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Why the US granted 'protected' status to Iranian terrorists

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2004



The US State Department officially considers a group of 3,800 Marxist Iranian rebels - who once killed several Americans and was supported by Saddam Hussein - "terrorists."

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But the same group, under American guard in an Iraqi camp, was just accorded a new status by the Pentagon: "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention.

This strange twist, analysts say, underscores the divisions in Washington over US strategy in the Middle East and the war against terrorism. It's also a function of the swiftly deteriorating US-Iran dynamic, and a victory for US hawks who favor using the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO) or "People's Holy Warriors," as a tool against Iran's clerical regime.

"How is it that [the MKO] get the Geneva Convention, and the people in Guantánamo Bay don't get it? It's a huge contradiction," says Ali Ansari, a British expert on Iran. "This will be interpreted in Iran as another link in the chain of the US determination to move onto Iran next" in the US war on terror.

For months, Tehran has quietly signaled that it would turn over high-ranking Al Qaeda members in exchange for MKO members now in Iraq. The MKO's new status likely puts an end to any such deal.

The shift also comes as momentum builds in Washington to take some action against the Islamic republic. Wednesday, it was reported that Tehran has broken United Nations inventory seals and may resume work on constructing centrifuges - the machines used for enriching uranium.

Senior European diplomats - who brokered a private deal with Iran last October that included halting suspected nuclear weapons programs, in exchange for Western nuclear power expertise - are expected to secretly meet Iranian counterparts Thursday in London or Paris to see what can be salvaged of their agreement.

"US-Iran relations are drifting into very dangerous waters at the moment," says Mr. Ansari.

Indeed, the Pentagon decision comes amid a string of critical reports about Iran that are causing some US lawmakers to wonder whether the Bush administration's action against Iraq should have been aimed instead at Iran.

But some analysts see the change as related to the US presidential election. "This whole dynamic is tied up with [US] domestic politics...and not about the MKO itself, which is not really a major threat to Iran anymore," says Mohamed Hadi Semati, a political scientist from Tehran University now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"The neocons were losing ground, and this new Iran bashing is seen by them as an opportunity to drum up the theme of terror and the possibility of a collision with Iran - therefore, you need a very decisive leader in the White House," says Mr. Semati. "At the same time, Iran is giving a lot of ammunition to [Bush administration hawks on Iran]."

The Mujahideen is a cultish Marxist group that was ordered to leave Iraq last December by the US-appointed Iraqi leadership, which decried the "black history of this terrorist organization." The expulsion was never carried out.

A website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran - the MKO's political wing - on Sunday quoted its exiled leader Maryam Rajavi as saying the US decision was a "triumph for the Iranian Resistance and the Iranian people."

The MKO, which would like to topple the Islamic regime in Tehran, says they would establish a more democratic, secular government.

The MKO is not known to have conducted any anti-US attacks, according to the US State Department, since assassinating several Americans in the 1970s.

While hosted by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, MKO militants stood shoulder to shoulder with their hosts during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s - a choice that permanently damaged their standing among most Iranians.

In Iraq itself, the MKO played important roles in the violent suppression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in 1991 and 1999 - actions that still grate with Iraq's new leadership.

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