The New York Times
September 25, 2005
AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France, September 24 – MARYAM RAJAVI, a wide-eyed woman who goes by the title president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is eager to talk about the latest discovery by her spies: mile-long tunnels, large enough to drive trucks into, dug into the mountains outside of Tehran.
“There are at least 14 to 15 tunnels of this magnitude that have been built secretly,” she said, sitting in a cream-colored reception room on the cramped grounds of her compound here. She suggested that the tunnels were hiding elements of a clandestine nuclear weapons program that the United States suspects exists but that inspectors have yet to find.
It would be easy to dismiss Mrs. Rajavi as a self-serving political zealot in a powder-blue suit with matching head scarf and shoes, except that her group has been right before.
In August 2002 the group, which says it has thousands of followers based in Iraq, announced that Iran was pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program that could be used in building a nuclear bomb. The information turned out to be true and led to the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear development program. The group’s many subsequent disclosures have been either less significant or plain wrong.
The sleepy town of Auvers-sur-Oise, 20 miles northwest of Paris, is best known as the place where van Gogh lived the last months of his life. Japanese and American tourists wander uncertainly down its main street, peering at reproductions of his paintings in front of the buildings that they portray. Few of the tourists are aware that the town is now home to an almost cult-like Iranian opposition group, some of whose members have divorced their spouses as an act of loyalty to the cause and whose armed wing is on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. The group’s devotion to Mrs. Rajavi is so extreme that some members set themselves on fire when she was briefly detained by the French police two years ago.
Mrs. Rajavi, 52, favors color-coordinated outfits that bring out the blue in her pale gray eyes and has a broad, almost impish smile that threatens to spill into laughter at almost any moment. She grew up in Tehran as the daughter of a middle-class civil servant descended from a member of the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran for 125 years before a 1921 coup by Reza Khan, an army officer, led to his election as hereditary shah four years later and the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty.
The family opposed the Pahlavis’ rule, and Mrs. Rajavi said her own activism began in earnest when she was 22 after her sister, Narges, was killed by the shah’s secret police. Mrs. Rajavi soon joined the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People’s Holy Warriors, an association of leftist students formed in 1965 that became one of the most active groups opposing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Mrs. Rajavi gradually rose in the ranks of the mujahedeen and, after the shah’s overthrow in 1979, she married a fellow member and had two children. But the family fled to France after the Islamic government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini turned against the mujahedeen and began executing its members. Mrs. Rajavi said another of her sisters, who was eight months pregnant, was killed in the crackdown.
In Paris, Mrs. Rajavi worked closely with the mujahedeen’s charismatic leader, Massoud Rajavi, whose first wife, Ashraf, had also been killed in Iran. Mr. Rajavi’s second wife was the daughter of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s progressive president in the early days following the shah’s fall. His second marriage ended after he and Mr. Bani-Sadr had a falling out in exile. Mrs. Rajavi said her own marriage to Mr. Rajavi, in 1985, was a calculated political move.
“My responsibility against the mullahs’ regime and against Khomeini drove me to the conclusion that I couldn’t have the same normal marital relationship that people in ordinary lives would have,” she said. “So it was my own very definitely political decision.”
Mr. Rajavi was expelled from France in 1986 and moved to Iraq, where he established a military camp named after his first wife. He was last seen shortly before the American invasion and, according to the mujahedeen, he is presumed to be in hiding from Iranian assassination squads. Mrs. Rajavi will say only that she is sure he is alive. In the meantime, she is in charge of the exile group.
In her small, leafy compound squeezed between the town’s soccer field and the Oise River, Mrs. Rajavi and about 100 followers pursue their single-minded goal of overthrowing the fundamentalist Islamic theocracy in Tehran and installing a government of their own with Mrs. Rajavi as president until new elections can be held.
None of Mrs. Rajavi’s answers are short or immediately to the point. She speaks volumes on a Castro-like scale, though her message remains a narrow one: that the organization has been unfairly labeled a terrorist organization out of the West’s misguided efforts to engage the Iranian government, and that the only real hope to effect change in Iran short of war is to support her organization and give it free rein.
She presents herself as a beacon of progressive Islamic politics, the antithesis, as she puts it, of the fundamentalist Shiite mullahs running Iran. But the rigidity of her organization and extreme devotion of its members has given the organization a fanatical cast.
HER smile takes on a steely glint when she discusses the mass divorces ordered by the group’s leadership, which split the movement’s families in 1989 and sent their children into foster care abroad. The policy has focused energy on the cause instead of personal relations, she said.
“Our members can’t have, because of the circumstances, the normal marital status in life that everyone else in the world can enjoy,” Mrs. Rajavi said, arguing that the movement faces a “ferocious” enemy and followers cannot afford to be distracted.
To illustrate her point, she opened a thick book filled with photos of people she says were supporters of the movement who were killed by the Iranian government. There are 21,676 names in the book, just a sixth of the “martyrs” that her organization claims to date.
“Every single member of this movement sincerely believes in the goal of democracy and has made sacrifices for it,” Mrs. Rajavi said, her smile never wavering. “I don’t call this fanaticism.”
Only on the subject of the self-immolations by some members does she concede that devotion to the cause has sometimes been misdirected. After the police took her into custody in July 2003 during an investigation of the group, several followers set themselves on fire. Two died.
“I was extremely saddened by those deaths,” she said, but she blamed the French authorities for not letting her speak to the demonstrators who had gathered to protest her arrest. She said the followers believed that she and her followers were going to be deported to Iran, “so they felt that there was nothing else that they could do.”
Many critics say the organization is reviled in much of Iran for having sought shelter with Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, but Mrs. Rajavi says that is not so. She denies that the movement ever accepted financial support from Iraq or fought against Iraqi Shiites and Kurds on Mr. Hussein’s behalf, as some people claim. As evidence of her organization’s continuing viability, she cites the group’s revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear activities.
“This is the result of a resistance movement having a very wide social base and having deep roots and being present in all sectors of Iranian society,” she said, leaning back and opening her hands.
Mrs. Rajavi’s French residence permit expires in 2006. While her aides say she has been given permanent political-refugee status in France, that has not been confirmed by French officials. Iraq, meanwhile, has inserted a clause in its draft constitution that prohibits political asylum for “those accused of committing international or terror crimes,” making the group’s future welcome there uncertain.
Still, Mrs. Rajavi keeps smiling.
“I’m optimistic,” she said. “It may not happen in my generation, but eventually the mullahs will go.”