They once denounced the United States as a ``great satan.'' But seven years after the fall of the Shah, some expatriate Iranians are struggling to deliver a new message to a reluctant American public. These supporters of the militant People's Mujahedin, an underground guerrilla force of Iranians fighting to topple Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, now see the Iranian leader as the great satan.
While attempting to overcome the scars of the 1979 US hostage crisis, the Mujahedin's American supporters are hoping to build international pressure against Tehran's fundamentalist Islamic government, particularly on the issue of human rights abuses within Khomeini's Iran. Supporters admit it has been an uphill battle.
``No people on earth deserve dictators and terrorists. The people of Iran have suffered long enough,'' says an Iranian PhD mathematics student in Boston who says he is a supporter of the Mujahedin. ``Shah was a dictator, but Khomeini is 100 times worse than him.''
The People's Mujahedin is said to be the strongest of Khomeini's domestic political opponents. The organization has supporters scattered throughout the Iranian exile community, including many Iranians living in the US.
Last Friday, more than 1,000 Iranian Mujahedin supporters held a march in the freezing rain outside the White House to protest actions of the Khomeini regime.
It was a far cry from the reception received a few days earlier by Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan rebel leader who is fighting his own insurgency. The movement also lacks the recognition afforded the ``contra'' rebels fighting in Nicaragua, for whom the administration is said to be considering a $100 million military aid package.
Mujahedin spokesmen stress they are not interested in US guns or money -- and they are not likely to be offered any.
The US State Department has called the Mujahedin ``an anti-American, anti-Western collectivist organization which employs terrorism and violence as standard instruments of its policies.''
Mujahedin supporters deny they are anti-American. They maintain their fight is similar to that of the colonists in the American Revolutionary War.
``We hold no enmity toward the American people and the values cherished by the American people,'' says Ali Safavi, Washington-based spokesman for the Mujahedin. ``What the Mujahedin is fighting for the same as what the Americans fought for in the War of Independence.''
According to a spokesman, the Mujahedin's goals in the US are:
To heighten international pressure on the Khomeini government to halt widespread human rights abuses.
To establish the Mujahedin as the internationally recognized legitimate opposition to the Khomeini government.
To lay groundwork for future Iranian-US diplomatic relations after the downfall of the Khomeini regime.
Some observers question whether the Mujahedin's apparent pro-West shift and move toward more moderate rhetoric is simply a cosmetic effort aimed at trying to gain more support in the powerful industrialized nations. An Iranian journalist notes that the Mujahedin is no longer calling for Islamic fundamentalism, rather it is now calling for modernization in Iran. The journalist says the shift appears to be designed to make the Mujahedin's cause more acceptable to a Western audience.
Mujahedin supporters here dispute this interpretation. ``The whole notion that the Mujahedin is anti-Western is absolutely unfounded,'' says Safavi. He adds that such assertions are orchestrated by the followers of the deposed Shah.
``Because the US administration claims that it supports democracy, just causes, and liberation movements, we expected it to condemn Khomeini much more than it has and in a much stronger way,'' the Iranian student says.