Despite these unfavorable variables, the MKO is likely to outlive the current clerical oligarchy in Iran. Therefore in the long-term, the MKO’s resilience is likely to pose problems for Iran’s emerging reformist elites. A post-theocracy Iran will need to find the right political and security tools to deal with a stubbornly radical organization that cannot be absorbed into any consensual and democratic political process.[11]


[1] This “functional” argument was eloquently put forth by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson in A Terrorist U.S. Ally? New York Post, 20 May 2003.

[2] An exception may be Amir Taheri’s Islamist, Marxist…terrorist, The Wall Street Journal, 26 June 2003.

[3] It was this failed kidnap attempt that influenced a military court in Tehran to impose a death sentence on Massoud Rajavi, one of the MKO’s founders and leaders. It was the personal intervention of then Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny that ultimately saved Rajavi’s life.

[4] The Ashraf camp (named after Rajavi’s first wife, Ashraf Rabii’i, who was killed when her hideout in north Tehran was besieged by revolutionary guards in February 1982) situated in the north-west of Iraq’s Diyala province, served as the Mojahedin’s global HQ from June 1987 until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Currently just over 3,800 MKO members are quarantined in Ashraf Camp. The camp has been encircled by U.S. troops since early May.

[5] Critics of the organization, led by ex-MKO members, draw a parallel with the 12th century Iranian cult, the Hashisheeyon (or the Assassins) led by Hassan Sabah who were ensconced in Alamut fortress near Ghazvin. In September 1995, Fereydoon Gilani, broke away from the MKO’s political front, the “National Council of Resistance” and set about penning a series of exposes on the organisation. His series of articles, published in the London-based Persian language weekly Nimrooz were entitled Kalbod shekafeeye Ghlaeye Alamut (Exposing Alamut Fortress). Gilani refereed to the Ashraf camp in Diyala as a modern version of the Alamut Fortress.

[6] Bulloch J & Harvey M, The Gulf War: Its origins, History and Consequences, Methuen, London 1989, P. 253.

[7] It is understood that some of this information covers the activities of the MKO’s U.S. station led by Sona Samsami.

[8] Information pointing to MKO complicity in Baathist repression is numerous. For example Hooshang Pirnia, an ex-MKO member in a letter to the London Independent on 17 September 1996 alleged that MKO units had joined Iraqi forces in an attack on the PUK in 1993. Captured PUK members were subsequently handed over to the Estekhbarat (Iraqi military intelligence). Similarly ex-MKO members have claimed that the Mojahedin joined the Iraqi regime in celebrating the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S. (Dunya al-Arab September/October 2003). Information from ex-MKO members needs to be treated with some caution as it could be clouded by their grievances against the organization. Nevertheless the main Iraqi political forces, including the INC, SCIRI and PUK have all documented MKO complicity in Baathist security measures. In the final analysis despite their strong alliance the MKO and Iraq’s Baathists, unlike the Taliban and al-Qaeda, never developed a symbiotic relationship.

[9] The establishment of Jameye Bee-Tabagheye Towheedee (or Monotheistic classless society) has long been a cardinal ideological goal of the Mojahedin. This slogan aptly captures the Mojahedin’s awkward mixture of Islam and third-world Marxism.

[10] According to Hadi Shams-Haeri, a former MKO leader, the Mojahedin had prepared their departure from Iraq as early as June 2002. The MKO had initially planned to infiltrate 200-300 senior cadres out of Iraq. Peyvand Issue 54, May 2002 (Peyvand is a specialist monthly journal edited by Hadi Shams-Haeri, who left the Mojahedin in 1991).

[11] It is likely that any future Iranian government will deploy the same security and intelligence tolls against the MKO as the current one. The security-intelligence policy of the Islamic Republic, which consists of penetration and psychological warfare, has seriously sabotaged the morale and organizational security of the MKO. Indeed, the Mojahedin readily admit that they have been penetrated by Iranian intelligence. The organization’s weekly paper Mojahed in its 380th issue (March 1998) declared that the group had identified and detained 34 agents of the Iranian intelligence services inside its camps in Iraq. Similarly, Mojahed issue no: 592 (2 July 2002) disclosed the names and details of 36 alleged agents of the VEVAK inside the military camps in Iraq.