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New York Times Magazine: The Cult of Rajavi

Author: Elizabeth Rubin, Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow 2008-2009
July 13, 2003


From the 2003 New York Times Magazine archive: The People's Mujahedeen is a militant Iranian opposition group run mostly by women. Should they be U.S. allies?

For more than 30 years, the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People's Mujahedeen, has survived and operated on the margins of history and the slivers of land that Saddam Hussein and French governments have proffered it. During the 1970's, while it was still an underground Iranian political movement, you could encounter some of its members on the streets of New York, waving pictures of torture victims of the shah's regime. In the 80's and 90's, after its leaders fled Iran, you could see them raising money and petitioning on university campuses around the United States, pumping photographs in the air of women mangled and tortured by the Islamic regime in Tehran. By then, they were also showing off other photographs, photographs that were in some ways more attention-grabbing: Iranian women in military uniforms who brandished guns, drove tanks and were ready to overthrow the Iranian government. Led by a charismatic husband-and-wife duo, Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, the Mujahedeen had transformed itself into the only army in the world with a commander corps composed mostly of women.

Until the United States invaded Iraq in March, the Mujahedeen survived for two decades under the patronage of Saddam Hussein. He gave the group money, weapons, jeeps and military bases along the Iran-Iraq border -- a convenient launching ground for its attacks against Iranian government figures. When U.S. forces toppled Saddam's regime, they were not sure how to handle the army of some 5,000 Mujahedeen fighters, many of them female and all of them fanatically loyal to the Rajavis. The U.S soldiers' confusion reflected confusion back home. The Mujahedeen has a sophisticated lobbying apparatus, and it has exploited the notion of female soldiers fighting the Islamic clerical rulers in Tehran to garner the support of dozens in Congress. But the group is also on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, placed there in 1997 as a goodwill gesture toward Iran's newly elected reform-minded president, Mohammad Khatami.

With the fall of Saddam and with a wave of antigovernment demonstrations across Iran last month, the Mujahedeen suddenly found itself thrown into the middle of Washington's foreign-policy battles over what to do about Iran. And now its fate hangs precariously between extinction and resurrection. A number of Pentagon hawks and policy makers are advocating that the Mujahedeen be removed from the terrorist list and recycled for future use against Iran. But the French have also stepped into the Persian fray on the side of the Iranian government -- who consider the Rajavis and their army a mortal enemy. In the early-morning hours of June 17, some 1,300 French police officers descended upon the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, where the Mujahedeen established its political headquarters. After offering the Iranian exiles sanctuary on and off for two decades and providing police protection to Maryam Rajavi, the French mysteriously arrested Rajavi along with 160 of her followers, claiming that the group was planning to move its military base to France and launch terrorist attacks on Iranian targets in Europe. Immediately, zealous Mujahedeen members in Paris, London and Rome staged hunger strikes, demanding the release of Maryam, and several set themselves ablaze.

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