One-on-one with Iran's opposition

A noted dissident says Iran is closer to a nuclear bomb than we think.

The head of the Iranian opposition group in exile that supplied early intelligence on Iran's clandestine nuclear program says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has engineered a clever disinformation campaign to convince foreign experts that Iran is eight to 10 years away from developing a nuclear bomb. But in fact, she says, the regime is less than two years away from producing such a weapon, as part of its plan to "create an Iranian empire" in the Middle East.

In a wide-ranging weekend telephone conversation from her base of exile in Paris, Maryam Rajavi told me that Mr. Ahmadinejad has purged between 40 and 50 senior military officers who are in disagreement with his plans. She also explained that the resignation of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, followed dispute between Mr. Larijani and Ahmadinejad over "incentives" Larijani had been prepared to offer his interlocutors in the West.

Ms. Rajavi heads the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), whose military arm is the People's Mujahideen of Iran. The Mujahideen are listed as a terrorist organization by the US for its violent tactics. (The group allegedly supported the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979.) But in a bizarre twist, some 3,800 Mujahideen fighters who later conducted operations against the Iranian regime from Iraqi territory during the reign of Saddam Hussein are currently being held in benign custody in Iraq by US forces as "protected" persons. The current Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is attempting to prosecute or deport them. Rajavi says this is at the behest of Iran.

Both the NCRI and the People's Mujahideen claim to have substantial underground support in Iran. Though the information of exiled groups about events in their tyrannized homelands has come under acute scrutiny since Iraqi exiles produced questionable data about events in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the NCRI is credited by US sources with accurately identifying clandestine Iranian nuclear facilities early on.

By interesting coincidence, The Times (London) recently cited Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as the first Arab leader to directly accuse Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons. "While they don't have the bomb yet, they are developing it, or the capability for it," The Times quotes the crown prince as saying, adding that this is the first time one of Iran's Gulf neighbors has "effectively accused [Iran] of lying about its nuclear programme."

In her weekend conversation, Rajavi was adamant that "military intervention" in Iran by the US or others is not desirable. However, she praised the Bush administration for its recent branding of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity. The IRGC, she said, holds key positions in government, dominates much of the economy, controls the nuclear program, and has a major role in drug trafficking. The US government's action against it, she says, is a "clear testament and an indispensable prelude to democratic change in Iran."

Her own program for change in Iran is a combination of accelerated sanctions and political pressure from without and upheaval arising from discontent within. Getting rid of her own organization's "terrorist" label, she argues, would help energize internal critics of the regime. She says support for this is growing among both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. She is heartened by recent efforts of British parliamentarians to persuade the European Union to lift restrictions on Iranian opposition groups and blacklist Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The Guards, she says, are responsible for the torture and execution of many Iranians and are the "center of all the disasters" of the Iranian people. They are also key to Iran's military role in Iraq. According to Rajavi, they use the "Ramezan" garrison and four tactical bases near the Iran-Iraq border to send arms and explosives to Iraq. NCRI has exposed three factories in a very secure area in Tehran that are making roadside bombs to send to Iraq, she adds.

In a previous conversation with Rajavi a little more than two years ago, she spoke in Persian, translated into English through an interpreter. On this occasion she spoke in heavily accented English. "I studied English in high school," she said, "but I have been practicing it more." She also speaks French.

As we began our conversation, she reminded me that "everything I warned you about two years ago about Ahmadinejad has come true. He has declared war [on his perceived enemies]."

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