Interview with Ebrahim Khodabandeh
"The PMOI leaders must realize that year after year the situation in Iran has changed. Now the third generation after the revolution is stepping into Iran's social and political scene. Does the organization and its leaders believe they really understand their demands and their values clearly? I doubt it."
Ebrahim Khodabandeh was a member of the Mojahedin-e Khalq organization and the National Council of Resistance of Iran. In 2003 he was arrested in Syria with a colleague whilst on an organizational mission to smuggle money and documents out of Iraq to take to Europe. After seven weeks in a Syrian jail, the men were transferred to Evin prison in Iran. The two men were immediately put in contact with their families in Iran and have been allowed frequent home visits. Neither men have been subjected to ill treatment and are expected to be tried in the near future on charges relating to smuggling activities.
Recently, Ebrahim Khodabandeh has spoken about his experiences with the Mojahedin and National Council of Resistance. Survivors' Report conducted this interview with him while he is still in prison.
You have worked for the NCRI in political circles in Europe. Could you explain the kind of work you undertook and evaluate how effective that work was?
Since the autumn of 1993 - that is when Maryam Rajavi, the president elect of the NCR, moved to Paris and from the time that the US State Department report first categorized the PMOI as a terrorist organization - all the PMOI's diplomatic and international relations have been conducted under the banner of the Council rather than the Organization. All the PMOI offices were ostensibly closed and in their place presidential offices of the NCRI were opened and we introduced ourselves as members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the NCR.
The main purpose of our activities was to get political support at any possible level for the Council and its president elect and to get condemnation for the Iranian regime's violations of human rights. In this of course, the situation of women in Iran, the imposition of religious codes on society and the lack of democracy were our wining cards. We introduced the NCR, a coalition believing in feminism, secularism and pluralism, as the sole alternative to the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Iran.
After the terrorist attack of 11th September 2001 in New York, the political atmosphere in Europe changed completely and maintaining security became the primary goal. Terrorism was introduced as the immediate challenge facing the European Union. As a consequence of its sabotage activities inside Iranian cities conducted from Iraq, the PMOI was listed by the Terrorist Act 2000 in Britain and later in the European Union as a terrorist organization. The Organization was politically cornered and its diplomatic activities were made ever more difficult.
Although the Council still had some effective support amongst parliamentarians due to their past connection and also due to their ignorance about events, it did not have any contact within the British government whatsoever. In fact, all foreign affairs departments everywhere were closed to its members. On one occasion, some British Labour MPs were asked why they had once supported the PMOI which their Government denounces as a terrorist organization. Their answer was that as MPs in the opposition they had no information about the hard facts, but that in Government they have access to intelligence which clearly demonstrates that the Organization is terrorist in nature.
In my opinion, the only effect our hard work collecting signatures ever had was just to lift the morale of our supporters to some small extent by advertising the worldwide support we had gained. This of course was to cover up our weakness in getting any results from our policy inside Iran of conducting military operations in the cities. The signatures collected from parliamentarians, which our department of International Relations had become so expert in, had no significant value in the real diplomatic world and had no effect on the policies of statesmen toward the organization in the relevant countries.
The NCRI describes itself as an alternative to the present ruling regime in Iran. What role does the NCRI play in Iranian politics today? Do you believe the NCRI can be instrumental in changing the constitution of Iran into secular democratic government?
The NCR is certainly the most organized and the most publicized alternative to the Islamic Republic outside Iran, so it definitely plays some role in the Iranian scene, although its effectiveness is deteriorating through time. In my opinion, they have failed to acknowledge the changes in Iran over the years since Khomeini's death. They still assess Iran's political scene as they used to analyze it two decades ago. Imprisonment, apart from all its hardship, has the benefit that one has enough time to study, think and look freely at one's past - something I had stopped doing once I joined the organization - and come to fresh conclusions. I have had the opportunity to read more books during the one year and nine months I have been in Evin prison than in my whole life before that. The memoir of my long standing dear friend from back in Newcastle, Dr Massoud Banisadr and 'Saddam's Private Army' by my sister-in-law Anne Singleton, fascinated me the most and opened up my mind.
Everything I have observed and read about the current situation in Iran was completely outside my knowledge and expectation. I have been speaking in detail with some individuals, inside prison as well as outside, who had been sent by the Organization from Iraq to perform terrorist activities in the cities using mortars, missiles, bombs and grenades. Those in prison were all treated equally well regardless of their political stance or their willingness to be cooperative or not. In these operations, there had been some civilian casualties. No one understood why the Organization started using violence again after a long period of military silence and after the political reforms in Iran had begun bearing fruit.
I believe the NCRI cannot change anything from outside Iran while insisting on armed struggle and the total overthrow of the regime entirely by outside forces and by relying only on foreign support. I believe that a long-standing struggle has been developed inside Iran and many people have paid the price so that now we are at the stage that Evin prison today is nothing like the Evin prison of the 1980s. This struggle, regardless of who sits in the Majlis or in the government, will continue and will find its way forward. And women and young people play a decisive role in this movement. I believe the slogans of the NCR have been masterminded for a western audience rather than the people inside Iran. Religion has strong roots in Iranian society and it is a total illusion to think that secularism can be established overnight in Iran with a bloody revolution.
Why do you think the MKO has been listed as a terrorist entity?
The organization announces this as a deal by western countries to appease the religious dictatorship in Iran and says billions of dollars are at stake. This may or may not be true. It is possible, as the PMOI insists it is, that other organizations fit the terrorist category but have not yet been labeled terrorist. But this does not alter the fact that until the spring of 2001 – that is when Iran launched 80 missiles at the NLA garrisons in Iraq just before the presidential election, and consequently the Iraqis stopped MKO combatants crossing the border to Iran any more - the Mojahedin used to send operational teams from Iraq to Iranian cities to perform sabotage activities which clearly endangered the lives of ordinary people. They may call themselves freedom fighters, but the world today recognizes this sort of activity as terrorism. We must also take into account the fact that the organization had stopped its military operations in Iran for a long time and then these actions were restarted when the results of social and political reforms, which started just after Khomeini's death, were quite visible.
I should like to ask the organization whether the Islamic Republic today is the same as in the 1980s. Is the role and power of the Supreme Leader today exactly as it was 15 years ago? Can a person be executed now as easily as those who faced instant trials and executions when Khomeini was alive? You may have once thought that the armed struggle was some how justified. Would this apply to all time and all places regardless of the situation? Britain was a kingdom at the time of Henry XIII and today still, it is a kingdom. Was the monarch then the same as the monarch today? You could compare Iran today with Western Europe or North America which have more than a hundred years experience of parliamentary democracy and then instantly conclude that the regime in Iran is not democratic and must be toppled by force. But, if you see it instead with an open mind and take into account the best interests of the Iranian people, you will compare Iran today with its past and realize that it is more or less similar to about 80 percent of the world and realize that it takes time and needs tranquility to gradually change to better circumstances.
Personally, I do not find it important whether the organization has a terrorist identity in the west or not. In the same way that I do not think all the foreign support the organization may obtain is of any help. What actually matters lies inside Iran. The struggle for democracy inside the country is alive and moving and will find its way forward, and it is up to everyone else to make adjustments to that fact. The Mojahedin may once have claimed rightly that they led this struggle, but I can clearly see today that they have been left far behind in this struggle because they wanted to achieve everything from abroad.
Why do you think the MKO has been described as a cult? Would you agree with this, and what assessment can you make as to the danger posed by such a structure?
The exceptional skill of the organization and its leaders has been to convince all its members and even the supporters that they are totally incapable personally of distinguishing between right and wrong in every aspect of life, and that they should therefore rely entirely on the ideological leadership to guide them towards the right path. A person under the leadership of Rajavi - who plays the role of Big Brother in the Organization - must give his whole heart to him; should only believe in him, hate whoever he hates and love whoever he loves. A member of the PMOI does not actually care what exactly is going on in Iran and in Iran's political scene. All that matters to him is what the leader – to whom everyone must be completely devoted – desires and demands of him. Ideology in the PMOI is just another name for the leader and his requirements. So that the person who is more devoted to the wishes of the leader is said to be more ideological.
When I first arrived in Evin prison, I had the most tremendous fear of thinking freely on my own about my own observations. After so many years in the Organization, I had developed the habit of allowing others to decide for me on every single matter, and it was quite frightening for me to open up my sealed mind, think freely, and decide by myself what is right and what is wrong. It took me more than a year before I slowly managed to come to the decision to try to analyze the external world independently. For some people, it might even take much longer than that to realize they are capable of and entitled to decide for themselves. A member of the PMOI has the potential of doing absolutely anything demanded by the organization. He could turn up being a terrorist harming innocent people like the many cases of people who were sent from Iraq. They were ready to sacrifice themselves just for the sake of pleasing the leadership without knowing why, for what purpose and based on what strategy they should do what they had been asked to do. I believe one has every reason to be alarmed by such capability, and by such power granted to one individual called the ideological leader.
The NCRI has been described as the political wing of the MKO. Can you explain what that means and what role the NCRI has in relation to the MKO particularly in the light of the MKO's involvement in armed attacks.
The simple fact is, that there are some individuals and some organizations affiliated to the Council which differ ideologically from the Mojahedin. Nevertheless, the higher fact is that all these bodies have more or less agreed to the domination of the PMOI over the Council's policies. Therefore, in real terms one should say that the political stance of the NCR is no different from that of the PMOI. The Council is chaired by Massoud Rajavi the Supreme Leader of the Mojahedin and Commander-in-Chief of the NLA, and is also financed by the Mojahedin. The members of the Council - other than the Mojahedin – are, at least as far as the methods of struggle against the Iranian Regime are concerned, sympathizers of the PMOI. Therefore, the Council has always served the Organization to take away its bitterness and present a more acceptable face to the outside world. The Council of course has always unequivocally approved the Organization's armed attacks inside the country.
The NCRI has stated it believes in regime change. Can you explain how it hopes to achieve that regime change?
Right up to the verge of the allied invasion of Iraq, the strategy of the organization to topple the Iranian regime was based on the National Liberation Army, which was situated in Iraqi territory. All of us believed that one day, when the time was ripe, the NLA would make its final victorious move towards Tehran and would overthrow the regime and establish a democratic state. Now the Army has been disarmed it is practically ineffective and no means of armed struggle remains. I was arrested in Syria before the outcome of the war in Iraq was known to me, and at present I have no idea how the organization hopes to achieve regime change. In my opinion, the regime in Iran today cannot and must not be changed through the kind of bloody revolution which is promised by the organization. Enormous changes have occurred in Iran through all these years, and despite anything that may happen in future in the political scene and whoever might be in government or sit in parliament (Majlis), reform, both political and social, will be carried forward and no one can stop that.
Some months ago, I was watching a women's program on one of the state television channels. It broadcast an interview with a woman who had been a member of parliament more than five years ago. She described how she, along with some of her colleagues in the Iranian Parliament, tried to pass a bill to bring an end to men's absolute right to divorce their wives, and on the other hand give some rights to women, such as the right to apply to the court to divorce their husbands. She explained what obstacles they had faced and how difficult it had been for them to persuade others to even talk about it. She eventually managed to win some support in the media, mobilized some women's organizations, and forced parliament to discuss the issue. It seemed rather obvious that the Guardian Council would overrule the legislation even though the Majlis might approve it. Instead, thanks to the atmosphere created by media reports and the support of even some of the clergy, the legislation finally came into effect and made a big change to the life of the Iranian women.
It may not look like a big deal compared to the laws of Western Europe, but it was worthy to fight for this step forward. The woman of course did not qualify for the next parliamentary election, but other women took her place. According to the teachings of the PMOI, she is a traitor because she sat in the regime's Majlis and legitimized it and therefore is liable for assassination. According to instructions issued by the PMOI to Iranian women, she should have immediately left her family and moved to Iraq to join the NLA. There she should have devoted herself to the leadership and then come back to Iran to perform a sabotage operation with a grenade and a cyanide capsule and then eventually been martyred in the path of Rajavi. However, I could not resist admiring her courage and her will to struggle and to stand up for women's rights and face tremendous hardship and accept all sorts of risks, in order to struggle in an arena that most men might not be prepared to set foot in. She received neither applause for her efforts, nor gained any advantage for herself. And when she was arrested once and put in jail, no one committed self-immolation. But I think that Iran needs more of these types of women. If people like her can influence parliament and state television, no matter how hard that may be, and can be effective socially and politically, what can justify taking mortars onto the streets.
I see many similarities between the hardliners in Iran and the PMOI. Through the years they have served each other in many ways. Certainly they owe much of their success to the implied cooperation between them. Unfortunately because of this, the movement to introduce reform in Iran has had to challenge both parties. It is true to say that today neither of these two could exist without the other.
I therefore suggest that it would be much wiser to take one little step to where you know it is safe to put your foot, which would definitely be a step forward, rather than to jump to a place you do not know or how you will eventually land. Certainly, change in Iran will not come about overnight. It will take time, effort, patience, and hard continuous work inside Iran over the long-term in order to achieve peace, freedom and justice.
How would you describe the quality and breadth of the MKO's political activities in the West in the past decade?
I would say that under the leadership of Massoud Rajavi the organization has always performed superbly tactically but extremely naïvely and ineffectively strategically. In short-term projects, both military and political, they have managed to produce amazing results. But they have always failed to predict or control the outcome of their actions in the long-term. That is why, even though immense energy has been expended and many achievements have been obtained, the organization always somehow lands back at square one. I believe that it is time for the leadership to review the past two decades and learn some lessons. Political achievement can fade in a matter of days if it is not part of a realistic overall strategy. The PMOI leaders must realize that year after year the situation in Iran has changed. Now the third generation after the revolution is stepping into Iran's social and political scene. Does the organization and its leaders believe they really understand their demands and their values clearly? I doubt it.
The more I think about it, even though the Machiavellian policy of the organization brought it some short-term successes from time to time, it has never got to the roots of the problem. Nor did that policy help out the organization with its internal conflicts, nor disguise its lack of clear policy for the struggle toward democracy in Iran.
How would you characterize your current involvement with the NCRI and MKO?
I am not sure that I understood the question rightly. Anyway, until now I had devoted my whole life to the organization. To me the NCR, the PMOI, or the NLA did not really matter. All I had faith in was Rajavi, whom I worshiped like a God. I never allowed myself to think of him as a person who could ever make any mistakes. I did not allow myself to think freely. I could say that I sort of switched off my mind to everything and only ever believed what he said. It was much easier for me to continue that way, just as some long term prisoners decide not to think about what has happened in the past quarter of a century.
However, I eventually decided that I would begin to think freely. It was not an easy experience and it could have been rather dangerous mentally. All through the time that I have spent in prison I was never was afraid of being tortured or executed, but I always had the fear of making mistakes. When I at last concluded that the organization and its decision makers have made mistakes, I could not force myself to remain silent for the sake of stopping the regime taking advantage of what I say. I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to discuss these matters directly with them, face to face. My advice to my friends in the organization would be that they should not ignore their criticisms of the organization and they should be brave enough to express their thoughts and take them up until they reach some final and decisive conclusions.
Can you say how much support the MKO has inside Iran. In your experience do they have the same level of support inside Iran as outside?
It would be very difficult for me to answer this question since I have no means of surveying public opinion on the organization. It is too hard to estimate the quantity of support they enjoy outside Iran let alone inside Iran. All I can say is that the situation in Iran has changed to such a great extent over the years that it does not now warrant the armed struggle that the organization is so insistent on. Many young people in Iran, at least in the cities, have access to the Internet, satellite television and foreign radio broadcasts and publications. The criticisms made against the regime in the publications outside Iran are often repeated in even sharper tones in the papers inside Iran. Many Iranians have managed to travel abroad, and many Iranians who left the country because of the situation prevailing in the 1980s are now moving back to Iran. These people of course bring new demands and expectations with themselves. The organization's policy has always been to stop Iranians returning back to their own country and even label it a betrayal of the Iranian revolution. I totally reject this attitude and I think that on the contrary, Iranians should be encouraged to come back to Iran and this would certainly enhance the movement for reform and democratization of the political systems inside Iran.
None of the families that I have met approve of the organization's armed struggle, particularly because all of its operations have been launched from Iraq with the aid of Saddam Hussein's army. The people inside Iran have strong feelings against Iraq's toppled dictator. I believe the organization's cooperation with the former regime in Iraq has damaged the image of the organization to a very great extent.
If Iranians do not accept the MKO's claims to support democracy, do you think this means that Western politicians are being deceived?
I would categorize Western politicians in two groups. Ineffective ones such as those in parliament and effective ones like those in the Foreign Office. The first group could be easily deceived since they are not necessarily expert in every field and do not have access to enough information. However, I believe that if all the parliamentarians in the world supported the NCR it would not make much difference to the political situation in Iran. The second group could not easily be deceived, but they do follow their short-term interests. In the West, this group has its own relations with the Islamic Republic and from time to time, they have found the NCR a useful tool. The NCR gained its relative popularity among Western public opinion in the past due to the mistakes made by Iranian diplomats rather than its own efforts; the sort of mistakes they no longer commit, having gained in maturity and experience through the years. Support for the NCR among western politicians has, as a result, gradually declined. Unfortunately, as the Iranian regime has moved towards moderation and self-control the PMOI has shifted to a more extremist policy. After the horrifying events of September 11th, it was possible for the Islamic Republic to take advantage of the PMOI's mistakes and to corner them politically on the international scene.