The arrival in Baghdad of Iranian opposition leader Massoud Rajavi is seen by both supporters and foes of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a turning point in their nation's political affairs. Mr. Rajavi's departure Saturday from Paris, where he lived in exile since 1981, assures the Iranian government that the influence of his group's opposing views in the West will now sharply decrease.
And, Western diplomats say, it removes a major stumbling block to the restoration of normal relations between France and Iran. French officials say Rajavi left voluntarily and was not expelled, but in recent weeks the French government had exerted quiet pressure and placed restraints on his activities.
Iran's three conditions for restoring normal ties with France include the expulsion or extradition of opposition leaders; repayment of a $1 billion loan given France by the former imperial regime; and an end to French support for Iraq in its nearly six-year-old war against Iran.
French editorialists expressed the hope Monday that Iran would now press its Islamic fundamentalist supporters in Lebanon to free nine French hostages kidnapped in the past 20 months.
Iran has long called on France to extradite Rajavi, who heads the leftist National Resistance Council, a loose umbrella opposition group set up in 1981. Rajavi is also political leader of the leftist guerrilla People's Mojahedin (``warriors'') organization. This group claims to have 100,000 members and was formed in 1965. It has opposed, and has been persecuted by, the deposed Shah as well as the Khomeini regime. Since June 1981, the Mojahedin have claimed responsibility for numerous assassination attempts against Iranian officials and sabotage attacks inside Iran. The Mojahedin are believed responsible for the 1981 bombing of the Tehran headquarters of the ruling Islamic Republic Party which left 72 people dead. Thousands of Rajavi's supporters have been executed in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
From his heavily fortified mansion near Paris, Rajavi granted hundreds of interviews to journalists. His supporters published a weekly magazine that was distributed around the world, and he also had a powerful radio transmitter on his house to facilitate broadcasts.
Now Rajavi will only have access to the very small Baghdad press corps, and it is uncertain whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's government will allow him the same level of political freedom he enjoyed in France.
Iranian diplomats contacted in Europe on Sunday spoke ironically about the fact that Rajavi, whose ideology is a synthesis of Islamic fundamentalism and Marxism, is now sheltered by the secular Iraqi regime that has for years been combating the influence of Islam in political life.
An Iranian jurist who was once Rajavi's lawyer and now lives in France says, ``When Rajavi came to France, he and his supporters quickly ran out of money. The Iraqi government offered him support and they accepted. In the long run, they became proxies of the Iraqi regime and lost much of their credibility within Iran.''
By operating from Iraq, independent sources say, Rajavi will become an easy target for Iranian propaganda. Iranian news media have for years denounced ``the collusion between the hypocrites [as Tehran refers to the People's Mojahedin] and the Iraqi government.''
Now, more than ever, Rajavi is likely to be portrayed in the Iranian press as a traitor to his country and Islam.
Rajavi's National Resistance Council, however, sees things differently. In a communiqu'e published in London, it said Rajavi's departure from Paris had been carefully planned and was a new stage in his fight against the Iranian regime. It said that Rajavi would join thousands of Iranian opponents stationed on the border between Iran and Iraq.
But information from Paris indicates that Rajavi strove hard until the last minute to be allowed to remain in France. Though the French authorities never served an expulsion order on Rajavi, they made it clear to him that he was no more welcome.
Soon after his departure, the French interior minister cautioned Iranians living in France to refrain from political activities. This has led to speculation among observers that ``royalist'' Iranian opponents (those loyal to the Shah's family) may also be pushed to leave France or close their Paris headquarters.
Observers also note that Rajavi has announced that he would join his supporters on ``the Iranian border'' and not within Iran itself. Last November, his organization released a film showing a large parade of opposition troops in an area of Iran's Kurdistan region, which they said was occupied by the Mojahedin. The film sparked a controversy among viewers and many Iranians -- supporters and opponents of the Islamic regime -- claimed it had actually been shot on the Iraqi side of the border near the town of Sulaymaniyah.
Western military attach'es in Tehran say the Iranian government controls the entire area of Kurdistan. But, these attach'es add, opponents still remain capable of mounting overnight raids against Iranian Army convoys.
``Rajavi and his supporters will become auxiliaries of the Iraqi Army,'' says one Iranian exile in Paris.
A source close to former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, who broke from Rajavi two years ago says: ``Rajavi's exile in France was marked by a series of political setbacks. His influence within Iran vanished year after year and his National Council of Resistance was weakened by a surge of defections.''
``Until recently,'' the source continues, ``[Rajavi] always told critics that he and his supporters were treated by the French government like a government in exile. Now that he is in Baghdad, I think he will find it difficult to keep his movement united.''
Tehran Radio has thus far paid little attention to Rajavi's departure from France. No phone contact was possible with Iranian officials in the past 48 hours. Reports ascribed this to a weekend Iraqi air raid that damaged a major Iranian telecommunications center.
The writer covers Iranian affairs from his base in Brussels.