Interview with Mohammad Mohaddessin: "There Is No Such Thing as a Moderate Fundamentalist"
by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson
Translations of this item:
Middle East Quarterly: The People's Mojahedin have made a point of their opposition to fundamentalist Islam, and you in particular have written a book on this subject. Could you summarize your position on this matter?
Mohammad Mohaddessin: We are against fundamentalism for several reasons. We believe Islam to be diametrically opposite to the fundamentalist mentality. Islam stands against the spirit of extremism and violence espoused by the fundamentalists, and which [Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini in particular advocated.
Islam stands against military expansionism -- precisely what Khomeini did under the name of Islam. We believe all of us must coexist in peace with all countries, indeed, with the whole world. Only in pursuing this approach can we succeed in accomplishing our own political, economic, and social objectives. Political pluralism is the only answer to Iran's social problems.
MEQ: Is there such a person as a moderate fundamentalist?
Mohaddessin: There is absolutely no such person. It's a contradiction in terms. Moderate fundamentalists do not exist. You can speak of moderate communists but not of moderate fundamentalists. It's like talking about a moderate Nazi.
THE IRANIAN OPPOSITION
MEQ: If the Mojahedin favor political pluralism, why do so many groups also seeking to overthrow the current Iranian government so vehemently oppose the Mojahedin?
Mohaddessin: This is a very good and key question. Those opposed to our movement are either the remnants of the deposed dictatorship of the shah (which, for obvious reasons, cannot pursue democracy); remnants affiliated with the former Soviet Union, such as the Tudeh Party [communists] and a faction of the Fedayin-i Khalq [People's Guerrillas]. These groups play no role in the political scene of today's Iran, however. Another group opposed to us is that portion of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran that has put aside the objective of overthrowing the Iranian clerical regime and is negotiating with it.
Actually, any group in favor of democracy and opposed to the Iranian regime is not opposed to us.
MEQ: Could you name some of your allies and other friendly groups?
Mohaddessin: The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCR), which includes the Mojahedin, consists of a wide spectrum of groups and political tendencies. Of course, for obvious historical and social reasons, the Mojahedin are the largest political movement within this coalition. In addition, the council includes nationalist groups, such as the National Democratic Front (the heirs to Dr. Mosaddeq's [DP: who's that?] movement). Leftist groups not affiliated with the former Soviet Union, the nationalist left, are part of the coalition, including the main Fedayin group, the one fighting the shah since the early days.
The main faction within the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, which has maintained its original objective of overthrowing the Iranian regime, has close ties to the NCR, as do representatives of various political strata of Iranian society: military personnel, the clergy opposed to the Iranian regime, and the technocrats, both inside and outside of Iran, including some from the shah's era. Cultural and social personalities who were known in the shah's time are now cooperating with the NCR. One example is the well-known singer and performer, Iran's diva, Marzieh. The number-one singer in the shah's time, she left Iran last year and, after meeting with Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, our president, Marzieh joined the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
MEQ: Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and South Africa fell under the weight of these movements; why not in Iran, too?
Mohaddessin: Because there's a fundamental difference between today's Iran and those regimes. The religious dictatorship ruling Iran is unique in that it relies on absolute repression domestically, and export of revolution, fundamentalist Islam, and terrorism beyond its borders.
We will never witness a situation in Iran such as in Poland, where the state lost power to a labor union; or in South Africa, where the de Clerk government voluntarily shared power. The religious dictatorship ruling Iran knows that its first step away from absolute power will also be its last step. The first crack will lead to many others. For this reason, when Khomeini died, the remnants of his regime could not possibly moderate (as happened in Spain after Franco). For this reason, counting on the moderation of [President Ali Akbar Hashemi-]Rafsanjani will prove to be a failure.
MEQ: Stalin's regime could evolve nonviolently into a democracy but Khomeini's regime cannot?
Mohaddessin: Yes. Gorbachev could gradually be removed from the political scene; he could even play a role in a future government. The Iranian regime's first step toward moderation would be to put aside the idea of Islamic rule. This could never do, for it would mean having to leave the scene forever; they would not stand a chance in a democratic Iran. That's why the so-called moderate Rafsanjani needs to export terrorism and fundamentalism even more than Khomeini; as Patrick Clawson has written,1 Iran's so-called moderates are more dangerous to the outside world than the radicals.
MEQ: Your strategy for taking power seems to rely heavily on the National Liberation Army. But if the government in Tehran is so very unpopular, why not rely upon people-power to bring down the government?
Mohaddessin: Our strategy is not solely based on military strength but also on popular support. The network of the resistance inside Iran complements the work of the military network of the National Liberation Army and will help bring down the Iranian regime.
If this regime had any potential of moderating from within, we would not need the National Liberation Army of Iran. In the early years of the mullahs' rule, we spent a great deal of effort to find moderate elements within their regime, and failed to find any at all. This is that rare example of a regime that assassinates its opponents at the negotiating table. For example, the regime entered talks with the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, during which it killed the party's secretary-general, 'Abd ar-Rahman Qasimlu, in July 1989.
MEQ: Could you assess for us the weaknesses of your movement?
Mohaddessin: It's very difficult for any movement truly to recognize its real weaknesses; if it did, it would have already corrected them.That said, the most important problem we now face is the lack of proper understanding in Western governments of the Iranian regime and the Iranian resistance. They think the regime could possibly moderate itself; and they doubt our movement is a viable alternative to the regime. This misunderstanding explains many of the problems we now face. For example, those who blame our movement for keeping military forces in Iraq those who sincerely criticize us, not those who have political intentions, or those who blame us for resorting to armed resistance against this regime, or those who criticize us for not having formed alliance with the remnants of the Shah's regime or other groups who are not now in the coalition. This faulty perception regarding the regime and the resistance has caused this lack of political understanding. The most vivid example (and the worst consequence) is the position of the United States, especially the policies of the State Department regarding the Iranian resistance and the Iranian regime.
MIDDLE EAST ALLIES
MEQ: You want to overthrow the regime in Tehran; so does the government of Israel. Is there a basis for your movement and Israel to cooperate? If offered, would you accept help from the Israeli government?
Mohaddessin: There is a difference between us and the Israelis. We want to overthrow the Iranian regime to establish democracy in Iran and to secure peace and security in the region. The Israelis are interested in their own peace and security, which is well respected, as far as we are concerned. Indeed, this is the common objective we have: peace and security for each state.
We are delighted to see that the Israelis have reached the conclusion that no peace and security can be accomplished with the regime in Tehran, for this is the position we adopted a decade ago. We told exactly this to the Palestinian leaders a decade ago: this regime will not allow you to pursue peace.
The most important thing for us is to see Palestinians and Israelis both adopting firmer positions,ever firmer positions against the dictatorship in Iran. Happily, both have abandoned the policy of appeasing this regime. That is, by the way, what the Iranian resistance expects from the entire world community, including the United States, and not more. As representatives of the people of Iran, we do not need arms or money from the United States, Israel, or any other power. We do need a decisive policy such as the one we see now in Israel and Palestine. We, as the Iranian resistance, have a common enemy with the Palestinians, Israelis, the Arab states, and the United States; a common position is the best form of cooperation.
MEQ: In the Muslim world, which are your closest allies, movements, and governments?
Mohaddessin: We have good relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Jordanians. We have many common interests with the Saudis and other Persian Gulf countries, and with Iraq, because of the common threat against us all. Every Muslim country is faced with the threat of fundamentalist Islam. We also have amicable and good relations with the Muslims in North Africa, including Algeria.
MEQ: You mentioned Iraq: Your movement has its headquarters in Iraq, so you must know much more about the country than we do. Could you tell us what you think are the prospects for democracy and human rights in Iraq?
Mohaddessin: Let me present to you a general rule that applies to all the Muslim countries, and especially our neighbors: No democratic process is possible in these countries, particularly the Arab countries, so long as the Khomeini regime is in power in Iran. Fundamentalist Islam would immediately fill the void created by democratization and take advantage of it, derail it, and move it towards its own direction. Therefore, the idea of advancing democracy in the region is not realistic before fundamentalist Islam is taken care of.
I may sound as if I'm exaggerating the strategic importance of Iran, but someone who truly wants to build democracy in the region must start the process in Tehran. Note that in 1991, President Bush stopped the ground war in Iraq out of concern about the advancement of fundamentalism in that country. And rightly so, for the Khomeini regime's forces had already penetrated deep into Iraqi territory. In Algeria, which side is the U.S. government defending? Theoretically, it defends democracy, but not always in the Middle East.
Allow me to correct a point in your question. Only the military headquarters of the resistance is in Iraq. Our political headquarters is in Paris, as is our president, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi. The resistance has a network of popular support in different cities all throughout Iran.
MEQ: The governments in Baghdad and Tehran have tried to reach some kind of accord, including an exchange of foreign ministers. Do you think that's going to happen? If it did, how would it affect the People's Mojahedin?
Mohaddessin: I have a theoretical and a practical response to this question. Let me start with the practical. It's been seven years since the implementation of the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq, without any progress in achieving peace. In fact, relations between the two countries have deteriorated. In February 1995, the ground forces of the Khomeini regime staged an extensive attack into Iraqi territory. Theoretically speaking, this regime is incapable of achieving peace because it contradicts their expansionist ambitions, because its first target of expansionism would be Iraqi territory, and Najaf and Karbala in particular.
We very much welcome peace between the two countries, for this would be one of those cracks in the Iranian regime that I mentioned before. If the Iranian regime could afford this crack within its velayet-i faqih system--the rule of supreme jurisprudence--we would benefit in that case more than in the present circumstances.
It would have been practically impossible for the regime to wage such an extensive and barbaric repression against us had it not been under the cover of war and export of fundamentalism. It was only eight months after the start of the Iran-Iraq War that Khomeini started the massacre of our movement. Again you see the great difference between fundamentalist Islam and Stalinist communism.
The start of the war with Iraq was for the regime, as Khomeini put it, a divine gift. War allowed it to suppress the opposition. Whereas in the former Soviet Union, when World War II started, Stalin called at least nominally for national unity and appealed for national support, Khomeini said that so long as the "Monafiqin" [hypocrites, his term for the Mojahedin] and the nationalists exist in Iran, we will be defeated in the war with Iraq. Therefore, peace will open many doors to us.
MEQ: In a forthcoming book to be published by the Mojahedin, Democracy Betrayed, the November 1979 assault of the U.S. embassy in Tehran is described as an attempt to exploit popular anti-American attitudes in Iran to suppress political freedoms and to suppress the Mojahedin. The book also says the Mojahedin "had to walk a political tightrope," which precluded its publicly opposing the hostage seizure.2 In retrospect, was not condemning the seizure a correct decision by the Mojahedin?
Mohaddessin: Tactically speaking, there are many things that could have been done differently on many issues, including this one. But on the level of political strategy, I believe we followed the correct line.
Strategically speaking, we had two options in dealing with the so-called anti-imperialist lines and objectives of the Khomeini regime. We could either pursue a line that would expose the true intentions of Khomeini, or we could simply collide head-on with his policies. We preferred to expose the measures taken by the Khomeini regime and inform the people of Iran about the whole story of the embassy takeover and how the regime used it as an excuse to suppress the people of Iran.
In those political circumstances, only nine months after the overthrow of the shah's regime, had we taken the latter position, we would have been completely wiped out, annihilated, by the regime, physically and politically destroyed, accused of being mercenaries of the United States.
But if we knew that years later, the State Department would close its eyes to these positions regarding the Iranian regime's positions against the United States from 1979 to the present, but at the same time be so excruciatingly picky about events concerning the Mojahedin of fifteen and twenty years ago, we would have put out our statements more carefully.
MEQ: The English-language magazine of your movement, Mojahed, published in April 1980 the following passage: "It is clear that relations with America, the great golden calf of the world, in the words of Imam Khomeini, are impossible. The U.S. has never given any indication it desires a healthy relationship with our country."3 It sounds like you agreed with Khomeini on the evil of the United States.
A month later, Mojahed had this to say: "The PMOI [People's Mojahedin of Iran] has called upon all its military personnel and its popular militia units throughout the nation to put themselves at the disposal of our brother Revolutionary Guardsmen. Thereby, according to this political military directive concerning unity of action in the military command against U.S. imperialism, all members and teams of the popular militia of the PMOI are committed to follow the orders of the Revolutionary Guard brothers anywhere in the country in action against the criminals of America."4
What is your position on these statements now?
Mohaddessin: These are good examples. They have to be understood within the context of the strategic policies I just explained. Although this literature was published by our sympathizers, and not the Mojahedin itself (everyone knows that at the time we had no organizational network outside of Iran), they should nevertheless have been more careful with such statements. I don't intend to defend these words or say that these were accurate and proper statements. But I do defend the strategy of exposing the Khomeini regime.
Within the context of that overall strategy, not every single tactic was necessarily correct. Would you now necessarily defend every single action, every single move, and every single operation American forces took during the Persian Gulf War in 1991?
Many things have changed in the past fifteen years. Neither we nor anyone else is so fond of fifteen years ago that they hold on to it -- except the State Department, which is stuck to events of that era.
Further, more than 60 percent of the members and the officials of our movement in 1980 have been executed by the regime over the past fifteen years. Not even 1 percent of the officials of our movement today were around during the shah's time.
MEQ: You are now approaching Americans and saying, "Let's work together." Many of us are suspicious that the words of 1980 reflect your permanent views but that you are not emphasizing these now because you need us. The burden is therefore on you to establish that there is a deep change, that it's not just tactics: that you have learned something that you did not know then; that the extreme anti-American attitudes you had for many years are not just dormant but dead.
Mohaddessin: Our position regarding the United States is very clear. We vehemently opposed U.S. policy supporting the shah, a stance we do not at all try to hide. At the same time, we had no role in the assassination of Americans at that time. According to officials of the Khomeini regime, we had absolutely no role in the takeover of the American embassy in 1980.
The world has gone through many changes since then. The shah was overthrown and the mullahs are in power; fundamentalist Islam is the new global threat; the Soviet Union has fallen and the cold war has ended. In our view, it's the era for cooperation and understanding,international cooperation and understanding, including with the United States. We strongly favor friendship with the United States, as with the rest of the world, so long as the policy of the United States is not based on defending the Iranian regime and does not go against supporting the establishment of democracy in Iran.
Our policy today can under no circumstances be a tactic. Look back, and you'll see that for more than a decade, we have invested in normal relations internationally, including with the United States. We have pursued the same approach with our Iranian audience. A popular movement like ours cannot tomorrow go to our domestic audience and reverse our position. If we did that, we would be branded as opportunists and would lose our support.
We have made many efforts in recent years to diminish the anti-American sentiments among Iranians because, today, anti-Americanism ends up favoring fundamentalist Islam and the mullahs ruling Iran. If you go back to our Persian-language publications, or our radio and television of ten years ago, you'll see that we have emphasized this point since the beginning of the resistance movement. We can't go back to the very same audience tomorrow and say something 180 degrees different. The Iranian resistance movement and the Mojahedin have been driving down a road for ten, twelve years at two hundred miles per hour. Were we to turn around 180 degrees, we would lose our supporters.
This is a strategy for us and not a tactic; it's our policy not just to confront the Iranian regime but also for the long-term future of Iran. It's disturbing to us that the United States does not understand this strategy. A policy of appeasement towards the Iranian regime and hostility towards the Iranian resistance strengthens anti-Americanism in Iran.
We fought the shah's regime for fourteen years, but it's now been sixteen years of fighting the Khomeini regime. The central issue between Khomeini and the Mojahedin, throughout these years, has been the issue of democracy. We can't go back to those positions spoken at the time of the shah.
MEQ: Would you acknowledge that the Mojahedin made some major mistakes? Would you say you learned some important lessons in recent years in relation to the United States?
Mohaddessin: We overestimated the understanding of the State Department regarding the developments and the events in Iran. We thought they would pursue a more realistic policy regarding Iran.
MEQ: Please, we're not asking about the State Department, but about the Mojahedin. Would you say you made some major mistakes before 1981, actions you now regret, and that you have learned from these?
Mohaddessin: Our political strategy in the shah's time, though not necessarily our tactics, was correct. We could not under any circumstances be friendly with the United States at the time. The strategy we gradually pursued right after the fall of the shah -- gradually to contain anti-Americanism in Iran and move towards normal relations with the rest of the world -- was the right strategy, even if the shift took time.
1 Patrick Clawson, Iran's Challenge to the West: How, When, and Why (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1993), pp. 46-47.
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes