Profile of Maryam Rajavi

To the theocratic leadership of Iran, whose mullahs have spent the past 28 years limiting the role of women in politics and society, what could be more challenging than a strong, articulate, charismatic and intelligent woman?

Step forward Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the Iranian resistance. Born in Iran in 1953 but exiled in Paris since 1982, she heads the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), the focus of Iranian opposition to the ruling Tehran regime and a fierce and irrepressible supporter of democratic change in her country of birth.

Rajavi's career was forged through tragedy and struggle. Two of her sisters were killed in Iran - one under the Shah's regime and another after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini - and she was targeted and harassed by Revolutionary Guards before leaving the country. Since then, Rajavi has dedicated herself to freeing Iran from the scourge of the Tehran regime, drawing on the support of many hundreds of thousands of exiled Iranians around the world.

Commonly drawing crowds running to tens of thousands, Rajavi is an inspiring public speaker, addressing conferences in Paris, London and elsewhere, stressing the need to revive Iranians' sense of identity and religious and social tolerance, in the face of the onslaught of repression and intolerance that has ruled for so long. "I want to prove that as a democratic alternative for society, Islam is not aggressive and can be constructive for women," she has said. "After the mullahs are overthrown, we must try to eliminate the sense of vengeance and hatred among our people."

In preaching this vision of optimism and tolerance Rajavi invites comparison with other civil rights leaders of recent memory - Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for example - each of whom waged a struggle against prejudice and repression. In her case, there is an additional piquancy from the gender battle at the heart of the issue. Rajavi has taken up the standard on behalf of women, not merely of Iran, but of all nations where equality of opportunity for women has yet to become a reality.

"These reactionaries who suppress the Iranian people, especially women, and export terrorism and fundamentalism under the cloak of religion, have nothing to do with Islam," Rajavi told a gathering of 25,000 people in London. In their place, she intends to foster a society based on a free market, private ownership and regional and international cooperation.

Given that these aims identify so closely with the ambitions of the United States in the Middle East, it is a source of puzzlement to many Iranians and international political observers that the PMOI remains on the list of proscribed 'terrorist' organisations, whose funds are frozen and whose members subject to particular scrutiny and limitation of movement.

Both the US and the European Union have proscribed the organisation, as part of their policy of appeasement towards the Iranian regime. As Rajavi and many eminent lawyers, politicians and scholars have pointed out, this policy has demonstrably failed, as the Iranian leadership has continued to flout its international responsibilities, to break UN sanctions, call for the elimination of Israel, provide weapons to terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and develop nuclear weapons capabilities.

Rajavi argues that the time for such appeasement is over and that the international community must begin to act more robustly against the Tehran regime. Instead of continuing the policy of appeasement, or waging another 'external' war against the regime in repetition of the invasion of Iraq, she is urging the international community to support the worldwide Iranian resistance in its aims of promoting peaceful, democratic reform in Iran.

"By forming a pluralistic alternative, a widespread social network and a liberation army, the resistance has sufficient power and potential to bring about change in Iran," Rajavi told a meeting at the European Parliament in December 2006. "It has led the Iranian people's movement for democracy in the most difficult domestic and regional circumstances," she continued. "A regime change in Iran and the establishment of freedom and popular sovereignty in that country is key to peace, stability and coexistence in the Middle East region and the end to violence and vengeance in the birthplace of Moses, Jesus and Mohammad," she said.

Outlining the disastrous consequences of appeasement, the ongoing efforts of the Tehran regime to develop nuclear weapons, the continuing destablising effects of Tehran's support for terrorism in the region and the rising evidence of human rights abuses inside the country, Rajavi urged the EU to take prompt action to deproscribe the PMOI from its terrorist blacklist and accept that it is a legitimate resistance organisation.

"A nation's right to freedom is being denied," argued Rajavi, comparing the appeasement of the Tehran regime with the 1938 Munich pact with Hitler. "The terror label against the PMOI lacks legal credibility and was part of a deal with the mullahs. It is a political obstacle to change in Iran by the Iranian people and resistance. Removing this unjust label is necessary the creation of a democratic Iran."

National parliamentary groups in Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Finland and elsewhere have supported calls for the removal of the terror proscription, while 440 MPs and Lords in the UK have added their support. In December 2006 the European Court of Justice ruled that the proscription was illegal and must be overturned, yet the European Council rejected this verdict in January and - despite the strength of feeling expressed by hundreds of politicians - the ruling remains unchanged.

This situation is becoming increasingly embarrassing and uncomfortable for both the US and the EU, as the illogicality of banning an organisation - which so closely represents the views and hopes of the international community for progress in Iran - grows ever clearer.

But for Maryam Rajavi, as a woman who has stood firm against a wave of anti-female oppression and the sustained attacks of a fundamentalist regime, being in such as position is nothing new.