The most active Iranian exile group in the West is intensifying its efforts to win friends and influence people. Supporters of the People's Mojahedin - who recently rallied in Washington to show their opposition to the Khomeini regime - insist that they are maligned and misunderstood in the United States.
The US State Department is highly critical of the group, accusing them of ``using terrorism and violence as standard instruments.'' In particular, it accuses the group of taking a hand in the 1979 seizing of American hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran as well as assassinating six Americans in pre-revolutionary Iran.
``We're not trying to hide the fact that we did not support the US when it was backing the Shah,'' says Ali Safavi, the Washington-based spokesman for the Mojahedin. ``But we absolutely deny all of the allegations made by the US State Department.''
Mr. Safavi contends that the US stance is influenced by Washington's efforts to reopen relations with Tehran. The Khomeini regime, he says, has made international isolation of the Mojahedin a prerequisite to better relations with Western nations.
The origins of the Mojahedin go back to the mid-1960s, when it emerged as an urban-based guerrilla force fighting the Shah. The group initially backed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and served as a security force for the regime immediately after the 1979 revolution, which took place eight years ago this week.
``The type of people it appealed to are primarily students,'' says Dr. Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of history at the City University of New York. ``They're the sort who are willing to risk their lives to go into the streets for a cause.''
But the Mojahedin, who favor sweeping social reforms, soon clashed with the increasingly theocratic rule of the new Iranian leadership. By 1981, the Iranian government began persecuting them as harshly as any of its domestic opponents.
Analysts say that today the group is by far the most highly visible and organized of the exile groups that work against Khomeini. Besides organizing among exiles in Western countries, the group operates a guerrilla force that fights inside Iran. One expert calculates that they are able to conduct one political assassination a month, usually targeting ``unsavory officials,'' such as prison wardens known for human rights abuses.
The group's ideology is difficult to pin-point. One analyst describes them as a ``leftist, Islamic hodge-podge.'' In recent years, the Mojahedin has softened its anti-Western and leftist rhetoric. ``Ours is an Islamic ideology, not a Marxist ideology,'' says Safavi.
Improving the image of the Mojahedin is secondary to the struggle against Khomeini, he says, but vital nonetheless. The group recently held a protest rally in Washington that coincided with rallies in more than a dozen other Western capitals, including Bonn and Paris.