Anti-Khomeini Mojahedin gains credibility among US experts

The People's Mojahedin is the most effective Iranian opposition group, according to a range of American officials and specialists. But the experts are divided as to how effective the Mojahedin is and whether the United States should lend its support to the group. Currently, the US treats the Mojahedin as just one of many Iranian opposition groups - talking to them, reading their materials, but not lending moral or other support. Some Washington officials argue that the US should go further. They note that the Mojahedin is by far the most active opposition to the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime. Militarily, the Mojahedin has become increasingly active in cross-border raids into Iran from Iraq and operations inside the country. In general, the specialists say, the group is demonstrating a willingness to work with the US.

Other officials are more skeptical. Some, especially in the US Defense Department, remember the anti-American attacks of the 1970s, which resulted in the killing of several US military officials in Iran. Others are critical of the Mojahedin's use of terrorist methods such as car bombings inside Iran.

Many of these officials are skeptical about how much the Mojahedin has changed its ``Marxist-Islamic'' ideology since the 1970s. James Phillips, who just completed a study on post-Khomeini Iran for the conservative Heritage Foundation, argues that the Mojahedin remains an unlikely ally for the US because of its anti-Western ideology. Many specialists say the US should not embrace any opposition group, arguing that such action could preclude too many options for working with Khomeini's successors.

Mojahedin spokesmen say their group is not Marxist, but made up of Islamic reformers opposed to Khomeini's tyranny. They say times, and their own outlook, have changed. Indeed, US officials who have studied Iranian developments say the Mojahedin is a practical political organization that has evolved. While in the 1970s much of its leadership was Middle East educated and trained, today Western-educated Iranians fill many key positions. This does not necessarily make them pro-American but it makes them more knowledgable about the US, one official says.

In addition, many opponents of the Shah felt they had little choice but to be anti-American in the 1970s, a US official says. Today, the experience under Khomeini has both brought new forces into the Mojahedin and put the US in a different light, he says.

Since being expelled to Iraq from France in 1986, the Mojahedin has begun increasingly large raids into Iran. While the cost has been identification with Iraq, the Mojahedin claims to have mounted more than 100 operations this year in which it says it inflicted 8,600 casualties and took 860 prisoners. While the figures are hard to confirm, US officials do not think these are ``Hollywood tricks.'' The claims of prisoners taken are confirmed by names and identifying data, and a number have been interviewed and photographed by Western journalists.

Indeed, Mojahedin spokesmen say their increasing military prowess is one of the reasons Iran is pressuring France and others to clamp down on them.

Some US officials wonder if close identification with Iraq will harm the Mojahedin's cause inside Iran. Spokesmen for the organization say its military successes have attracted more recruits and donations from Iranians opposed to Khomeini. One US specialist says the other opposition groups fear the dedication and tight organization of the Mojahedin as well as its commitment to social reform. This fear, he notes, is shared by Iran's religious hierarchy, which the Mojahedin sharply criticizes.

No official questioned was advocating major shifts of US policy toward the Mojahedin. But even several critical of the group, such as Mr. Phillips, argue that the US should keep its options open as a lever on Iran.

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