“PEOPLE OF THE DITCH”
T he approach to the villa that houses former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr of Iran and the man he appointed Prime Minister in exile, Massoud Rajavi, is one of deceptive rural calm.
This is the village famed for an exile who stayed here years ago, the painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh’s traces are everywhere visible to the visitor walking from the railway station : the Parc Van Gogh, with a sculpture by Ossip Zakdine; the house where the painter died, now converted into a cafe, and, right opposite, the Hotel de Ville, exactly as Van Gogh must have seen it from his front window, with its flowers and tri’colore.
The scene changes abruptly as one nears the Iranian exiles’ residence. Dozens of hiench riot police wearing bulletproof jackets and hefting rifles lurk under trees and behind hedges. Officials studiously pore over one’s identification as the local inhabitants watch. The latter complain about the inconvenience of these security cordons but admit that the burglary rate has plummeted.
Once through the French security net, one is in Iran. Outside the one-story building sit rows of shoes removed by the exiles and their aides before entering the house. Calls from all over the world jam the telephones. The smells of Persian cooking emanate from the kitchen.
Massoud Rajavi does not give the impression of being someone who plans to stay a long time in Auvers. An energetic, charming and modest man in his early 30s, he is tlie son of a merchant family from Moshad in northeast Iran, a religious city that was the breeding ground of both opposition to the Shah and to the clerical dictatorship of Ayatollah Khomeini. Rajavi studied political science at Teheran University, was trained in Palestinian camps in the late 1960s and returned to Iran to face arrest, torture and six years of imprisonment. Alone of the founding members of the Mujahedeen, he was spared execution as a result of a campaign of international appeals to the Shah.
The organization Rajavi heads, the People’s Mujahedeen, was founded in 1965 by dissident Moslem radicals who rejected the conventional political tactics of Mehdi Bazargan and other Moslem opponents of the Shah. Influenced by the revolutionary doctrines of the late 1960s, they tried in vain o win over Bazargan by offering him translations of Mao Zedong.
In 1971, they started guerrilla activities, and over the next eight years approximately eighty members were killed and about 800 were imprisoned. Their targets were government officials and buildings as well as some U.S. military personel living in the country. Although they survived, they were severely weakened. In 1975, a “Marxist-Leninist” faction, now known as Peikar (Combat), broke away, denouncing religion as “a petty -bourgeois deviation,” and in the last years of the Shah’s rule the Mujahedeen had only a skeletal organization outside the jails. They played a marginal role in the revolution, and when Rajavi was released in December 1978, he had to rebuild the movement from the ground up.
The Mujahedeen did, however, have one important asset, which they used to rally support from young people disillusioned with the Ayatollah: they were Moslems who had demonstrated their heroism against the Shah, yet they were independent of Khomeini. Rajavi told me how he was allowed to meet the Ayatollah on one occasion. Khomeini spent fifteen minutes expressing his affection for the Mujahedeen but requested that they accept his leadership. Rajavi declined and told him that there were some important issues he wished to raise. At this the Ayatollah got up and left the room, telling Rajavi that he would have to submit his requests in writing. They never met again.
The Mujahedeen did not openly oppose Khomeini until quite some time after his accession to power. They supported the Islamic Constitution, albeit with reservations, and Rajavi even tried to run in the January 1980 presidential elections. But he was barred by Khomeini, who deemed him “un-Islamic.” With this, the Mujahedeen threw their support behind Bani-Sadr.
The Mujahedeen have publicly criticized Khomeini on a number of issues. They oppose the dictatorial powers vested in him as faqih, or interpreter of the divine law. They have been the most consistent supporters of the rights of the Kurds for self-determination within the boundaries of Iran. They openly reported and denounced the use of torture by the Islamic Guards.
There are other issues on which their stand has not been so clear, given their general acceptance of Islamic principles. While they oppose certain of the present regime’s policies on women, they accept the Koran’s teachings on the role of women. (Their female members wear the hejab, or head-scarf.) They espouse the familiar—and quite unconvincing—argument that in “true Islam,” women and men are equal. Rajavi told me, “I have been accused of leaving Iran dressed as a woman. It is not true, but if it was, I would not be ashamed of it.”
A broader area of disagreement with Khomeini derives from the question of Islam’s involvement in politics. Rajavi now says that Khomeini is a moshrek, a “polytheist” in the language of the Koran, and not a true Moslem at all. Rajavi wants to see an Iran in which “truly” Islamic values are implemented—”democratic, progressive and not opposed to science and civilization,” as he put it to me.
When I suggested that any politics based on Islam was bound to be dictatorial, given the authority accorded to a supposedly divine book, he replied that the Koran could be interpreted democratically . He also rejected my suggestion that no coherent socioeconomic program could be derived from a set of texts written fourteen centuries ago . When I questioned him about the Islamic intolerance of other religions, especially the Bahai, dozens of whose members have been shot, he made a distinction between the Bahai, whose prophets are not recognized by Islam, and Christianity and Judaism, whose prophets are.
The other side of Mujahedeen ideology is its social radicalism and its espousal of egalitarian and radical themes, which have led many observers, from the Shah to Khomeini, to accuse the Mujahedeen of being Marxist. Rajavi energetically rejected the materialism of Marxism, and insisted that the movement was independent of the Soviet Union.
Rajavi’s ideology may be obscure, but the organization he commands within Iran is capable of mounting a strong guerrilla opposition to the Iranian government for some time to come. Bani-Sadr, on the other hand, has only his record as President to buttress his claim to power; in fact, he has come increasingly to rely upon the Mujahedeen.
Bani-Sadr defends his early support for Khomeini and insists that the Ayatollah betrayed his initial promises. Like Rajavi, Bani-Sadr pins his hopes on a radical Islamic program. The trouble with Khomeini, I was told, was that he was too Hellenized, that is, too influenced by the Aristotelian theory of God as a naturalistic force, causing him to see himself as God’s incarnation. The former President seems confident that he will return to Iran from Paris as Khomeini did before him, but there are many who feel that, just as Khomeini gave him his earlier prominence, he must now rely on others, like the Mujahedeen, for any future political role.
A t the funeral service for President Mohammed Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Mohammed Javad Bahonar, killed in an incendiary bomb explosion on August 30, the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Hojätolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, called for vengeance. “Death to those who created a hell with fire,” he said, “and burned a group of faithful believers and followers of the creed for their faith. God has cursed them— these people of the ditch, the arsonists and the bombers. This curse is death.”
“The people of the ditch,” a Koranic term of abuse, now encompasses a wide range of groups opposed to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the lines of political allegiance are extremely muddled. Secular groups such as the pro-Russian Tudeh Party and the majority of the Marxist Fedayeen Khalq guerrillas support Khomeini, while many Moslem militants oppose him. The latter group includes not only the Mujahedeen and former President Bani-Sadr but also the majority of the mullahs and the religious establishment in Iran.
Indeed, the Iranian opposition is like an iceberg: part of it is visible, fighting in Teheran or denouncing in Paris, but a far larger part is in Iran, watching for its time to come. Two groups in particular have been holding themselves in reserve. The first comprises the lead ing ayatollahs, none of whom support Khomeini. They do not speak out in their mosques, but they remain in Iran and bide their time.
Ayatollah Shariat-Madari in Tabriz retains the sympathies of the Azerbaijanis, about 20 percent of the Iranian population, and of the many Azerbaijani merchants who play such an important role in the Teheran bazaar. It is the merchants who make up the second opposition group. They funded the revolution and, contrary to appearances, they have remained largely intact. Yet they have turned against Khomeini because of the new regime’s meddling in the bazaar, the disorder in the country and the suppression of their political freedoms . If they are happy to see the Mujahedeen make a run against Khomeini, it is not out of sympathy for the guerrillas’ views but because they hope that the radical opposition will also be bloodied in the fight.
I t is not the great ayatollahs or the bazaar merchants who dominate the Iranian exile colony in Paris, however . Former Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar lives under as heavy protection as Bani-Sadr does, but this is about all he has in common with the former President . Bakhtiar regards Bani-Sadr as a “buffoon,” who is guilty of helping build up the Khomeini dictatorship. He welcomed Bani-Sadr’s ouster from the presidency.
Bakhtiar would like to see a democratic monarchy in Iran on the British or Swedish model. He is not opposed to a republic if that is what the Iranian people want. But he is insistent that Islam should have no place in politics. “The mullahs must stay in the mosque,” he told me, emphasizing the absolute importance of secularism in Iran.
I put it to Bakhtiar that he was now a discredited man, politically “burnt,” because of his association with the monarchist opposition and his well-known ties to Iraq. Bakhtiar, who had just called on his military supporters inside Iran to rally behind the Azadegan group of monarchists who seized an Iranian ship in the Mediterranean in mid-August, insisted that he did have supporters inside Iran and compared his alliance with Iraq to that of Charles de Gaulle with the British during World War II. The British had to bomb France, he told me, but this did not prevent De Gaulle from collaborating with them to free France from tyranny.
Bakhtiar had some sharp words about former President Jimmy Carter’s handling of the hostage crisis and even more about the role played by his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Bakhtiar believes it was Brzezinski who thought that Washington could do business with Khomeini, and who encouraged the U.S. representatives in Iran to persuade the Iranian Army to transfer its loyalty from Bakhtiar’s administration to the mullahs. This he blames for his downfall.
Bakhtiar is outspoken in his contempt for most other opposition leaders. They are all “clowns” or “idiots.” But this kind of rivalry pervades both the left and the right Some of the secular left groups criticize the Mujahedeen for siding with Bani-Sadr, and intellectuals in Iran are particularly bitter about what they see as Bani-Sadr’s role in launching the Islamic “cultural revolution” in the universities in April 1980.
They also suspect him of wanting to make compromises with the West, which they regard as unnecessary.
The right-wing forces appear equally lacking in unity. Gen. Gholam Au Oveissi, earlier seen as the boldest military leader, failed to win support from the Reagan Administration and retired in disgust to his villa. General Palizban, once reported to be leading rebel forces inside Iran, is now holed up in Italy. The new Shah, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi II, is rumored to be as indecisive as his father was and is being given conflicting counsel by his advisers in Cairo.
Two familiar adornments of the old Pahlevi court are, however, still in business. Princess Ashraf, the former Shah’s tough-minded twin sister, is pushing the claims of her daughter Princess Azadeh, and her relations with the new Shah’s mother, Queen Farah, are no better than usual. Ardeshir Zahedi, former ambassador to Washington and son of the man who organized the 1953 coup with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency, is based in Switzerland and is hoping to get more committed Western backing for the royalists.
The secular forces loyal to Khomeini regard their former allies on the left as victims of some engulfing conspiracy. Yet even they are expressing doubts about the recent turn in Teheran’s policies . A leading member of the Tudeh Party, Amir Khrosrovi, who was in Paris not long ago, repeated the Tudeh’s long-standing position that Khomeini should be seen as a “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” leader, and that the regime must move to the left if it is to survive.
At the same time, Tudeh leaders have opposed the execution of members of the Mujahedeen. They distinguish between what they see as the justified execution of royalists and the killings of “misled elements.” A Tudeh-controlled radio broadcast from inside Soviet Azerbaijan also attacked the late President Rajai in quite strong terms, denouncing him as a “Maoist” for his equation of Soviet and U.S. policies toward Iran.
It is extremely unlikely, however, that the Tudeh and their other allies will break with the regime, if only because they are too weak to withstand the repression that would then be visited upon them. Rumors among the exiles of an imminent Tudeh coup, or of pervasive Tudeh influence within the Islamic Republican Party, are certainly inaccurate.
A central factor that is too rarely publicized is the degree of division within the Islamic regime itself. This has reached the stage where one veteran observer of Iranian politics could insist to me that “there is no regime in Iran now.” It is this factional fighting among government supporters that must lie behind the two successful bomb attacks in June and August, because only a group within the Islamic Guards, the main security force, could have carried them out. The people of the ditch are united only in their determination to oust Khomeini, but there may be others bent on taking the Ayatollah’s place, whose hands have not yet been declared.
Fred Halliday is a fellow of the Transnational
Institute, Amsterdam, and an editorial associate
of New Left Review and MERIP Reports.
He is the author of Arabia Without Sultans:
A Political Survey of Instability in the Arab World
(Vintage) and Iran: Dictatorship and Development
(Penguin) . He is a regular contributor to The Nation.
The NATION Magazine - - Cover Story
September 26, 1981 Volume 233, Number 9
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993