A few months ago, Batul Ebrahami, 18, was a high school student in Tehran. The daughter of a shopkeeper, she was relatively well off but enormously frustrated with the dictates of the Islamic fundamentalists who rule Iran. "Women were not allowed to do anything productive," she complains.
After two arrests by Iran's ubiquitous secret police for openly complaining about the mullahs, Ebrahami fled, but not to Europe or the U.S. Today she resides in a dusty camp in Iraq, a soldier in one of the most unusual and little known military forces in the world. The National Liberation Army (N.L.A.) of Iran is 30,000 strong, fully armored and ready at any moment to do battle. Some 35% of its soldiers are women, as are 70% of its officers. The troops wear no insignia of rank, live communally and receive no pay. They have taken a vow to remain celibate until Iran is freed. And all express near fanatical loyalty to the woman they hope to install as the next President of Iran: Maryam Rajavi.
Successors to the leftist People's Mujahedin, which helped overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the soldiers of the rebel force are bivouacked in five camps in the barren salt desert of Iraq, just out of range of Iranian artillery. Critics call them pawns of the Iraqis, who are said to have given the resisters money and arms in addition to a generous swath of desert land. They also say Rajavi hardly represents a democratic alternative to the current regime.
But the N.L.A. remains the strongest opposition to a government that last week was again proved to be an international renegade. A German court, in convicting four men of the 1992 murder of four Iranian Kurd dissidents in Berlin, found that the killings were approved at the "highest state levels" in Tehran. After the verdict, Germany recalled its ambassador, ejected four Iranian diplomats and announced it was reassessing the policy of "critical dialogue" that has allowed Bonn to become Iran's principal Western trading partner.
The Germans' anger could only give heart to the N.L.A., whose desert battalions have been poised to make war against the fundamentalist government since 1988. The army's finest moment came in 1991, when it successfully fought off a large-scale incursion by a force of elite Revolutionary Guards. The N.L.A.'s officers claim they have launched more than 100 cross-border operations against Iran in the past several years. The Iranians have responded with terrorist strikes, Scud missiles and, in January, a mortar assault on the N.L.A.'s fortified compound in downtown Baghdad, causing minor damage.
When the moment is right, say leaders of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (N.C.R.), the rebels' civilian arm, the N.L.A. will roll across the border in support of a general uprising against the fundamentalist Iranian government. "We intend to combine the army with the rising of social unrest to sweep away the mullahs," N.C.R. president Maryam Rajavi told Time. "The mullahs are a regime that doesn't understand any language other than force and power." N.C.R. leaders believe, perhaps too optimistically, that burgeoning discontent with Iran's faltering economy, which has led to open protests and riots in recent months, means their moment may soon be at hand.