By Mahmoud Hakamian
On September 6, 1965, three engineers in Iran founded what would become the largest, longest-lasting, pro-democracy group in the Middle East when they began the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Mohammad Hanifnejad, Said Mohsen, and Ali-Ashgar Badizadgan were all former members of the Freedom Movement (also known as the Liberation Movement), which was created in May 1961 by Mehdi Bazargan.
The Freedom Movement were fighting for the “democratic principles enshrined in the fundamental laws of 1905-09 [Iranian] Constitution”. The group held meetings and published a newsletter supporting “political freedom and the separations of power”. But when they held large demonstrations on June 5, 1963, to protest the Shah’s arrest of Ruhollah Khomeini, a cleric who had criticised the monarchy, the Shah’s police responded with firepower, shooting many demonstrators.
The Freedom movement was subsequently banned, as were all other pro-democratic organizations Bazargan was sentenced to ten years in prison.
The founding trio of the MEK knew that if they tried to replicate the Freedom Movement’s actions, they themselves would be jailed by the Shah. That’s why two years later, they would form a discussion group with trusted friends to develop a new idea for democracy and freedom to Iran and a strategy to get them there.
The MEK discussion group met twice a week to discuss religion, history, philosophy, and evolutionary theory, gradually attracting more Tehran professionals who wanted to bring an end to the Shah. Eventually, after six years, the MEK formed its blueprint, which was based on interpretation of Islam as a tolerant, democratic faith, fully compatible with modern-day society. They wanted to replace the Shah’s dictatorship with a democratic government.
Unfortunately, the MEK was infiltrated by the Shah’s secret police before it could start its work. The police discovered the MEK’s safe house, arrested several members, and sent them off to be interrogated and tortured. Through this, more MEK members were revealed and by September 1971 around 150 members, including the group’s founders and members of the Central Committee, were in police custody.
Sixty-nine MEK members were charged with attempting to overthrow the monarchy, among other offences, and brought before military tribunals. Their trials were initially public, but because the MEK was so well known and beloved in Iran, the trials were closed after MEK members revealed that they had been tortured in jail.
All of the MEK leaders were sentenced to death and all but one was executed by the Shah. Massoud Rajavi, who would later become MEK leader, was saved after his brother, Dr Kazem Rajavi, organized an international campaign from his Swiss home, to have Massoud’s sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Still, while he was locked up, the MEK had no leadership structure and its group was hijacked by communists, who usurped the MEK’s name and assets. Members were given the choice between accepting the changes or being expelled. Some were even killed. (The communist faction later changed their name to Peykar.)
It was a dark day, but the Iranian Revolution was around the corner and Massoud would soon be free. He would take over the MEK and reshape it to fight a new enemy, the mullahs led by none other than Khomeini.