Masoud Banisadr was an active member of the controversial Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK, PMOI) for twenty years, serving as the organizations representative to the United Nations and to the United States during his tenure. The group is largely obscured from public discourse, or more recently veiled in headlines describing them as political dissidents or refugees. To those more familiar with the group the debate tends to focus primarily on their nature. For many MEK is a dangerous terrorist organization, yet for others they are freedom fighters and the only legitimate alternative to the Iranian Government. They’ve been subject to several pieces suggesting they work as assassins for the United States and Israel. Masoud has published a book called Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel about his experience in the organization, which he very candidly describes in detail as a cult, and one that has long lost its strength and vibrance. He now focuses much of his work on the research and understanding of cults, terrorism, and cult behavior within those structures.
Richard Potter: How long were you active in MEK?
Masoud Banisadr: I left MEK 1996. Before that I was the representative in the United States and the United Nations.
You were only in the political arm?
You would have joined in 1976 when it was a more political guerilla movement?
Yes at the time I joined them I was a PhD student in UK in New Castle University. I was married and I had a little daughter. Of course I married young, so everything was very fast. We married in UK far from Iran, but the only source of news we had during the Iranian revolution was from MEK. So because of the past history and the number of martyrs the MEK had against the Shah we trusted them. The slogans they gave were about freedom and democracy and equal rights, women’s rights, minority rights. All destructive cults are like some lizards and can change colors very rapidly to their surroundings.
How did this change?
What happened in 1981 is that Massoud Rajavi (The head of MEK until 2003. Currently believed dead or in hiding) saw that he had attracted so many students and he thought he could repeat the Bolshevik revolution of Russia in Iran. So what he did was he suddenly on 20 June 1981 asked all members and supporters to come to the streets of Tehran and overthrow the new establishment. MEK says that 500,000 people came to the streets. They failed. They failed and they couldn’t do anything and from the next day they changed into a clandestine organization. Between the summer of 1981 the MEK went through many terrorist actions. They bombed the Islamic revolution party buildings. They killed the new President and Premier of Iran, and then they killed at Friday prayers in different cities through suicide operation, they killed different imams through suicide operations. They themselves claim that within one year that they killed almost 1400 people, high officials and supporters of the new establishment in Iran. At the same time they claimed 2000 of their members were killed in street clashes with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In Iran what they were doing was what they called “heroic terrorism operations” later they thought the word terrorism had a bad connotation, especially in the west and they changed it to heroic actions. Most of their supporters in Iran were those who joined this group because of its peaceful nature. For the democratic liberal and pro social justice nature, so they were not ready to change into terrorist or even guerrillas. People are ready to vote for a party, but not to fight for that party.
You refer to MEK as a destructive cult, when do you believe they transformed from a political group or a guerilla group to a cult?
What happened was within Iran they were left losing 99% of their member. Only 2,000 to 3000 members left in Iran. Most of them were gone because of change of policy from peaceful demonstration to terrorist activities and street fighting. Even those who could become radicals were either killed in street clashes or by execution by the government. They lost the battle in Iran. Outside of Iran they were portraying themselves as the democratic alternative to the Iranian government. Two of the most important allies of theirs were ex Iranian President Banisadr and the Kurdish democratic party of Kurdish Iran. These two left the National Council of Resistance in 1984, suddenly this coalition of Rajavi and others turned into the pseudonym MEK. In 1983 they could get support from the labor party of UK and the socialist party of France, but after this they did not have it anymore. MEK was on the verge of disintegration, so he had to do something, which is why I think he did what was called the ideological revolution, which is when it became a destructive cult.
You’ve written about the organization forcing you to divorce your wife at this point, can you elaborate?
At this time they were telling me that my wife was what they called “revoluted”- meaning that she had accepted the ideological revolution and she was now a disciple of Mr. and Mrs. Rajavi and if I wanted to leave the group I had to leave my wife and my children as well. This was my main problem. It wasn’t just leaving the group it was leaving my children and the love of my life. I tried to rationalize it and I tried to stay in the group. Then there was some time later when they asked me to divorce my wife, again it was the same problem. Then I was in the United States and everything was wrong and slogans were wrong and meaningless, everything they said was meaningless.
How did you rationalize all of this?
There is an experiment where they put a live frog in a pot and they turn the heat up degree by degree. Outside the pot is cold, inside the pot is warm. The frog won’t jump out of the pot. It can but it won’t. It’s because the outside is cold. But when it’s realized that it is boiling and it is cooking the opportunity is gone because all of his muscles have been cooked. This is what happened to us. When the ideological revolution changed and we could see the pot was boiling, all of our muscles were cooked. All our self confidence or individuality that would help us jump out of the pot were gone.
MEK was originally aligned with some of the Kurdish groups but later on there was a great deal of fighting between MEK and Kurdish groups. What caused this change?
After the gulf war when Saddam lost the war the Kurds in the north and Shia in south thought they could revolt against Saddam Hussein and get rid of him. Unfortunately the US didn’t help and this is why they lost. Since Saddam’s army wasn’t in good shape after the war they asked MEK to attack some of the Kurdish guerillas in the north and MEK committed many atrocities. Of course then I was outside of Iraq and I couldn’t believe that we did this. After I left the group and I met other who left I realized it was true. What we were told was we were fighting Iranian revolutionary guards who had Kurdish guards, and this is what I was believed. When the accusation was brought up at the UN or anyone I would deny it vehemently, but when I left the group and met ex MEK from that war I realized this wasn’t an accusation, but a fact. They say they even killed women and children.
Saddam was probably one of the only allies in the Middle East MEK had at that time, no?
No. At this time Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were helping as well. As a matter of fact, Rajavi at one juncture traveled to Saudi Arabia and met the king. In MEK they showed us a video of him meeting the king. It was secret, the KSA and UAE support. Everyone knew about Saddam, but even within the group they didn’t speak about KSA or UAE. I saw the video when I reached the highest rank men could go in MEK. When MEK had their last battle, Forough Javidan, which means eternal light, the plan was that MEK, with the help of Saddam Hussein, would take part of Iran and announce the government order over it, calling it the democratic Islamic government of Iran- They’d go and capture western Iran and establish a government and immediately Saddam Hussein would recognize it and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates would support it, and there were others. They were hoping Kuwait would join and the United States could be pressured to acknowledge them and they could create a situation of pressure on Iran like North and South Vietnam, or Korea. This was their tactic.
This one of the bloodiest incidents during this period, no?
They failed. They lost a third of the members. As a matter of fact I was in that battle. I lost some of the muscles in my right soldier because I was shot. Of course, we were not trained, not for that battle. They said everyone had to attend, even representatives who weren’t in Iraq. So I had to go back to fight. I had no military training but I had to go. Rajavi wanted everyone to attend but himself and his wife.
I’m sorry to hear about this
It was very horrible. There were 15 students who were from the United States, they were supporters. They were brought to Iraq and in the same night they were moved to the battle field. Because of my political rank I was a commander even though I had no military background. I didn’t know anything about fighting. Only a few days before for the first time I saw a machine gun, and I only shot it once. So in the first battle I almost lost my life, I was shot and went unconscious and was take back to the hospital. Unfortunately I learned all 15 died because they didn’t have any training, and because it was done so quickly no one asked them their names and nothing was recorded. I didn’t even know their names. It was horrible.
How did you eventually get out?
In 1996 Maryam Rajavi (Wife of Massoud Rajavi and current head of MEK) was speaking in London and they asked me to come and mobilize supporters, and talk to British politicians and arrange meetings for Mrs. Rajavi, including Margaret Thatcher. So in London after five or six years I met my daughter. Before that she was 13 and now she was 18. I was faced with a lady. Emotions and feelings are very important in destructive cults. They isolate you from your loved ones, so you don’t turn your emotions to your loved ones. In London I could see my daughter and my sister and my old friends. From early morning to midnight I had to see old friends, ex-supporters of MEK, and answering thousands of questions which internally I had no rational answer for any of them. So these things, my feelings between my friends and family helped me change. And also luck. I had an accident and back problems, and I was so active in London that I had to go to the hospital. My back gave out. Fortunately for me MEK was very busy then for Maryam Rajavi with different meetings, so they didn’t care about me. If it was another juncture they’d make sure someone was with me, because MEK never leaves a member without a chaperone, always at least two with each other they watch and look after each other. So in the hospital I was alone for the almost a month and I could see normal relationships of people with each other. There was a guy beside who had an accident and I was helping him to shave his beard, or to feed him and so on, and this revived my individuality and my humanity and self confidence. All gradually it came back. When it came that I left the hospital I left MEK. I didn’t reject them fully yet, but I realized I couldn’t be with them anymore.
There are many who believe MEK serves as proxy for the West and that they are allied, do you believe this?
I don’t think so. Another problem MEK has is that Americans and Europeans know MEK has no support. In the early eighties there was an illusion of support but it was realized there was no support. There are no demonstrations for MEK and no one comes to support them. Even in Iran anyone who hates the government, hate the mullahs, even the old supporters, if you ask them they’ll say MEK is worse than the Mullahs. Western governments know this. Would the US repeat the same mistake they made in Afghanistan by supporting MEK where in Afghanistan they supported the Taliban but now they fight them. All of this aside it isn’t said that they don’t use MEK, because they do. As long as there is a bad relation with the United States and Iran they will use MEK. The Israelis, they also use MEK very much. But it doesn’t mean that even the Israelis trust them.
There was an accusation that the US was training MEK in Nevada to be used as assassins. Do you believe this?
No I don’t believe this. What is the average age of MEK members now/ I think it is about eighty. What do you want to do with people this old? I don’t think so. Probably not even spying. The only use they might have for them may be in relation to some terrorist activities in Thailand and in Europe where they say Iran or Hezbollah are committing terrorist attacks against Israeli embassy or the personnel of the Israeli embassy. Probably they could use MEK to discredit the Iranian government or even Hezbollah because Politically I don’t believe they use these tactics at this point, it would be political suicide for them. There was a story in the United States that came to the media and vanished about someone who was going to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States. It’s possible they can create this news with MEK members to work against the Iranian government, but no real action.