By Alireza Nourizadeh

LONDON, 18 Feb. Although it has been more than 24 centuries since Alexander the Great invaded Persepolis, Iranians still remember two of their heroes of that era: Aryo-Barzan, the brave Persian commander who fought to the death at the head of his Khaledoon Brigade but failed to check Alexanderís advance after 48 days of fighting; and a local village headman who betrayed his homeland by guiding the invading Macedonians through the mountains to the rear of Aryo-Barzanís lines.

That was how Alexander managed to defeat the Iranians and subjugate the Pars Empire.

Iranian history deals extremely harshly with those deemed to have joined the enemy at crucial points in time. Even their names are not mentioned; they are only referred to as traitors.

In other words, while the invaders themselves, men like Alexander, Genghis, Hulagu and Teimour have gradually gained acceptance by Iranians, those who aided and abetted them have not. They are still referred to as traitors who helped the foreign invaders gain access to the Iranian heartland.

It has to be said that there were not many traitors in Iranian history. Yet in the years following World War I, and with the advent of the Communist Party and other left-wing and Islamist political movements, the concept of treachery lost its significance under the weight of different ideologies. It was Toodeh, the Iranian communist group, that first introduced the idea that "the partyís interests precede those of the homeland" into the Iranian political lexicon. What this idea meant in practice was that Tudeh leaders and cadres had become a fifth column for Soviet intelligence.

When, under the shah, Iranian military intelligence caught active communist cells in the Iranian armed forces, the arrested communist officers testified that they believed giving secret documents to the KGB was a patriotic act, since they were helping the Soviet Union in its struggle against world imperialism. A Soviet victory, the Iranian communist officers believed, would liberate countries like Iran from the shackles of colonialism that were holding them back.

This concept was not abandoned with the fall of the shah; at the height of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War under Iranís Islamic regime, Captain Bahram Afzali, the Iranian Navyís commander in chief, and eight other senior officers were arrested for providing the director of the local KGB station with a large number of secret documents over many years.

Before he was shot for treason, Afzali said he had agreed to hand over the secret documents to the KGB after having been convinced by Toodeh first Secretary Noureddin Kianoori that the United States was plotting to prolong the war, and that the Soviet Union could bring it to an end if only it had more information about Iranian military plans.

When, after fleeing Iran in 1981, Mojahedeen Khalq leader Masíoud Rajavi signed a peace agreement with then Iraqi Foreign Minister Tarek Aziz, he justified his action by saying the resistance (i.e. his organization) was the legitimate representative of the Iranian people and was thus authorized to sue for peace with Iraq.

Yet former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr (who was Rajaviís erstwhile ally, besides being his father-in-law), who had fled along with him to Paris in 1981, considered Rajaviís action to be treasonous. Not only did he break with the Mojahedeen leader, but his daughter Firouzeh divorced Rajavi as well.

When Rajavi decided to relocate to Iraq together with his followers, it transpired that Banisadrís fears that the Mojahedeen would become subservient to Iraq were well founded.

Rajavi committed political suicide by choosing Iraq as a base for his organization at a time when Iraqi missiles were raining on Iranian cities, and Iraqi chemical weapons were killing thousands of Iranian soldiers and civilians. Despite the fact that he formed an armed force (called the Army of National Liberation) with hundreds of tanks, guns and modern helicopter gunships (courtesy of the Iraqi Army), and despite having a strong propaganda machine, Rajavi failed to cultivate support for his organization inside Iran. In fact, his insistence on being the sole alternative to the Iranian regime was one of the main reasons why the regime survived.

Domestically, fear of the possibility that Rajavi would seize power should the regime fall was an important reason why widespread disaffection and anger among the Iranian population did not spill over into a mass revolt like it did back in 1979.

It now seems that the association between the MKO and the Iraqi regime is not a marriage of convenience. Rajaviís men have been incorporated into the Iraqi Army and intelligence forces. In the Iraqi uprising of 1991, Rajaviís men played a prominent role in subjugating Shiites and Kurds. They donned Iranian uniforms and infiltrated Shiíite towns as liberators but soon initiated a war of genocide against the Shiites. In the north, they fought side by side with the Iraqi Army against the Kurds.

Even though they lacked popular support inside Iran, the Mojahedeen nevertheless managed despite Mohammad Khatamiís resounding victory in the presidential election of 1997, in which voters largely ignored Rajaviís call from Baghdad to boycott the poll to maintain their position as the only credible alternative to the Islamic regime.

Presidentís Khatamiís victory, however, was bad news for Rajaviís group. Within two years, the United States (followed by Britain and the European Union) named the Mujahideen-e-Khalq as a pro-Iraq terrorist organization. Its offices in London, Washington and other cities were closed down. Rajaviís hopes of addressing the United Nations one day (like Nelson Mandela and other Third World leaders of the 1960s did) thus went up in smoke.

The Mojahedeenís fate will not be any better than that of its Iraqi sponsors. In fact, there are already indications that Iraq is prepared to ditch the organization in exchange for better relations with Iran in these critical times.

According to sources in the Iranian presidency, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein wrote a letter to Khatami (which Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivered on Feb. 9) offering several concessions, including delineating the border between the two countries, going back to the 1975 Treaty of Algiers and giving the Iraq-based Mojahedeen a choice between returning to Iran and relocating to a third country.

It is not unlikely that the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq will witness an influx of fleeing Mujahideen cadres in the next few days.

Meanwhile, as a Mojahedeen delegation is already touring European capitals in a quest for a safe haven for Rajavi, his wife Maryam and other senior cadres, Rajaviís place in Iranian history looks secure together with that village headman who betrayed his country to Alexander the Great 2,400 years ago. ENDS TRAITOR MKO 18203

Editorís note: Alireza Nourizadeh, one-time political editor of the Tehran daily Ettelaíat, is a researcher and journalist at the London-based Center for Arab-Iranian Studies and the editor of its Arabic-language newsletter Al-Mujes an-Iran. He wrote this commentary for the Beirut English language The Daily Star

Highlights and phonetisation are by IPS