August 23, 2017

An implacable opponent to the mullahs of Iran

International Herald Tribune
By Craig S. Smith, The New York Times
SEPTEMBER 24, 2005

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France Maryam Rajavi, a wide-eyed woman who goes by the title president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is eager to talk about the latest discovery by her spies: mile-long tunnels, large enough to drive trucks into, dug into the mountains outside of Tehran.

“There are at least 14 to 15 tunnels of this magnitude that have been built secretly,” she said, sitting in a cream-colored reception room on the cramped grounds of her compound here. She suggested that the tunnels are hiding elements of a clandestine nuclear weapons program that the United States suspects exists but that inspectors have yet to find.

It would be easy to dismiss Rajavi as a self-serving political zealot in a powder-blue chenille tweed suit with matching head scarf and shoes, except that her organization has been right before.

In August 2002, the group, which says it has thousands of fighters based in Iraq, announced that Iran was pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program that could be used to build a nuclear bomb. The information turned out to be true and led to the standoff over the country’s nuclear development program on which world leaders focus today. The group’s many subsequent disclosures have been either less significant or plain wrong.

The sleepy town of Auvers-sur-Oise, 20 miles, or 30 kilometers, northwest of Paris, is best known as the place where Vincent van Gogh, haunted by madness, lived the last months of his life and committed suicide. Japanese and American tourists wander uncertainly down its main street, peering at reproductions of his paintings in front of the buildings that they portray. Few of the tourists know that the town is now home to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an almost cult-like Iranian opposition group whose members have divorced their spouses as an act of loyalty to the cause and whose armed wing, the Mujahedeen Khalq, is on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. The group’s devotion to Rajavi is so extreme that two members died after setting themselves on fire when she was briefly held by French police in July 2003.

Rajavi, 52, favors color-coordinated outfits that bring out the blue in her pale gray eyes and has a broad, almost impish smile that threatens to spill into laughter at almost any moment. She grew up in Tehran as the daughter of a middle-class civil servant descended from a member of the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran before the British helped install Reza Khan as Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1925.

The family privately opposed the Pahlavi regime, and Rajavi’s own activism began in earnest when she was 22 after her sister, Narges, was executed by the shah’s secret police. Rajavi soon joined the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People’s Holy Warriors, an association of leftist students formed in 1965 that by the 1970s was one of the most violent groups opposing the shah.

Rajavi gradually rose in the ranks of the Mujahedeen Khalq and, after the shah’s fall, was put in charge of thousands of students in Tehran. She met and married a fellow member and bore two children. But the family fled to France after the increasingly radical and violent regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned against the group and began executing its members. Another of Rajavi’s sisters, eight months pregnant, was killed in the crackdown.

In Paris, Rajavi worked closely with the Mujahedeen Khalq’s charismatic leader, Massoud Rajavi, whose first wife, Ashraf, had been killed in Iran. Rajavi split with his second wife, the daughter of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s progressive president soon after the shah’s fall, when he and Bani-Sadr had a falling out in exile. Maryam Rajavi said her own marriage to Massoud Rajavi, in 1985, was a calculated political move.

“My responsibility against the mullahs’ regime and against Khomeini drove me to the conclusion that I couldn’t have the same normal marital relationship that people in ordinary lives would have,” she said, smiling. “So it was my own very definitely political decision.”

Massoud Rajavi was expelled from France in 1986 and moved to Iraq, where he established a military camp named after his first wife. He was last seen shortly before the American invasion and is presumed to be in hiding from assassination squads that the Mujahedeen Khalq say have been sent by Iran. Maryam Rajavi will say only that she is sure he is alive. In the meantime, she is in charge.

In her small, leafy compound squeezed between the town’s soccer field and the languid Oise River, Rajavi and about a hundred devoted followers pursue their single-minded goal of overthrowing the fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Tehran and installing a government of their own with her as president until new elections can be held.

Rajavi has positioned herself as a beacon of progressive Islamic politics, the antithesis, as she puts it, of the fundamentalist Shiite Muslim mullahs governing Iran. But the rigidity of her organization and extreme devotion of its members has given the organization a fanatical cast.

In discussing the mass divorces ordered by the group’s leadership, which split the movement’s families in 1989 and sent their children into foster care abroad, she said the policy focused energy on the cause instead of personal relations.

“Our members can’t have, because of the circumstances, the normal marital status in life that everyone else in the world can enjoy,” Rajavi said, arguing that the movement faces a “ferocious” enemy and followers cannot afford to be distracted.

“Every single member of this movement sincerely believes in the goal of democracy and has made sacrifices for it,” Rajavi said, her smile never wavering. “I don’t call this fanaticism.”

Only on the subject of the self-immolations that took the two members’ lives does she concede that devotion to the cause has sometimes been misdirected.

“I was extremely saddened by those deaths,” she said, but blamed the French authorities for not letting her speak to the demonstrators who had gathered to protest her arrest. She said the followers believed that she and her followers were going to be deported to Iran, “so they felt that there was nothing else that they could do.”

Many critics say the organization is reviled in much of Iran for having sought shelter with Saddam Hussein’s regime, but Rajavi says that did not happen. She says the movement never accepted financial support from Iraq or fought against Iraqi Shiites and Kurds on Hussein’s behalf, as some people claim. As evidence of her organization’s continuing viability, she cites the group’s revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear activities.

“This is the result of a resistance movement having a very wide social base and having deep roots and being present in all sectors of Iranian society,” she said.

Rajavi’s French residence permit expires in 2006. While her aides say she has been given permanent political refugee status in France, that has not been confirmed by French officials.