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US Neocons' New Overtures to Terrorist Opposition Group in Iran, Part 2

Saturday, 18 June 2011 06:23 By Muhammad Sahimi, Truthout | News Analysis
US Neocons New Overtures to Terrorist Opposition Group in Iran Part 2

Iranians protests the deaths in Ashraf. (Photo: Steven Damron / Flickr)

Believing that it was strong enough to topple Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime, on June 19, 1981, MKO issued a harshly worded statement, calling Khomeini all kinds of names and declaring armed struggle against the government under the guise of defending itself.

Over the next two days, huge demonstrations and counterdemonstrations were held by MKO and government supporters. Dozens were executed on June 21 and 22, 1981, including at least 12 young girls whose identities were not known even to the judiciary. On June 28, 1981, there was a huge explosion in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), the clergy-dominated organization, killing about 120 members and senior government officials, including the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, whom MKO considered as its archenemy. To this date the culprit has not been identified; the bombing was widely attributed to MKO, but in my view that is unlikely. First, because the operation was very sophisticated, beyond MKO's capabilities. Second, Ezzatollah Sahabi (the leader of the opposition Nationalist-Religious Coalition who passed away on May 30, 2011), recently said that when he was arrested in 1990, he was told by his interrogators in the prison that the government believed that the explosion was the work of foreign agents. Third, MKO never took responsibility for the explosion, even though it always takes credit for everything else. However, the government used the assassination and explosion as an excuse to suppress the opposition, chief among which was MKO.

Assassinations and Armed Struggle: 1981 to 2003

MKO began assassinating senior clergy and government officials. On August 30, 1981, President Mohammad Ali Rajaei and Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar were killed after an explosion in the prime minister's office. The bomb had been planted there by Masoud Kashmiri, an MKO member. The Islamic Republic retaliated by carrying out large-scale executions. Members and supporters of other opposition groups that tried to stay away from the carnage were also arrested and executed, as the MKO uprising, together with the brutal war with Iraq that had occupied a significant part of Iran's territory, gave the extremists the excuse they were looking for.

Going Into Exile

It quickly became clear that the MKO uprising could not topple the Islamic Republic. Khomeini was still supported by a very large majority, and the country was involved in an external war. Thus, in July 1981, MKO top leader Masoud Rajavi and Abolhassan Banisadr, who had been impeached from his position as president, fled the country and went first to Turkey and then to Paris, leaving behind MKO's young, inexperienced supporters. MKO members were told that Rajavi would soon return to Iran in triumph and take control of the government. Rajavi, now 64 years old, has yet to return, and since then, MKO has gone from one disaster to another.

In addition to the grave mistake of taking up arms against a charismatic leader and in the midst of a war with an external enemy, MKO, and, in particular, Rajavi, have created an ongoing series of catastrophes ever since. Since 1981, not a single prediction or analysis of Rajavi has turned out to be correct. So, let us briefly describe the catastrophic mistakes that MKO has made.

"Brilliant Tactic": Armed Demonstrations

From exile in France, Rajavi ordered a totally fatal tactic: armed demonstrations. MKO supporters were ordered to demonstrate with guns. The result: more executions of innocent youth. Then, on February 8, 1982, MKO suffered a tremendous blow. Mousa Khiabani (see Part 1), the commander of MKO forces in Iran, his pregnant wife, Azar Rezai, Ashraf Rabiei, Rajavi's wife, and 18 other MKO members were killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a shootout. Only Rajavi's one-year-old son, Mostafa, survived. Rajavi appointed Ali Zarkesh, one of the original MKO members, as the commander of MKO forces in Iran.

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Political Marriage

Rajavi then married Banisadr's young daughter, Firouzeh. It was clearly a political marriage. They were divorced in 1984, after Rajavi and Banisadr had fallen out. The campaign of assassinations by MKO and the execution of young MKO members, as well as of sympathizers and supporters of other political groups, continued unabated for another two years, until 1983. Iran's reactionary right used MKO's assassination campaign and the war with Iraq to go after other political groups as well. Thousands of people, most of them young, were summarily executed. It is estimated that by 1984, at least 12,000 people had been executed, 75 percent of whom were MKO members and supporters, wiping it out as a viable opposition group. In turn, MKO assassinated dozens of the officials and killed an unknown number of soldiers, police officers, and others.

The armed struggle was not unavoidable, but two opposite groups looked for an excuse to start it: the MKO leadership, which wished to come to power as soon as possible and decided that MKO was strong enough to topple the regime, and a right-wing reactionary faction within the government - and its supporters - which had never forgiven the leftist ideology of MKO, felt threatened by it, and thought that bloodshed was the only way to defeat MKO.

"Peace Treaty" With Iraq

In 1983, Rajavi made another grave mistake. He signed a peace treaty with Saddam Hussein on behalf of the Iranian nation, claiming that for Tehran to accept peace would be tantamount to political suicide, and that once peace broke out, the regime would quickly fall. That prediction turned out to be baseless. Although in July 1988, Khomeini accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 for a ceasefire with Iraq and famously said that it was tantamount to drinking "a glass of poison," his regime is still around. The net result of the "peace treaty" was that MKO simply became a card in Hussein's hands to play against Iran. He hated all Iranians, and even a moment before he was hanged in December 2006, he ranted against "Persians."

Ideological Revolution?

By 1985, Rajavi had begun to transform MKO. Rajavi's aide in Paris was Maryam Abrishamchi (formerly Maryam Azodanlou), wife of Mehdi Abrishamchi, one of MKO's top leaders (see Part 1). Currently, MKO refers to her as the "president-elect of the resistance," but she has never been elected by anyone but Masoud Rajavi. Active in the struggle against the shah, Azodanlou was a mid-ranking member of MKO after the revolution and ran unsuccessfully as a candidate from Tehran in the elections for the first Majles, the Iranian parliament, in 1980. Abrishamchi divorced his wife so that she could marry Rajavi. Whatever the real reason was, the marriage was presented to MKO as an "ideological revolution," because Maryam Abrishamchi - now Maryam Rajavi - had supposedly reached such a level of competence that Rajavi promoted her to be the group's co-leader.

In reality, this was another step by Rajavi to immunize himself from any criticism. He became (and still is) the "ideological leader" of MKO, equivalent to the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. He thus set up the same sort of power structure for himself and his wife that he supposedly despised. So, similar to the Islamic Republic, MKO also has a supreme leader and a "president." Soon, there was neither an MKO central committee, nor politburo, both of which existed before Rajavi left Iran. Rajavi was in absolute control.

With some exceptions, MKO members and supporters accepted the "ideological revolution," which sealed their fate and completed the transformation of MKO from a military-political organization into a political cult. Rajavi declared that to fight Khomeini's regime, it was not enough for MKO members to hate the ayatollah, but that they must accept him, Rajavi, as their undisputed ideological leader. No one could criticize him because he, similar to the clerics in Iran, presented himself as the link to Imam Mahdi. The same type of ideological "purity" is demanded by the reactionary clerics in Iran, using precisely the same mythology: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is presented to the nation as the deputy to Imam Mahdi in his absence and must be obeyed without question.

Saddam Hussein's Card

In June 1986, Rajavi and his group wore out their welcome in France and were forced to leave. They flew to Baghdad. Employing its by then usual Goebbels-style propaganda, MKO portrayed Rajavi's departure as a "historic flight for peace and freedom." In reality, it turned out to be nothing but a flight that eventually led to more bloodshed among MKO supporters. Hussein greeted Rajavi by hosting the type of ceremony that is usually accorded to a head of state. This was at the height of Iran-Iraq war, and was  - and still is - considered by Iranians as Rajavi's great treason. A few thousand MKO supporters were also summoned to Iraq. Hussein provided Rajavi with weapons that the Iraqi army had captured from Iranian forces, as well as some old Soviet-made arms.

National Liberation Army

With the few thousands supporters in Iraq and the weapons supplied by Hussein, Rajavi founded the National Liberation Army (NLA) in June 1987 and appointed his wife as its commander. Altogether, the NLA had about 10,000 mostly ill-trained or untrained fighters. Rajavi first declared that the NLA would liberate Iran, an obviously ludicrous claim, because even his patron Hussein and his modern army could not. He then claimed that if the NLA entered Iran at the right time, the people would rise up and help MKO topple the government. Sadly, the MKO members believed him once again. At the same time, Iraq was savagely attacking Iranian cities with missiles, bombers and Iranian troops with chemical weapons. (The West did not acknowledge the use of chemical weapons by Iraq until 2002.) It was clear that MKO  - the same organization that was supposed to liberate Iran and bring democracy to the nation -was in full collaboration with Iran's bloody enemy.

Operation Eternal Light, or Operation Trap?

Khomeini's acceptance of United Nations (UN) Resolution 598 in July 1988 was a big jolt to MKO, because it had always claimed that Khomeini would never accept a ceasefire. Rajavi felt that his one chance was to attack Iran right then, when the nation was worn out after nearly eight years of war. Immediately after the ceasefire went into effect, the NLA attacked Iran from Iraq in an operation it called Amaliyat-e Forough-e Javidaan, Operation Eternal Light, but which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the backbone of Iran's armed forces, refers to as Amaliyat-e Mersaad, Operation Trap. Rajavi chose the slogan az Mehran ta Tehran - "from Mehran," (a town on the border with Iraq) "to Tehran." The NLA forces were initially allowed to penetrate Iran and even take over Mehran and another town, but then they were trapped and defeated easily. At least 2,000 and perhaps as many as 4500 NLA soldiers were killed, and the NLA was destroyed. Many IRGC forces were also killed.

To justify the utter defeat, Rajavi claimed that MKO members were not pure enough to deserve victory, instead of admitting that the operation was a total failure and should never have been launched in the first place. Banisadr recently said that when Rajavi was asked why he launched the operation when it was obvious to everyone that there was no hope for success, he replied, "The war with Iraq had ended, and the liberals were going to come to power in Iran. We would have been burnt by the developments." Thus, thousands were killed so that Rajavi would not feel like he had been isolated and marginalized.

Execution of Political Prisoners in 1988

Operation Eternal Light provided another excuse for the Islamic Republic to execute a large number of political prisoners during the summer of 1988. Evidence indicates that before the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq went into effect and the NLA attacked, the Islamic Republic was already thinking about eliminating most, if not all, of the political prisoners in the country. Khomeini had ordered the formation of a secret commission to look into executing the MKO prisoners. But certainly, the attacks by the NLA helped the Islamic Republic to "justify" what was truly a crime against humanity. Over 4,500 political prisoners were executed during the summer of 1988, about 75 percent of them MKO members and sympathizers. I have already written about the executions, and thus will not repeat the details here.

Rajavi always claimed that once Khomeini left the scene, "the remnants of the Khomeini regime" would quickly fall. The ayatollah passed away on June 3, 1989, and there was a peaceful transition of power from him to Khamenei. MKO was totally depleted and demoralized as a result of Operation Eternal Light and could not play any role in the new era opened up by Khomeini's death. If there was any power struggle - and there was one behind the scenes - it was in Iran, and MKO was totally sidelined.

Saddam Hussein's Tool of Repression

Then came the first Persian Gulf war in 1990 and 1991, sparked by Hussein's army's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. If MKO leadership had any political sense at all, it would have ordered its members to leave Iraq, especially once a worldwide coalition formed against Iraq. But Rajavi kept the remnants of the NLA in Iraq and did not move his headquarters. At the end of the war, in 1991, the Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south rebelled against Hussein. They were encouraged by the George H.W. Bush administration, although, when they did rise up, Bush refused to help them. Hussein used Rajavi's NLA in Operation Morvarid (Pearl) to crush the Kurdish rebels  in the north in March 1991, destroying Kurdish villages and killing thousands of civilians, acts condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It is believed that the NLA was also used to put down the Shiites' uprising in southern Iraq. In fact, an Iraqi court has declared Masoud and Maryam Rajavi as war criminals, due to their role in putting down the uprisings of the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites in 1991. MKO denies both charges. The US State Department listed the MKO as a terrorist organization in 1997. Britain followed suit, and so did the  European Union, in 2002. (The European Union has since taken MKO off its list.)

"Death to Khatami"

Any political opening in Iran has always been dreaded by MKO, because it recognizes that if there is any opening, its cult will be more isolated than ever. So, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 in a landslide, MKO and Rajavi were in shock. Thus, the target of their wrath was no longer Khomeini, or even Khamenei, who controls most of the levers of power, but the mild-mannered, open-minded, reformist president who has never been implicated in any crime or corruption. From then on, the slogan shouted by MKO supporters in any gathering, in their radio and television broadcasts, and in their publications, was, "Death to Khatami." That only demonstrated once again how misguided MKO supporters were. It was, of course, Khatami and his limited reforms that first led to the university student uprising in July 1999, and then to the Green Movement that has become the most potent opposition to the Islamic Republic. It was also during the Khatami era, on April 10, 1999, that MKO assassinated Lt. Gen. Ali Sayyad Shirazi, deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. MKO also claimed credit for the assassination, on August 22, 1998, of Asadollah Lajevardi - the notorious warden of the infamous Evin Prison where thousands of political prisoners were executed - but I doubt that the assassination was done by MKO, because of where it occurred and how it happened.

After the Invasion of Iraq

After the United States and Britain invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein in March 2003, MKO signed a capitulation treaty with the United States forces in October 2003 and was disarmed. The NLA,which was supposed to "liberate" Iran, simply disappeared, except that thousands of its members had been killed. Maryam Rejavi was dispatched to France once again to resume her comfortable life. Masoud Rajavi simply disappeared. No one, with the exception of his wife, knows where the "ideological leader" is; most likely, he is either in Jordan or Saudi Arabia.

Camp Ashraf

About 3,500 MKO supporters remain in Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf City, which is northeast of the Iraqi town of Khalis, about 120 kilometers west of the Iranian border and 60 kilometers north of Baghdad. It was named in honor of Ashraf Rajavi and used to be a base for the NLA. The camp has been used by MKO since the early 1990's. On January 1, 2009, its control was formally transferred from the US military to the Iraqi government.

MKO has refused to allow its supporters to leave Camp Ashraf. Why? Because Rajavi still wants to use them as a sign of his power, and presumably thinks that the camp is his winning card. In a recent speech to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, MKO's political arm - which had gathered in Camp Ashraf and broadcast by the MKO television channel Simaa-ye Azadi, Face of Freedom - Rajavi recounted a conversation that he supposedly had with an Iraqi official. He was not in the camp, but his speech was broadcast there to the council members. He said that the official had told him that the people who lived in Camp Ashraf had no well-defined legal stature, meaning that they had not asked for asylum and they were not Iraqi citizens either. Rajavi then said, "Get lost. We get our stature from Imam Hussein." So, even at the height of his isolation and powerlessness, Rajavi still believes that he is the "supreme ideological leader."

A glance at the meeting in which Rajavi's speech was broadcast also indicates what the organization looks like now. It was as if one was looking at a meeting of the central committee of the communist party of the Soviet Union, with Joseph Stalin speaking and the committee's members applauding exactly when they were expected to.

Taking Sides in Iraq's Politics

MKO also intervenes in Iraq's domestic politics. Every news program on Simaa-ye Azadi TV swiftly reveals that MKO acts as a political party allied with Ayad Allawi, former Iraqi prime minister and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's main foe, broadcasting nonstop propaganda in support of his political coalition. In April, Iraqi forces attacked Camp Ashraf. The attack killed 34 MKO members and injured 300. The attack must, of course, be condemned, and has indeed been condemned, as the MKO members in the camp are unarmed, even though they have military training. Nonetheless, a non-Iraqi group that collaborated with Saddam Hussein - the Shiites' archenemy - resides in Iraq, refusing to seek political asylum but also refusing to leave. It is the enemy of the present Iraqi government's friend (the Islamic Republic that funded and armed Shiite groups that opposed Hussein), and a friend of its enemy, Ayad Allawi. It refuses to recognize Iraq's sovereignty. Furthermore, as bad as al-Maliki may be, he remains the prime minister of Iraq as a result of elections last year. This is not to justify the crimes that took place recently at Camp Ashraf, but blind condemnation of one side without due attention to what MKO leadership has done is not objective.

The Culture of a Cult

As failures of the MKO leadership piled up, it was turned into a Stalinist-style cult. By the time the leadership moved to Iraq and established its headquarters there, MKO's transformation into a sort of cult was complete. Rajavi was referred to by MKO members as Emam-e Hazer, the current Imam, linking him to Imam Mahdi, who is referred to as Emam-e Zamaan, Imam of the age, in Iran. MKO has its own calendar, filled with special occasions in MKO history. It has its own dress code for both men and women. It has its own books, censorship index and handbooks. While it espouses unending hatred for the Tehran regime (which might even be justified), it presents its ideology as the only correct view of the world. All orders to the members come from the top.

No member of such a cult can ask too many questions or criticize the past. A simple search on the Internet indicates that there are all types of horror stories told by former members of MKO who wanted to leave the organization prior to the invasion of Iraq, but were arrested by MKO guards and jailed within Camp Ashraf or elsewhere. They were tortured, beaten, kept in solitary confinement, "re-educated ideologically," and, if nothing else worked, were turned over to Hussein's Special Security Organization as Iran's "spies." No member had the right to leave MKO, just as no one was allowed to criticize the Rajavis after so many failures. Those who care to read more about what the MKO leadership has done to its own dissidents since 1981 may read "The Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel," by Masoud Banisadr. A second cousin of Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, he was a longtime member of MKO who quit the organization in the 1990's. Another important work is the report by HRW, "No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the Mojahedin Khalq Camps." There are also many web sites published by former members of MKO, in which they and their families recount their own stories and experiences.

There is only one rational conclusion: MKO is no longer a viable political organization. Rather, it is just a cult whose members and supporters worship the Rajavi's and are not willing to consider what the couple has done to them and to the Iranian nation.

In addition to the blind obedience to the Rajavi's that is characteristic of a cult, consider the following: On June 17, 2003, Maryam Rajavi was arrested by the French counterterrorism force, together with 165 MKO members in 13 offices. The police also confiscated $3 million in cash in her residence. The next day, three MKO supporters set themselves on fire in Paris to protest the arrest. One, a woman, died of her burns. A man tried to do the same in Switzerland, while another was involved in a self-immolation in London. If these are not the acts of cult members - akin to what followers of Hassan ibn Sabbah, the ancient Iranian warrior, or adherents of David Koresh's Branch Davidian religious cult did - then what could possibly qualify?

MKO Lobby in the US and the Neoconservatives

MKO's latest alliance is with the American neoconservatives and the Israel lobby in the United States. Rajavi and MKO believe that, with the help of American neoconservatives, they will eventually come to power. Over the past several months, six conferences sponsored by US neoconservatives and their allies have been held in Europe and the United States to prop up MKO as the leading alternative to the Islamic Republic. Such infamous neoconservative figures as John Bolton and former CIA director R. James Woolsey support MKO. The neocons also channel their support for MKO through right-wing groups such as the Iran Policy Committee (IPC). An investigation published by Jim Lobe's LobeLog  in September 2010 revealed that the IPC has shared an address, accountants and some staff with multiple organizations that either fronted for or had direct ties to Iraqi conman Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress  - the same body that fabricated much of the bogus intelligence that neocons used to garner support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The MKO itself has several front organizations. The National Council of Resistance is its political arm. Near East Policy Research and Strategic Policy Consulting are two "companies" that are headed by MKO longtime members and spokesmen. Council for Democratic Change in Iran (CDCI) is a group that provides cover for the neocons and other figures to support MKO without being directly associated with MKO. It invites politicians to speak to them without telling them that they are an MKO front group, and often gives them honoraria so high that it becomes difficult for them to resist. Conservative academic Raymond Tanter, who originally founded the IPC, is one such person. In a speech to the CDCI, Tanter said, "To say that the only route in Iran is the nonviolent route of Gandhi and King is to misunderstand the nature of the theocratic regime in Tehran," hence clearly advocating military attacks on Iran. Former CIA operative and IPC staff member Clare M. Lopez is another MKO supporter, because, in her opinion, MKO can spy on Iran. So, once again, MKO is "loved" because its members are willing to spy on their own country.

But even mainstream politicians have apparently been deceived by MKO's front organizations without knowing anything about MKO's past or about the fact that it is a cult, not a legitimate political organization. Howard Dean, former Democratic presidential candidate and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee is one. President Obama's former national security adviser Gen. James L. Jones, is another. Others include former energy secretary and US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson; Michael Mukasey, attorney general under President George W. Bush; Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and homeland security secretary under Bush; Gen. Peter Pace; Hugh Shelton, former vice chair and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former FBI director Louis Freeh; Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman; former CIA director Michael Hayden; Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of the Central Command; and Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser in the Bush White House.

These figures are usually not approached by MKO directly, but by the National Council of Resistance, or the CDCI, or another MKO-affiliated group, introducing themselves as representatives of Iran's Green Movement, or "the democratic resistance," or "members of Iran's parliament in exile" (there is no such parliament), or as a Fox News analyst. They try to convince the political figures that their supporters in Camp Ashraf, together with the "Iranian people," whom they claim will surely rise up in support of MKO - the way they were supposed to when the MKO launched Operation Eternal Light - will be able to topple the Islamic Republic. But if, in fact, the MKO ever comes to power - and the probability of that is practically zero - the bloodbath that would start would dwarf anything that has happened in Iran.

MKO base of support in Iran

Despite its strength, MKO failed to attract important segments of the Iranian society, even at the height of its popularity in 1981. Its main base of support was among the young students who romanticized MKO as both leftist and Islamic. Though a mass movement, at the height of its popularity it could attract no more than 20 percent of the population. It had no strong base in the traditional middle class, nor in the working class. Its female members covered, and still cover, their heads with rousari (headscarves) and wear completely traditional Islamic dresses, which is frowned upon by a significant segment of the urban female population. At the same time, being absent from Iranian politics for 30 years, and with 70 percent of the population being under the age of 35, most Iranians do not have any recollection of MKO; their information will be what they hear from their parents, or from the regime's propaganda.

Politically, MKO is a depleted, totally discredited cult. It is despised by the vast majority of those Iranians who know what MKO has stood for over the past 30 years, from the treason committed by its leadership against the nation by siding with Saddam Hussein, to the revelations it made about Iran's uranium enrichment program, to its campaign of assassinations from 1981 to 1984 (and a few more since then). These acts not only did not result in a democratic system, but gave the reactionaries and hardliners the excuse to eliminate all the opposition groups. The marriage of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, regardless of its true motivation, was mocked by most Iranians.

In fact, MKO is so despised in Iran that, in order to discredit the supporters of the opposition Green Movement, Iran's hardliners try to link them with MKO. While a seemingly large number of supporters show up to the demonstrations that MKO organizes outside of Iran, it has no significant support even among Iranian expatriots, if we recall that millions of Iranians have emigrated to the West, and every year, another 150,000 highly educated young Iranians leave Iran who do not know anything about MKO, let alone support it.

Those who support MKO as a viable alternative to the hardliners and reactionaries in Tehran would be well advised to take another look at its history.

Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering & materials science and the National Iranian Oil Company chair in petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California, has published extensively on Iran's political development and its nuclear program. He is the lead political columnist for the web site PBS/Frontline/Tehran Bureau, blogs at The Huffington Post, and contributes regularly to antiwar.com and National Public Radio on issues related to Iran.

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US Neocons' New Overtures to Terrorist Opposition Group in Iran, Part 1
By Muhammad Sahimi, Truthout | News Analysis

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US Neocons' New Overtures to Terrorist Opposition Group in Iran, Part 2

Saturday, 18 June 2011 06:23 By Muhammad Sahimi, Truthout | News Analysis
US Neocons New Overtures to Terrorist Opposition Group in Iran Part 2

Iranians protests the deaths in Ashraf. (Photo: Steven Damron / Flickr)

Believing that it was strong enough to topple Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime, on June 19, 1981, MKO issued a harshly worded statement, calling Khomeini all kinds of names and declaring armed struggle against the government under the guise of defending itself.

Over the next two days, huge demonstrations and counterdemonstrations were held by MKO and government supporters. Dozens were executed on June 21 and 22, 1981, including at least 12 young girls whose identities were not known even to the judiciary. On June 28, 1981, there was a huge explosion in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), the clergy-dominated organization, killing about 120 members and senior government officials, including the judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti, whom MKO considered as its archenemy. To this date the culprit has not been identified; the bombing was widely attributed to MKO, but in my view that is unlikely. First, because the operation was very sophisticated, beyond MKO's capabilities. Second, Ezzatollah Sahabi (the leader of the opposition Nationalist-Religious Coalition who passed away on May 30, 2011), recently said that when he was arrested in 1990, he was told by his interrogators in the prison that the government believed that the explosion was the work of foreign agents. Third, MKO never took responsibility for the explosion, even though it always takes credit for everything else. However, the government used the assassination and explosion as an excuse to suppress the opposition, chief among which was MKO.

Assassinations and Armed Struggle: 1981 to 2003

MKO began assassinating senior clergy and government officials. On August 30, 1981, President Mohammad Ali Rajaei and Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar were killed after an explosion in the prime minister's office. The bomb had been planted there by Masoud Kashmiri, an MKO member. The Islamic Republic retaliated by carrying out large-scale executions. Members and supporters of other opposition groups that tried to stay away from the carnage were also arrested and executed, as the MKO uprising, together with the brutal war with Iraq that had occupied a significant part of Iran's territory, gave the extremists the excuse they were looking for.

Going Into Exile

It quickly became clear that the MKO uprising could not topple the Islamic Republic. Khomeini was still supported by a very large majority, and the country was involved in an external war. Thus, in July 1981, MKO top leader Masoud Rajavi and Abolhassan Banisadr, who had been impeached from his position as president, fled the country and went first to Turkey and then to Paris, leaving behind MKO's young, inexperienced supporters. MKO members were told that Rajavi would soon return to Iran in triumph and take control of the government. Rajavi, now 64 years old, has yet to return, and since then, MKO has gone from one disaster to another.

In addition to the grave mistake of taking up arms against a charismatic leader and in the midst of a war with an external enemy, MKO, and, in particular, Rajavi, have created an ongoing series of catastrophes ever since. Since 1981, not a single prediction or analysis of Rajavi has turned out to be correct. So, let us briefly describe the catastrophic mistakes that MKO has made.

"Brilliant Tactic": Armed Demonstrations

From exile in France, Rajavi ordered a totally fatal tactic: armed demonstrations. MKO supporters were ordered to demonstrate with guns. The result: more executions of innocent youth. Then, on February 8, 1982, MKO suffered a tremendous blow. Mousa Khiabani (see Part 1), the commander of MKO forces in Iran, his pregnant wife, Azar Rezai, Ashraf Rabiei, Rajavi's wife, and 18 other MKO members were killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in a shootout. Only Rajavi's one-year-old son, Mostafa, survived. Rajavi appointed Ali Zarkesh, one of the original MKO members, as the commander of MKO forces in Iran.

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Political Marriage

Rajavi then married Banisadr's young daughter, Firouzeh. It was clearly a political marriage. They were divorced in 1984, after Rajavi and Banisadr had fallen out. The campaign of assassinations by MKO and the execution of young MKO members, as well as of sympathizers and supporters of other political groups, continued unabated for another two years, until 1983. Iran's reactionary right used MKO's assassination campaign and the war with Iraq to go after other political groups as well. Thousands of people, most of them young, were summarily executed. It is estimated that by 1984, at least 12,000 people had been executed, 75 percent of whom were MKO members and supporters, wiping it out as a viable opposition group. In turn, MKO assassinated dozens of the officials and killed an unknown number of soldiers, police officers, and others.

The armed struggle was not unavoidable, but two opposite groups looked for an excuse to start it: the MKO leadership, which wished to come to power as soon as possible and decided that MKO was strong enough to topple the regime, and a right-wing reactionary faction within the government - and its supporters - which had never forgiven the leftist ideology of MKO, felt threatened by it, and thought that bloodshed was the only way to defeat MKO.

"Peace Treaty" With Iraq

In 1983, Rajavi made another grave mistake. He signed a peace treaty with Saddam Hussein on behalf of the Iranian nation, claiming that for Tehran to accept peace would be tantamount to political suicide, and that once peace broke out, the regime would quickly fall. That prediction turned out to be baseless. Although in July 1988, Khomeini accepted United Nations Security Council Resolution 598 for a ceasefire with Iraq and famously said that it was tantamount to drinking "a glass of poison," his regime is still around. The net result of the "peace treaty" was that MKO simply became a card in Hussein's hands to play against Iran. He hated all Iranians, and even a moment before he was hanged in December 2006, he ranted against "Persians."

Ideological Revolution?

By 1985, Rajavi had begun to transform MKO. Rajavi's aide in Paris was Maryam Abrishamchi (formerly Maryam Azodanlou), wife of Mehdi Abrishamchi, one of MKO's top leaders (see Part 1). Currently, MKO refers to her as the "president-elect of the resistance," but she has never been elected by anyone but Masoud Rajavi. Active in the struggle against the shah, Azodanlou was a mid-ranking member of MKO after the revolution and ran unsuccessfully as a candidate from Tehran in the elections for the first Majles, the Iranian parliament, in 1980. Abrishamchi divorced his wife so that she could marry Rajavi. Whatever the real reason was, the marriage was presented to MKO as an "ideological revolution," because Maryam Abrishamchi - now Maryam Rajavi - had supposedly reached such a level of competence that Rajavi promoted her to be the group's co-leader.

In reality, this was another step by Rajavi to immunize himself from any criticism. He became (and still is) the "ideological leader" of MKO, equivalent to the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. He thus set up the same sort of power structure for himself and his wife that he supposedly despised. So, similar to the Islamic Republic, MKO also has a supreme leader and a "president." Soon, there was neither an MKO central committee, nor politburo, both of which existed before Rajavi left Iran. Rajavi was in absolute control.

With some exceptions, MKO members and supporters accepted the "ideological revolution," which sealed their fate and completed the transformation of MKO from a military-political organization into a political cult. Rajavi declared that to fight Khomeini's regime, it was not enough for MKO members to hate the ayatollah, but that they must accept him, Rajavi, as their undisputed ideological leader. No one could criticize him because he, similar to the clerics in Iran, presented himself as the link to Imam Mahdi. The same type of ideological "purity" is demanded by the reactionary clerics in Iran, using precisely the same mythology: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is presented to the nation as the deputy to Imam Mahdi in his absence and must be obeyed without question.

Saddam Hussein's Card

In June 1986, Rajavi and his group wore out their welcome in France and were forced to leave. They flew to Baghdad. Employing its by then usual Goebbels-style propaganda, MKO portrayed Rajavi's departure as a "historic flight for peace and freedom." In reality, it turned out to be nothing but a flight that eventually led to more bloodshed among MKO supporters. Hussein greeted Rajavi by hosting the type of ceremony that is usually accorded to a head of state. This was at the height of Iran-Iraq war, and was  - and still is - considered by Iranians as Rajavi's great treason. A few thousand MKO supporters were also summoned to Iraq. Hussein provided Rajavi with weapons that the Iraqi army had captured from Iranian forces, as well as some old Soviet-made arms.

National Liberation Army

With the few thousands supporters in Iraq and the weapons supplied by Hussein, Rajavi founded the National Liberation Army (NLA) in June 1987 and appointed his wife as its commander. Altogether, the NLA had about 10,000 mostly ill-trained or untrained fighters. Rajavi first declared that the NLA would liberate Iran, an obviously ludicrous claim, because even his patron Hussein and his modern army could not. He then claimed that if the NLA entered Iran at the right time, the people would rise up and help MKO topple the government. Sadly, the MKO members believed him once again. At the same time, Iraq was savagely attacking Iranian cities with missiles, bombers and Iranian troops with chemical weapons. (The West did not acknowledge the use of chemical weapons by Iraq until 2002.) It was clear that MKO  - the same organization that was supposed to liberate Iran and bring democracy to the nation -was in full collaboration with Iran's bloody enemy.

Operation Eternal Light, or Operation Trap?

Khomeini's acceptance of United Nations (UN) Resolution 598 in July 1988 was a big jolt to MKO, because it had always claimed that Khomeini would never accept a ceasefire. Rajavi felt that his one chance was to attack Iran right then, when the nation was worn out after nearly eight years of war. Immediately after the ceasefire went into effect, the NLA attacked Iran from Iraq in an operation it called Amaliyat-e Forough-e Javidaan, Operation Eternal Light, but which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the backbone of Iran's armed forces, refers to as Amaliyat-e Mersaad, Operation Trap. Rajavi chose the slogan az Mehran ta Tehran - "from Mehran," (a town on the border with Iraq) "to Tehran." The NLA forces were initially allowed to penetrate Iran and even take over Mehran and another town, but then they were trapped and defeated easily. At least 2,000 and perhaps as many as 4500 NLA soldiers were killed, and the NLA was destroyed. Many IRGC forces were also killed.

To justify the utter defeat, Rajavi claimed that MKO members were not pure enough to deserve victory, instead of admitting that the operation was a total failure and should never have been launched in the first place. Banisadr recently said that when Rajavi was asked why he launched the operation when it was obvious to everyone that there was no hope for success, he replied, "The war with Iraq had ended, and the liberals were going to come to power in Iran. We would have been burnt by the developments." Thus, thousands were killed so that Rajavi would not feel like he had been isolated and marginalized.

Execution of Political Prisoners in 1988

Operation Eternal Light provided another excuse for the Islamic Republic to execute a large number of political prisoners during the summer of 1988. Evidence indicates that before the ceasefire between Iran and Iraq went into effect and the NLA attacked, the Islamic Republic was already thinking about eliminating most, if not all, of the political prisoners in the country. Khomeini had ordered the formation of a secret commission to look into executing the MKO prisoners. But certainly, the attacks by the NLA helped the Islamic Republic to "justify" what was truly a crime against humanity. Over 4,500 political prisoners were executed during the summer of 1988, about 75 percent of them MKO members and sympathizers. I have already written about the executions, and thus will not repeat the details here.

Rajavi always claimed that once Khomeini left the scene, "the remnants of the Khomeini regime" would quickly fall. The ayatollah passed away on June 3, 1989, and there was a peaceful transition of power from him to Khamenei. MKO was totally depleted and demoralized as a result of Operation Eternal Light and could not play any role in the new era opened up by Khomeini's death. If there was any power struggle - and there was one behind the scenes - it was in Iran, and MKO was totally sidelined.

Saddam Hussein's Tool of Repression

Then came the first Persian Gulf war in 1990 and 1991, sparked by Hussein's army's invasion and occupation of Kuwait. If MKO leadership had any political sense at all, it would have ordered its members to leave Iraq, especially once a worldwide coalition formed against Iraq. But Rajavi kept the remnants of the NLA in Iraq and did not move his headquarters. At the end of the war, in 1991, the Iraqi Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south rebelled against Hussein. They were encouraged by the George H.W. Bush administration, although, when they did rise up, Bush refused to help them. Hussein used Rajavi's NLA in Operation Morvarid (Pearl) to crush the Kurdish rebels  in the north in March 1991, destroying Kurdish villages and killing thousands of civilians, acts condemned by Human Rights Watch (HRW). It is believed that the NLA was also used to put down the Shiites' uprising in southern Iraq. In fact, an Iraqi court has declared Masoud and Maryam Rajavi as war criminals, due to their role in putting down the uprisings of the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites in 1991. MKO denies both charges. The US State Department listed the MKO as a terrorist organization in 1997. Britain followed suit, and so did the  European Union, in 2002. (The European Union has since taken MKO off its list.)

"Death to Khatami"

Any political opening in Iran has always been dreaded by MKO, because it recognizes that if there is any opening, its cult will be more isolated than ever. So, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidential election in 1997 in a landslide, MKO and Rajavi were in shock. Thus, the target of their wrath was no longer Khomeini, or even Khamenei, who controls most of the levers of power, but the mild-mannered, open-minded, reformist president who has never been implicated in any crime or corruption. From then on, the slogan shouted by MKO supporters in any gathering, in their radio and television broadcasts, and in their publications, was, "Death to Khatami." That only demonstrated once again how misguided MKO supporters were. It was, of course, Khatami and his limited reforms that first led to the university student uprising in July 1999, and then to the Green Movement that has become the most potent opposition to the Islamic Republic. It was also during the Khatami era, on April 10, 1999, that MKO assassinated Lt. Gen. Ali Sayyad Shirazi, deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces. MKO also claimed credit for the assassination, on August 22, 1998, of Asadollah Lajevardi - the notorious warden of the infamous Evin Prison where thousands of political prisoners were executed - but I doubt that the assassination was done by MKO, because of where it occurred and how it happened.

After the Invasion of Iraq

After the United States and Britain invaded Iraq and toppled Hussein in March 2003, MKO signed a capitulation treaty with the United States forces in October 2003 and was disarmed. The NLA,which was supposed to "liberate" Iran, simply disappeared, except that thousands of its members had been killed. Maryam Rejavi was dispatched to France once again to resume her comfortable life. Masoud Rajavi simply disappeared. No one, with the exception of his wife, knows where the "ideological leader" is; most likely, he is either in Jordan or Saudi Arabia.

Camp Ashraf

About 3,500 MKO supporters remain in Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf City, which is northeast of the Iraqi town of Khalis, about 120 kilometers west of the Iranian border and 60 kilometers north of Baghdad. It was named in honor of Ashraf Rajavi and used to be a base for the NLA. The camp has been used by MKO since the early 1990's. On January 1, 2009, its control was formally transferred from the US military to the Iraqi government.

MKO has refused to allow its supporters to leave Camp Ashraf. Why? Because Rajavi still wants to use them as a sign of his power, and presumably thinks that the camp is his winning card. In a recent speech to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, MKO's political arm - which had gathered in Camp Ashraf and broadcast by the MKO television channel Simaa-ye Azadi, Face of Freedom - Rajavi recounted a conversation that he supposedly had with an Iraqi official. He was not in the camp, but his speech was broadcast there to the council members. He said that the official had told him that the people who lived in Camp Ashraf had no well-defined legal stature, meaning that they had not asked for asylum and they were not Iraqi citizens either. Rajavi then said, "Get lost. We get our stature from Imam Hussein." So, even at the height of his isolation and powerlessness, Rajavi still believes that he is the "supreme ideological leader."

A glance at the meeting in which Rajavi's speech was broadcast also indicates what the organization looks like now. It was as if one was looking at a meeting of the central committee of the communist party of the Soviet Union, with Joseph Stalin speaking and the committee's members applauding exactly when they were expected to.

Taking Sides in Iraq's Politics

MKO also intervenes in Iraq's domestic politics. Every news program on Simaa-ye Azadi TV swiftly reveals that MKO acts as a political party allied with Ayad Allawi, former Iraqi prime minister and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's main foe, broadcasting nonstop propaganda in support of his political coalition. In April, Iraqi forces attacked Camp Ashraf. The attack killed 34 MKO members and injured 300. The attack must, of course, be condemned, and has indeed been condemned, as the MKO members in the camp are unarmed, even though they have military training. Nonetheless, a non-Iraqi group that collaborated with Saddam Hussein - the Shiites' archenemy - resides in Iraq, refusing to seek political asylum but also refusing to leave. It is the enemy of the present Iraqi government's friend (the Islamic Republic that funded and armed Shiite groups that opposed Hussein), and a friend of its enemy, Ayad Allawi. It refuses to recognize Iraq's sovereignty. Furthermore, as bad as al-Maliki may be, he remains the prime minister of Iraq as a result of elections last year. This is not to justify the crimes that took place recently at Camp Ashraf, but blind condemnation of one side without due attention to what MKO leadership has done is not objective.

The Culture of a Cult

As failures of the MKO leadership piled up, it was turned into a Stalinist-style cult. By the time the leadership moved to Iraq and established its headquarters there, MKO's transformation into a sort of cult was complete. Rajavi was referred to by MKO members as Emam-e Hazer, the current Imam, linking him to Imam Mahdi, who is referred to as Emam-e Zamaan, Imam of the age, in Iran. MKO has its own calendar, filled with special occasions in MKO history. It has its own dress code for both men and women. It has its own books, censorship index and handbooks. While it espouses unending hatred for the Tehran regime (which might even be justified), it presents its ideology as the only correct view of the world. All orders to the members come from the top.

No member of such a cult can ask too many questions or criticize the past. A simple search on the Internet indicates that there are all types of horror stories told by former members of MKO who wanted to leave the organization prior to the invasion of Iraq, but were arrested by MKO guards and jailed within Camp Ashraf or elsewhere. They were tortured, beaten, kept in solitary confinement, "re-educated ideologically," and, if nothing else worked, were turned over to Hussein's Special Security Organization as Iran's "spies." No member had the right to leave MKO, just as no one was allowed to criticize the Rajavis after so many failures. Those who care to read more about what the MKO leadership has done to its own dissidents since 1981 may read "The Memoirs of an Iranian Rebel," by Masoud Banisadr. A second cousin of Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, he was a longtime member of MKO who quit the organization in the 1990's. Another important work is the report by HRW, "No Exit: Human Rights Abuses Inside the Mojahedin Khalq Camps." There are also many web sites published by former members of MKO, in which they and their families recount their own stories and experiences.

There is only one rational conclusion: MKO is no longer a viable political organization. Rather, it is just a cult whose members and supporters worship the Rajavi's and are not willing to consider what the couple has done to them and to the Iranian nation.

In addition to the blind obedience to the Rajavi's that is characteristic of a cult, consider the following: On June 17, 2003, Maryam Rajavi was arrested by the French counterterrorism force, together with 165 MKO members in 13 offices. The police also confiscated $3 million in cash in her residence. The next day, three MKO supporters set themselves on fire in Paris to protest the arrest. One, a woman, died of her burns. A man tried to do the same in Switzerland, while another was involved in a self-immolation in London. If these are not the acts of cult members - akin to what followers of Hassan ibn Sabbah, the ancient Iranian warrior, or adherents of David Koresh's Branch Davidian religious cult did - then what could possibly qualify?

MKO Lobby in the US and the Neoconservatives

MKO's latest alliance is with the American neoconservatives and the Israel lobby in the United States. Rajavi and MKO believe that, with the help of American neoconservatives, they will eventually come to power. Over the past several months, six conferences sponsored by US neoconservatives and their allies have been held in Europe and the United States to prop up MKO as the leading alternative to the Islamic Republic. Such infamous neoconservative figures as John Bolton and former CIA director R. James Woolsey support MKO. The neocons also channel their support for MKO through right-wing groups such as the Iran Policy Committee (IPC). An investigation published by Jim Lobe's LobeLog  in September 2010 revealed that the IPC has shared an address, accountants and some staff with multiple organizations that either fronted for or had direct ties to Iraqi conman Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress  - the same body that fabricated much of the bogus intelligence that neocons used to garner support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The MKO itself has several front organizations. The National Council of Resistance is its political arm. Near East Policy Research and Strategic Policy Consulting are two "companies" that are headed by MKO longtime members and spokesmen. Council for Democratic Change in Iran (CDCI) is a group that provides cover for the neocons and other figures to support MKO without being directly associated with MKO. It invites politicians to speak to them without telling them that they are an MKO front group, and often gives them honoraria so high that it becomes difficult for them to resist. Conservative academic Raymond Tanter, who originally founded the IPC, is one such person. In a speech to the CDCI, Tanter said, "To say that the only route in Iran is the nonviolent route of Gandhi and King is to misunderstand the nature of the theocratic regime in Tehran," hence clearly advocating military attacks on Iran. Former CIA operative and IPC staff member Clare M. Lopez is another MKO supporter, because, in her opinion, MKO can spy on Iran. So, once again, MKO is "loved" because its members are willing to spy on their own country.

But even mainstream politicians have apparently been deceived by MKO's front organizations without knowing anything about MKO's past or about the fact that it is a cult, not a legitimate political organization. Howard Dean, former Democratic presidential candidate and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee is one. President Obama's former national security adviser Gen. James L. Jones, is another. Others include former energy secretary and US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson; Michael Mukasey, attorney general under President George W. Bush; Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and homeland security secretary under Bush; Gen. Peter Pace; Hugh Shelton, former vice chair and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former FBI director Louis Freeh; Lee Hamilton, former Democratic congressman; former CIA director Michael Hayden; Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of the Central Command; and Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser in the Bush White House.

These figures are usually not approached by MKO directly, but by the National Council of Resistance, or the CDCI, or another MKO-affiliated group, introducing themselves as representatives of Iran's Green Movement, or "the democratic resistance," or "members of Iran's parliament in exile" (there is no such parliament), or as a Fox News analyst. They try to convince the political figures that their supporters in Camp Ashraf, together with the "Iranian people," whom they claim will surely rise up in support of MKO - the way they were supposed to when the MKO launched Operation Eternal Light - will be able to topple the Islamic Republic. But if, in fact, the MKO ever comes to power - and the probability of that is practically zero - the bloodbath that would start would dwarf anything that has happened in Iran.

MKO base of support in Iran

Despite its strength, MKO failed to attract important segments of the Iranian society, even at the height of its popularity in 1981. Its main base of support was among the young students who romanticized MKO as both leftist and Islamic. Though a mass movement, at the height of its popularity it could attract no more than 20 percent of the population. It had no strong base in the traditional middle class, nor in the working class. Its female members covered, and still cover, their heads with rousari (headscarves) and wear completely traditional Islamic dresses, which is frowned upon by a significant segment of the urban female population. At the same time, being absent from Iranian politics for 30 years, and with 70 percent of the population being under the age of 35, most Iranians do not have any recollection of MKO; their information will be what they hear from their parents, or from the regime's propaganda.

Politically, MKO is a depleted, totally discredited cult. It is despised by the vast majority of those Iranians who know what MKO has stood for over the past 30 years, from the treason committed by its leadership against the nation by siding with Saddam Hussein, to the revelations it made about Iran's uranium enrichment program, to its campaign of assassinations from 1981 to 1984 (and a few more since then). These acts not only did not result in a democratic system, but gave the reactionaries and hardliners the excuse to eliminate all the opposition groups. The marriage of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, regardless of its true motivation, was mocked by most Iranians.

In fact, MKO is so despised in Iran that, in order to discredit the supporters of the opposition Green Movement, Iran's hardliners try to link them with MKO. While a seemingly large number of supporters show up to the demonstrations that MKO organizes outside of Iran, it has no significant support even among Iranian expatriots, if we recall that millions of Iranians have emigrated to the West, and every year, another 150,000 highly educated young Iranians leave Iran who do not know anything about MKO, let alone support it.

Those who support MKO as a viable alternative to the hardliners and reactionaries in Tehran would be well advised to take another look at its history.

Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering & materials science and the National Iranian Oil Company chair in petroleum engineering at the University of Southern California, has published extensively on Iran's political development and its nuclear program. He is the lead political columnist for the web site PBS/Frontline/Tehran Bureau, blogs at The Huffington Post, and contributes regularly to antiwar.com and National Public Radio on issues related to Iran.

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