Masoud Rajavi was the only one of the original leadership of the Mojahedin-e Khalq to escape execution by the Shah. Imprisoned from 1971 until December 1978, he emerged to reorganize the Mojahedin. He ran for president in the election of January 1980 but Khomeini declared him ineligible. He escaped from Iran with former president Bani-Sadr on July 28, 1971. He is the prime minister in Bani-Sadr’s government in exile, and is active in the Council of National Resistance. Fred Halliday interviewed him outside Paris in August 1981.
You have predicted the imminent fall of Khomeini’s government, and you have stated that the Mojahedin constitutes the only force that can overthrow the Ayatollah. What leads you to make these assertions?
We are the only real threat to Khomeini. First of all, we are Muslims. Communists and similar groups fail in Iran because they cannot understand the people, but Islam is a special characteristic of our country. Secondly, we do not need Khomeini and we never did. We accepted him as a leader in the final period of the struggle against the Shah, but we were founded quite independently of him and we knew, quite early on, what his true dictatorial and reactionary character was. A group of Mojahedin hijacked an Iranian plane to Iraq in 1970 and met with Khomeini. They saw that he had a traditional petty bourgeois and right-wing approach to Islam. Other political groups have had to hide under Khomeini’s protection: We have never had to do this. The third reason why we pose a threat to him is that from the beginning we have been the main competitor to Khomeini. One of the main reasons he organized the hostage affair was to attract progressive young people away from our organization.
Other politicians are not even as strong as Khomeini’s finger. Khomeini has often said that people should not be concerned about Kurdistan: While it is important, the main danger is under the government’s nose, in Tehran itself. Just look at the three main slogans of the regime, which they repeat endlessly at Friday prayers and meetings: Allahu Akbar, Khomeini Rahbar [Khomeini is the leader] and death to the munafiqin — the “hypocrites,” a Qur’anic term used to describe us. These slogans specify ideology, leadership and the main enemy — he Mojahedin.
You have compared the situation in Iran now to that which existed during the Iranian revolution of 1978. Although your organization is much stronger, there are important differences between Khomeini’s regime and that of the Shah. Khomeini still has some popular following, and his repressive units are still active and have shown themselves to be quite ruthless. Thousands of your members have been killed since June 1981. No one doubts your heroism, but aren’t you underestimating the resources of the regime?
Khomeini is not as strong as he pretends. At the beginning he had the support of 90 percent of the population. But now he has the support of at most 15 percent. He was leading a broad front of national, popular and religious forces. When he tried to monopolize power, he lost support: from the national bourgeoisie, from the peasants, from the working class, the different political groups, the other ayatollahs, the national minorities. Since breaking with Bani-Sadr, he has become almost totally isolated. That is why he had to expel all foreign journalists and why he is executing over 30 people a day. There are 5 million unemployed, 2 million refugees from the war. Damage from the war runs at $100 billion, inflation is running at over 100 percent, and more than one million Kurdish people are living under siege. Khomeini needs to continue the war with Iraq to cover up these economic and social problems. This was clear from the elections in July, when Raja’i became president. They lowered the voting age to 15 years, which made over 23 million eligible to vote. But we know, from a secret Ministry of Interior report, that not more than 2.7 million people voted — at most 15 percent. Even the Shah should get out a vote like that, for his Rastakhiz Party.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Khomeini’s forces are well organized. Khomeini does not have the power of the Shah’s army and of SAVAK. The pasdaran and komitehs are not well organized, especially when compared to the Mojahedin, who have 15 years of experience. At first these elements were like fascist phalanges — they at least believed in Khomeini. But now they are just lumpen elements who work for money, not ideas. In recent weeks more than 40 percent of them have left because they are afraid. The total number is not high.
People say they total 80,000.
No, much less. Bear in mind, too, that the army is away on the frontiers. If Khomeini could use the army against us, he would. But if Khomeini sent the army into the streets, it would side with us. He is always complaining that the police are not working properly, and that its personnel are cooperating with us.
Khomeini cannot organize anything. This is his basic problem. His regime is from the middle ages. This is why forms of mobilization are so important — marches, demonstrations, the Friday prayers. If he is going to defeat us and establish a stable dictatorship, he has to solve some of the country’s problems. Even Hitler could do that. This was something Beheshti understood. But with the bombings against IRP leaders, more than 60 percent of their top personnel have been removed. A medieval regime cannot survive, using the hostages affair and the war with Iraq to cover up its weaknesses.
Who were the “students” in the US Embassy?
They were linked to the pasdaran and to Musavi Khoeiniha. This was before the IRP had organized itself and there were many different factions of the petty bourgeoisie who were trying to attach themselves to Khomeini in one way or another, through Khoeiniha or through Ahmad Khomeini, his son. There were many contradictions among them, and the first students in the embassy, for the initial two to three weeks, were either IRP people or people controlled by Khoeiniha. Then the IRP took complete control and organized the embassy people. But don’t think the IRP was like a Western party even then: It is a pool with all sorts of fish in it.
It has been claimed that you were planning to seize the embassy and that the Islamic right preempted you in order to prevent compromising documents from falling into your hands.
No. We were not planning to seize the embassy. We did infilitrate the students and we got hold of documents showing that Ayatollah Beheshti had been collaborating with the Americans.
If Khomeini is so medieval and incapable, why was it that he was able to lead the revolution against the Shah?
Khomeini’s success derived from several factors. There was a political vacuum in the country, but the Shah did not destroy the religious institutions. He compromised with them, and they with him. Khomeini’s success was to convert these religious institutions into political ones, and to link them to the liberal camp of people like Mehdi Bazargan. Other factors were Khomeini’s personal record as someone who had opposed the Shah, his anti-communism and the interviews he gave while in exile in Paris. But Khomeini’s movement always had a petty bourgeois and reactionary character.
Yet the Mojahedin supported Khomeini, and you must in some measure be held responsible for his regime. You even voted for the Islamic constitution in November 1980.
No. We boycotted that referendum.
But you did vote for the Islamic Republic in March 1979. Yes, but with reservations.
And you yourself then stood for election to the Council of Experts in August 1979. Yes, but I was not elected.
Why did you not criticize Khomeini earlier than you did? Why has it taken over two and a half years for the Mojahedin to come into open opposition to Khomeini?
We never accepted Khomeini as our leader or as faqih (interpreter of divine law). We only agreed to work with him against the Shah. From the day of his return to Tehran, in February 1979, we were in increasing contradiction with him. But it is important to remember that our movement was not very strong at that time. Within a few weeks of Khomeini’s return, I began to speak out openly against some of his policies: In a country like Iran, where someone may still enjoy the confidence of the people, it is a mistake to attack his person. I criticized the system of secret revolutionary courts, the arrogation of power to Khomeini as faqih and the buildup of the Islamic Guards.
From February 1979 until June 1980 we opposed Khomeini indirectly: It was like a dance, but everyone knew what was going on. Then we went into open opposition, until June 20 of this year when clashes in the streets of Tehran began. We had to prove that although we had fought the Shah’s regime with the gun we were not just people of the gun. The Middle East is full of people who are all too quick to resort to arms, lt was in this period that I came to understand what Jesus Christ meant by saying one should turn the other cheek — we were attacked and insulted. Our offices were burned and one of our leaders, Muhammad Saadati, was arrested and held as a hostage: he was later killed in prison. We wrote to Khomeini many times, saying that the killing had to stop, that we were prepared to accept his leadership and hand in our arms provided people’s rights were guaranteed. But we got no reply.
Khomeini’s first open attacks on you were in June 1980. He began saying that you were the main enemy, attached to America and so forth. Why then?
We exposed the regime at that time. We gave Bani-Sadr a cassette tape of the then-IRP leader Ayat, showing how he planned to seize power. Overall it can be said that the conflict with Khomeini began when he arrived in Tehran, but his anti-popular orientation took time to develop. There was a first period of indirect attack up to June 1980. Then a second period of direct attack when he mentioned us by name. Our evolution was the opposite of the so-called Majority Fedayi. They began by attacking Khomeini in the April 1979 clashes in the Turkoman Sahra region, and ended up praying behind him. Throughout this period we were never allowed to sell our paper without hindrance — it first came out six months after the revolution. They were always looking for a reason to attack us, throughout those two and a half years.
On one occasion you had a meeting with Khomeini.
Yes. Khomeini spent a quarter of an hour saying how much he appreciated the Mojahedin. Then, without waiting for a reply, he got up to leave. I told him that I had some important matters to discuss and he asked me to submit them in writing. I think Khomeini is an extremely shrewd person. He is better informed about world affairs than might appear — he listens to the radio news every night — and he always alters what he says to suit the person he is talking with.
How do you distinguish your Islam from that of Khomeini? You say you want an Islamic regime in Iran, but have not the Iranian people had enough of Islamic politics?
We should not confuse the problem of reactionary politics with that of the clergy as such. People can be against reactionaries, but not against Taleqani, who was the father of the Mojahedin. The key question is one of class, not of clothing. Just as some people confuse Judaism with Zionism, so they may be tempted to mix the problem of Islam with that of some reactionary preachers. But these matters must be kept separate. We do not consider Khomeini to be a true Muslim or an imam. He is a murderer and moshrek — a polytheist. How could any true Muslim allow nine-year old girls to be killed? The battle between ourselves and Khomeini goes right back to the beginnings of Islam. His is static, traditional and anti-scientific. The Islam we want is nationalist, democratic, progressive, and not opposed to science or civilization. We believe that there is no contradiction between modern science and true Islam, and we believe that in Islam there must be no compulsion or dictatorship. We certainly believe that Muslims should lead but not that they should compel. But surely any political movement that derives its policies from a supposedly divine book is bound to be authoritarian, to preclude independent and democratic thought. In Islam, as in Marxism, there are always different interpretations. Marxism has only been around since 1848, yet it has many differences within it. Islam has been in existence for over 14 centuries. These different interpretations depend upon specific social and historical situations.
You get the same thing in Christianity: there are different social bases, and different political conditions. There are feudalist Christians, capitalist ones and socialist ones. There is one way of seeing whether something is truly Islamic or not — practice. Study the life of Jesus Christ, or the principles which derive from Muhammad, ‘Ali and Husayn. We reject a class-bound and traditional Islam, and our quarrel with Khomeini is about two kinds of Islam. We do not believe that in true Islam there is room for oppression. You cannot oblige someone to believe something else, or to drink or wear what they do not want to. There is a problem of leadership, but this must not involve dictatorship. We therefore distinguish between reactionary dictatorship and democratic centralism. No prophet could kill people without giving them defense lawyers — a Muslim can even have a lawyer who is a non-believer.
We stress the concept of tawhid — unity — and we invoke the traditions and religious dramas of Shi‘i Islam which point forward to a society without exploitation, without cruelty and without money. God does not provide all the answers to our problems: He provides only the framework. Khomeini’s interpretation of the Qur’an is mechanical and deterministic. But we are not talking nonsense like Khomeini. We do not consider that we have discovered any Islamic “third way.” We do not believe in a “third way.” We consider ourselves to be followers of the “first way,” in the line of Muhammed, ‘Ali and Husayn. If you ask me who the symbols of my Islam are, I would never say the Umayyads or the Abbasids, or interpreters such as Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abdu or Maxime Rodinson. We have a social program derived from ‘Ali.
But even in the seventh and eighth centuries, the doctrines of ‘Ali were a failure.
Not at all. All societies need socioeconomic analysis and something more general, ideology. Islam provides an ideological framework. It is up to us to provide concrete applications, so that we can come nearer to the ideal of a classless order.
What about your position on women? The Qur’an insists that men have superiority over women, and women members of the Mojahedin have to wear Islamic clothing.
Khomeini accused me of having left Iran disguised as a woman: It is not true, but if it had been true I would not have been ashamed of it. In our Islam men and women are equal. Those passages of the Qur’an you mention are not obligatory — they are mutashabe not muhkam. We do not force women to wear the hejab, or Muslim clothing. But the hejab is not, in any case, a smbol of inequality. Rather it reflects the Qur’anic injunction not to consider women as mere objects. In times of revolution, clothing acquires particular significance. Remember that in the Chinese revolution women’s clothes changed too.
Why do you think there is so much hostility in Iran to the Baha’i?
This has a political background. When the Baha’i began in the nineteenth century, the leadership of the movement was a political tendency, deriving its influence from Britain and Czarist Russia. Lower down, there were many people who believed in the religion without knowing about these political connections. There are therefore two questions: the political background and the mass of unconscious members. Khomeini confuses these two, because he is a murderer. But I do not believe in the Baha’i, and I condemn them ideologically and philosophically.
But do you condemn Christians?
No. Jesus was a real prophet, like Muhammad.
But would you deny Baha’i equal rights in the Islamic Republic?
No. We want a democratic republic. In Islam no one can kill or harass someone for their religion or their thinking. We must respect people.
You are accused by your opponents of being “Islamic Marxists.” What is your relation to Marxism?
There are two things which I would like to make absolutely clear. The first is that we are not Marxists. We reject the materialism of Marxism. But we are willing to discuss with Marxists. The sixth imam sat in the kaaba at Mecca and debated with the materialists. Secondly, we are not allied to the Soviet Union. We are an independent organization. Those in Iran who are allied to the USSR are the Tudeh Party and the so-called Majority Fedayi. These groups have no social base and have had to seek protection under Khomeini. We condemn their policies.
Are you seeking support outside Iran?
One of the reasons why I left Iran is to inform the world about what is really happening in Iran, particularly the non-aligned movement. The non-aligned movement should not support a bloodthirsty old man who is murdering people every day and who is buying arms from Israel.
A central issue in Iran’s relation to the non-aligned movement is the war with Iraq. If you were in power, how would you end it?
If we had been in power, it would never have started. We always opposed Khomeini’s attempt to export the revolution. Khomeini must therefore bear some responsibility for the material and human cost of this war. But we also condemn Iraq for aggression, and many of our members have been killed on the front. We are prepared for peace on the basis of non-interference in the affairs of Iraq and respect for existing frontiers. I hope Iraq is ready for this, too, but I am not sure.