Iran's mujahideen: a role?

Over the phone from Paris, in heavily accented English, Maryam Rajavi says: "I hope one day we can meet in Tehran." Then, in apology for her command of English, she says "we'll continue this interview [through an interpreter] in Persian."

But in whatever language it is offered, her message is one of frustration with a turn toward extremism in her Iranian homeland, and hope that what she sees as the "appeasement" of Iran by Europe and the US will now be replaced by more aggressive action.

Mrs. Rajavi heads the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political front for the militant People's Mujahedeen that, with thousands of other Iranian exiles, yearns for the overthrow of the mullahs' regime in Iran.

The recent election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner, is widely interpreted as a move by the mullahs to consolidate their power. Mrs. Rajavi calls him a "terrorist" who, she says. was involved in an attempt to assassinate Salman Rushdie and other enemies of the Iranian regime. She dismisses the election as a sham, manipulated by "vote-buying," and the issuing of "5 million fake identity cards," and "$15 million to the Revolutionary Guards to produce fake ballots." But she thinks the regime is on the defensive, operating from an "emaciated base," and therefore vulnerable to a newly aggressive policy by the West.

How does she see this developing? A propaganda offensive? A program of broadcasting democratic values into Iran? Cross-border incursions by the militant mujahideen? All these are possible, she muses, but she dismisses "foreign military intervention," and "Western appeasement" as options.

There is a third option, she says: Western support of the Iranian people and the resistance movement - a "huge release of energy that is locked up" - in support of democratic change in Iran.

The "locked up energy" to which she refers includes the 3,500 or so mujahideen fighters being held in protective custody by US forces in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein they were permitted to use Iraq as a base for guerilla operations against the Iranian regime. But with the US invasion, they were neutralized and restricted. The US has long listed the mujahideen as a terrorist organization for its support of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, but its leaders argue that times have changed, the terrorist label should be lifted, and the mujahideen freed to operate against the current Iranian regime.

Specifically, Rajavi wants the US to lead the effort to bring Iran before the UN Security Council for its "support of terrorism, its development of nuclear weapons, and its abuse of human rights." This, she says, would send a galvanizing signal to the opposition in Iran, energize cells in Iran with which NCRI has contact, and bring closer the prospect of Iranian regime change.

"Islamic fundamentalism and terror is on the rise," she says, "and its epicenter is Tehran."

The answer, she argues, isn't a foreign military invasion of Iran but a "political, cultural, and ideological solution." This must come from the emergence of a Muslim force comitted to democracy and "stopping the nuclear clock."

Mujahideen operatives inside Iran are thought to have been instrumental in producing intelligence about clandestine uranium enrichment plants set up by the regime in its quest for nuclear weapons. In the case of Iraq, the Bush administration was burned by Iraqi exile groups purporting to have evidence of weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be false.

So there has been understandable questioning about the quality of intelligence offered by the Iranian exiles. Some experts in Washington treat the Iranian mujahideen reports with skepticism, others argue that the mujahideen have a good track record with earlier such reports.

There are similar divisions in Washington about the political value of NCRI. Some members of Congress are in favor of lifting the organization's terrorist connotation, as are some right-wingers in the Bush administration. Others are leery of the organization.

However, as Iran appears to harden its position on its right to develop a nuclear enrichment program, and the US and its European allies ponder alternative inducements or pressures that might cause Tehran to desist, the role of Iranian exile organizations like NCRI is likely to be a continuing topic of discussion.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration.

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