Sunday Telegraph: She is the female figurehead of what she hopes will become a new Iranian revolution. Now, after almost 25 years in exile, the world is beginning to beat a path to her door.
The Sunday Telegraph
By Kim Willsher in Auvers-sur-Oise
She is the female figurehead of what she hopes will become a new Iranian revolution. Now, after almost 25 years in exile, the world is beginning to beat a path to her door.
Maryam Rajavi wants those who visit her near Paris to know what sort of regime Iran’s mullahs are running.
As the leader of the largest exiled Iranian opposition group, she talks angrily of the 15-year-old boy flogged to death for eating during Ramadan, and the girl of 13 buried up to her neck and stoned for a similarly trivial “crime”.
When she describes the punishments meted out by Iran’s rulers, a picture of the limp bodies of two hanged men suspended from a crane is projected onto a screen.
She waves a large bound book that, she says, contains the names of 21,676 people who have died resisting the clerical regime. Another 120,000 people have been executed since the mullahs took power in 1979, she claims. Now Iran’s rulers are trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
“We have always said that a viper cannot give birth to a dove, but nobody believed us,” she told the Sunday Telegraph. “Only a fraction of the true nature of this regime, which is a brutal dictatorship of religious fanaticism, has come to public attention.”
British MPs, lawyers and human rights campaigners are among those who have recently travelled to hear Mrs Rajavi, 52, hold court on behalf of the National Council for Resistance for Iran (NCRI). Yet while some see her as the best hope to lead a moderate Islamic government in Teheran, others are more cautious.
Washington, the British Government and the European Union all regard the organisation’s military wing as a terrorist group. Mrs Rajavi has been described as a self-serving zealot, and the head of a personality cult.
She combats criticism with smiles, regular repetition of the words “freedom and democracy”, and the claim that the clerics in Teheran are deliberately trying to slur the opposition group.
“Terrorists, then cult,” she said. “They’re trying to substitute one for another. As we disprove them, they find another name.”
Mrs Rajavi is everything the mullahs fear and loathe – a former revolutionary student turned opposition leader who has been a thorn in the side of the Iranian government.
She talks moderate Islam, against their religious fanaticism, and is anxious to present the NCRI as tolerant, progressive and reasonable.
As one of six children of a middle-class Iranian family under the Shah’s regime, she was a 22-year-old metallurgy student at Teheran University when her elder brother was jailed. Shortly afterwards, she says, her older sister was executed for political activism. Mrs Rajavi joined the Mujahideen-e Khalq (People’s Holy Warriors, also known as the MEK) – a student association that mixed Islam and Marxism, and violently opposed the Shah.
Mrs Rajavi married a fellow revolutionary and had two children but divorced to wed the Mujahideen leader, Massoud Rajavi. Yet her hopes for the 1979 Iranian revolution turned to disillusionment. “Very quickly we witnessed the mullahs hijacking the freedom of the people,” she said. “We had to start a new push, against Islamic fundamentalism.”
In 1982, her younger sister, Masoumeh, 22 and eight months pregnant, died under torture by Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime, Mrs Rajavi left Iran for France. Now she presides over the NCRI’s heavily protected headquarters in Auvers-sur-Oise, 20 miles north-west of Paris. She and up to 100 supporters pursue the overthrow of the clerical regime and installation of an NCRI government, with her as leader, until free elections.
Mrs Rajavi’s followers are so devoted that, in 2003, after she was detained for a fortnight by French police on suspicion of terrorism, two set fire to themselves and died. More damaging is the terrorist label slapped on the organisation’s military wing by the US State Department in 1994, and subsequently by Britain, and the European Union, after deadly attacks by the group around the world.
Last week, visiting British members of the Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom said it was time for the Government, and the EU, to remove the “unjust tag”.
Mrs Rajavi says Western governments must end their “dangerous appeasement” of Iran’s regime and recognise the worth of her group, the first to reveal Iran’s secret uranium enrichment programme in 2002.
The mullahs appear to fear her. “They are afraid of freedom and democracy, and of women who stand up for their rights,” she said.