(Photo: In 2021 Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of NCRI, addresses the Free Iran World Summit in Albania)
by Mark W. Martin, Ph.D.
In recent months, an atmosphere of discontent- if not of revolution- within Iran appears to have risen to volatile levels. If one gives credence to reports by Iran’s leading revolutionary group, the National Council of Iran (NCRI), the latest attempts to stage a revolution that will force a regime change in Iran are stronger now than at any other time since the current theocratic government came to power in 1979. The situation begets several questions: If revolution does occur, who will take charge in the ensuing chaos of a failed nation; what is their desired endstate; how do they intend to get there; what motivates them to keep plugging away; how credible are they; and how should the international community interact with them? I recently interviewed 15 members of the NCRI to obtain answers to these questions.
This article is adapted from a doctoral dissertation that explored these questions with an in-depth case study of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The NCRI describes itself on its website as “…a democratic coalition of Iranian opposition organizations and personalities” (para. 2) and professes to be a “parliament of the Iranian resistance” (para. 3) with “nearly 500 individual members” (para. 10). The NCRI states on its website that one of its aims is “to establish a pluralistic republic in Iran, based on the separation of religion and state” (para. 3) in the event of the collapse of the current Iranian regime. The NCRI website further states that in the event of a regime collapse in Iran, the NCRI would step in to establish a six-month provisional government with the purpose of “organiz(ing) a free and fair election for a National Legislative and Constituent Assembly that will determine the future form of government in Iran, and transfer power to the representatives of the people of Iran” (para. 4).
This qualitative study took a constructivist perspective and relied on 15 semi-structured individual interviews with NCRI diaspora who live in the United States or Europe as the source of data. The unit of analysis was the individual NCRI member. To guide the research, I relied on identity, social identity, collective identity, national identity, and social power theories to help to explain the identities and motivations of individuals who serve as members of a government-in-exile and/or participate in government-in-exile activities. I identified a gap in social power theory and subsequently hypothesized that an additional base of social power, which I have termed as “adversity altruism,” exists. This new base of power provides one possible explanation about how NCRI leaders achieve legitimacy.
Significance of the Study
In the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy (2022), the U.S. Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (2015), and the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy (US President 2022), the authors all refer to the possible nuclear threat and/or sponsorship of terrorism from the current Iranian regime. They voice concern that as a fragile state, if the current Iranian regime were to fail, that any nuclear weapons and/or components of nuclear weapons systems inside the country could fall into the hands of international criminal elements and/or an unstable and an irresponsible revolutionary group. The transition during a revolution from one regime to another is often unstable and unpredictable. The world has a vested interest in ensuring that if a revolution were to occur, that Iran’s nuclear weapons program does not fall into dangerous hands. If there is a possibility that the current regime’s seemingly most outspoken critic, the NCRI, were to assume power in Iran, it could be beneficial for the international community to know more about the organization and its membership to better prepare for that contingency. The international community might even then consider supporting the NCRI’s emergence as the new and legitimate leader in Iran- especially if the people of Iran support the new government.
Besides the threat of nuclear weapons falling into dangerous hands, the United States and/or other countries, possibly working in conjunction with international organizations such as the United Nations or with international NGOs, might become involved in nation building activities in Iran. If the NCRI is a possible heir to the current regime, it could benefit the international community to know more about the organization and allow the international community to determine whether the NCRI is worthy of its support, lest the United States and/or the international community get drawn into another long, drawn-out “nation stabilization” operation without a clear end in sight.
Finally, there is the humanitarian aspect to the Iranian situation. Amnesty International (n.d.) describes numerous alleged human rights abuses by the Iranian regime in 2021. These include the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, such as floggings, amputations, blindings, and executions; denial of the right of accused persons to fair trial; systemic discrimination and violence against females and ethnic minorities; and capricious and indiscriminate use of the death penalty- especially against dissidents and members of ethnic minority groups. The regime also prevents women and members of certain minority groups from running for presidential office; and grants impunity of public officials for abuse of their positions of authority.
Significant Factors Contributing to the 1979 Iranian Revolution
During the 1960s and 1970s, as sentiment against the Shah increased due to income inequality, repression and torture of political prisoners, corruption, loss of identity due to rapid modernization at the expense of tradition, high inflation, and impoverishment of the salaried middle class, the people found a voice in Islam, which the regime had not yet managed to squash. Particularly, several up-and-coming scholar-clerics at some of the country’s universities found an audience among the college students and managed to revive an interest in Islam. Karasipahi writes that it was they, and especially Dr. Ali Shari’ati, who influenced high school and university students to revolt in conjunction with the Islamic guerilla organization, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MeK).
The MeK is one of the resistance organizations that comprises the NCRI today. The NCRI claims in their book, Meet the NCRI, that following the revolution, there was disagreement between the MeK leadership and the clergy over their visions of the peoples’ rights while drafting the constitution, and as a result, the MeK leadership spoke out and attempted to mobilize the masses on June 20, 1981. People assembled in cities all over Iran; approximately 500,000 protesters gathered in Central Tehran, alone. The Ayatollah Khomeini responded by banning all demonstrations, rallies, and protests, and by warning the public to stay home. “… (H)undreds were killed and thousands were arrested. A wave of executions commenced”. Abrahamian writes that “between February 1979 and June 1981, revolutionary courts had executed 497 political opponents,” and from June 1981 until June 1985, the “courts executed more than 8,000 opponents.” According to the NCRI, many of the MeK who were not killed or imprisoned managed to flee the country, and the clergy ultimately assumed control of the country. The NCRI further estimates that, following the June 1981 demonstrations until date of publishing that “120,000 political dissidents have lost their lives, 90 percent of whom were MeK/PMOI members, supporters, or sympathizers”.
Post-1981 Iran and the NCRI
One of the MeK leaders, Massoud Rajavi, formed the NCRI on July 21, 1981, but left the country within days after forming it as Khomeini’s followers set upon an “unprecedented campaign of state-sanctioned violence and terror in its attempts to crush its opponents”. After first fleeing to Paris, Rajavi eventually allied himself with Saddam Hussein. Hussein offered to Massoud Rajavi and over 1,000 of his followers safe refuge in Iraq. There, Hussein allowed the MeK to establish camps along the Iranian border from where they conducted cross-border raids against the Iranian regime. The proximity of these camps enticed many Iranian youths to cross the border to join the ranks of the MeK. The MeK were eventually consolidated into one camp in Diyala province and named the camp “Ashraf.” Iraq continued to allow the MeK to stay in Ashraf over the next decade, although Iran occasionally crossed the border to attack the MeK in Ashraf.
Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Department of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld designated the MeK in Camp Ashraf as “protected persons” and directed the American commanders to receive the MeK’s weapons and to then subsequently provide security overwatch on the MeK from the adjoining base that eventually became known as Forward Operating Base (FOB) Grizzly. American soldiers protected the MeK from both the Iranian regime and the Iraqi government in the latter years of Camp Ashraf’s existence. (This author served as FOB Grizzly’s last American commander tasked with the overwatch mission before turning it over to the Iraqi army on January 1, 2009).
After President Trump was sworn into office in January 2017, his administration rescinded the Obama administration’s commitment to the international nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with Iran for alleged Iranian regime violations of the treaty; called out the current Iranian regime on a litany of human rights abuses; and accused the regime of promoting terror throughout the Middle East and subsequently called upon the United Nations to hold Tehran accountable. Apparently heartened by the United States government’s frank language in recognition of regime transgressions, and coupled with a steadily degrading economy, failing banks, and increasing food and gasoline prices, protests began popping up across Iran in late December 2017 and January of 2018. The Iranian regime eventually managed to squelch many of these protests. The situation reignited again in April and July 2018 as several workers’ groups staged strikes, which further aggravated the political and economic situation. The Iranian economic situation worsened after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, as the realization of international sanctions due to the nuclear deal’s demise shattered expectations for an economic boom. This, combined with runaway inflation, collapsed the country’s currency, and decimated small businesses. All the while, the regime pointed an accusatory finger at the NCRI and Madam Maryam Rajavi, Massoud Rajavi’s wife and president-elect of the NCRI, for stirring up the Iranian people to strike and protest. Tensions within Iran later rose again in November 2019 with another round of violent strikes and protests. This time, by the time the regime had quashed the latest rebellions and the dust had settled, the NCRI estimated that an estimated 1500 protestors had been shot and killed during the uprising, and an estimated 12,000 had been detained.
Bases of Social Power
In their model, French and Raven identified five types of social power- reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert- which leaders might wield to influence individuals. One could argue that the NCRI leadership uses each of these processes to varying degrees as they influence others to support their cause. In addition to the five types of social power that French and Raven have identified, I have identified a new base of social power.
Newly Hypothesized Base of Power: Adversity Altruism
While discussing Massoud and Maryam Rajavi during their interviews, this study’s participants frequently referred to the two leaders in nearly reverent tones. It became clear that these two leaders have become highly visible symbols for the Iranian freedom movement. One participant, in fact, hailed Madam Rajavi as a symbol of the resistance and compared her to leaders of resistance movements in other parts of the world, such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I hypothesize that the reason that these leaders, along with others, such as the Dalai Lama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were so revered by their supporters was because of their willingness to endure great hardship for a cause that benefitted the supporters. In these cases, would-be followers accept the leadership of one of their group who is willing to put others before self in the face of adversity This leadership phenomenon does not fall within any of French and Raven’s five bases of power. I suggest the addition of this sixth base of power (or, an eighth base of power, if one accepts the “information” base of power hypothesized by Raven and Kruglanski, as cited in Hersey, Blanchard, and Natemeyer, and the “connection” base of power, also in Hersey et al., to fill this gap. I refer to this new base of power as “adversity altruism.”
As evidenced by banners sporting the Rajavis’ images and slogans during protests in the streets of Iran, numerous threats upon the Rajavis’ lives over the years, and the failed plan to detonate a bomb at a rally that Madam Rajavi was planning to attend in 2018, it appears that the Rajavis are currently leading under adverse conditions while putting others’ welfare before their own. This “adversity altruism” base of power lends legitimacy to their leadership. As an extension, one might conclude that many of the other NCRI leaders who have spent most of their lives in exile away from their homeland also share in this legitimacy. In fact, several participants mentioned during the interviews that they know that the Iranian people are aware that over 120,000 MeK and NCRI have sacrificed their lives for the cause. This may lend legitimacy to these higher levels of leaders of the NCRI as well although perhaps not to the degree that the Rajavis enjoy.
Summary of Key Findings
During the analysis phase of my research, I identified three themes and nine sub-themes within the interviews. Overwhelmingly, the gist of the interviews pertained to three obvious topics: 1) The participants’ despisal of the current Iranian regime, 2) the participants’ admiration for the NCRI, and 3) conflict between groups and individuals in Iran. All three of these themes related to the main part of my research focus, which was to address motivations of exiled NCRI members.
The data in my study suggest that the NCRI members are sincere in their desire to see Iran transition from its current theocratic form of government to a constitutionally based republic. They seem to fit into one of three categories of motivational reasons to participate in the NCRI: the “duty to act” category, the “stop the violence” category, and the “desire to instill democratic values in a newly reformed Iranian government” category. These findings refute a common assumption that some might have that those who are in the NCRI who seek the reins of leadership of a future Iranian government might do so for selfish reasons. Throughout my interviews with the fifteen participants who were members or supporters of the NCRI, I did not detect any hint of self-serving reasons.
An analysis of data in response to one of this study’s sub-questions seems to indicate that the participants anticipate that they would achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the Iranian people by at least two different ways. The first way that they anticipate achieving legitimacy is from the ballot box. The second way that the participants anticipate achieving legitimacy is from their leaders’ adversity altruism, or their proven history of putting the people’s needs above their own at risk of personal sacrifice to themselves.
Implications for Policy and Practice Many recognize the wisdom of learning lessons from the past to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. This adage is just as applicable when discussion turns to the topic of supporting those who emerge from the dust of a failed state to lead a new government. Eckholm points to mistakes learned in post-Hussein Iraq when he cautions against blindly supporting exiled leaders who return to Iran. Doing so in Iraq led to much friction among the many stakeholders in Iraq, and exiled Iraqis’ faulty counsel nearly derailed reconstruction efforts in Iraq. I argue that there are many differences between the NCRI and the ad hoc group of exiled Iraqis that comprised the governing council which advised the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) and its successor, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Eckholm observes that a 65-person committee was formed from various exiled Iraqi interest groups and that a six-person governing council was also formed. The implication is that these groups were thrown together for the first time just before the U.S. March 2003 invasion of Iraq, that its members had differing views on how to re-establish a new government, and that they had very little time to plan that new government before the invasion. Contrast this to the NCRI, which has had 40 years to iron out differences among its members and to plan how it would establish a transitional government. Eckholm also writes that the returning Iraqi exiles suffered skepticism from the Iraqi people because of their extended absence and because they appeared to be “…riding into Iraq on the heels of an American conquest”. I specifically addressed the very same issue with the NCRI during my interviews, and they acknowledged that this could have been an issue if the NCRI had been inactive in Iran during several of the leaders’ exile. However, the participants countered that there are many members of the NCRI inside Iran who actively resist the current regime. They point to the chants of support for Madam Rajavi and the plethora of banners bearing her image that resistance members hang in Iranian public spaces to show their support for her as proof that the Iranian people do not hold the NCRI exiles in the same light that the Iraqi people viewed the returning Iraqi exiles.
Eckholm also observes that many Iraqis argued that the governing council did not represent the Iraqi people. The NCRI has taken pains to address this possible perception by the Iranian people by forming a parliament-in-exile comprised of a myriad of factions of the Iranian people to represent their interests during the first six months following the regime collapse and to establish an environment in which to hold popular elections for the people to elect their representatives and constitutional assembly. Eckholm notes that a group of exiles returning to Iraq who the CPA supported “…evoked the historical memory of British occupation” and therefore crippled their chances at achieving legitimacy. Contrast this to the NCRI- none of the participants ever told me that they wanted American support while trying to establish a transitional government. If anything, the NCRI participants only ask for America’s support on the world stage prior to and during the regime collapse. In fact, many Iranians are still very bitter over the CIA’s interference in their internal affairs when it helped to overthrow the Mosaddegh government in 1953, as well as America’s support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom they viewed as a tyrant. Because of these generational memories, the Iranian people would probably view any organization backed by the United States with mistrust. In this regard, I agree with Eckholm’s statement that any Iranian exiles who hope to return and participate in the government acquire their own political capital.
In order to avoid another situation such as the one created in Iraq in which a well-meaning U.S. government supported a group of returning exiled persons during the formation of a new government and subsequently doomed its chances for success, I strongly recommend that the U.S. Department of State (DoS) resist any urges to assist (or interfere) with the NCRI’s attempt to establish a transitional government following the current regime’s collapse. At some point further into the future, however, if the newly established Iranian government ever cares to invite the U.S. government or civil society to assist them with its problems, I would certainly recommend that involvement. I suggest that if that invitation does come, though, that all U.S. agencies adopt the mantra, “Iranian solutions to Iranian problems.” If the U.S. can adhere to that fundamental principle, it may be enough to bring the Iranian and American people together once again to resume normal bilateral relations in an atmosphere of trust. Both countries have much to gain in terms of trade opportunities, cultural exchanges, and reconnection of long-estranged family members that will hopefully span countless future generations.
About the Author
Dr. Mark W. Martin is a retired colonel who has spent his 30-year career in infantry, military police, and civil affairs units in active and reserve components. He deployed twice to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq. During his 2008-2009 deployment to Iraq, he commanded FOB Grizzly and the forces tasked with safeguarding the mujahedin-e khalq in the adjacent village of Ashraf. He has the distinction of being the last American commander charged with this mission; he transferred authority for this mission to the Iraqi army on January 1, 2009. In his civilian capacity, he serves as a Pennsylvania magisterial district judge.
Disclaimer: The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the author and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.
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