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Support Iran Opposition? Bush Admin Can't Decide

by William O. Beeman

Neo-Conservatives Target War With Iran
(PNS) -- When masked French police swooped in to arrest 150 members of the People's Mujahedeen recently, they did more than deal a crippling blow to the armed Iranian opposition group. From distant Paris suburbs, the raid shed a light on Washington's confusion about what to do about Iran's inconvenient clerical regime.

Hopes of regime change in Iran are high in Washington's consciousness these days, playing out against a backdrop of continuing student protests in Tehran. Washington neoconservatives had been betting on the Mujahedeen-e Khalq organization, known as the People's Mujahedeen, to strike the blow that might finally oust the mullahs, or at least contribute significantly to the effort. With the arrest of key leaders of the Iranian opposition group in Paris, these plans appear to have been disrupted.

The People's Mujahadeen is the military branch of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a secular group that helped overthrow the Shah in 1979. When the Council itself was then ousted from the Islamic Republic because it wanted a more participatory system, it took up residence in exile, in France, Norway, and in the United States, where it still operates. Later, it installed itself in Iraq as a paramilitary organization with troops, tanks and guns, sheltered and supported by Saddam Hussein.

Washington is split over the People's Mujahedeen. Those who dislike them include the State Department and some Congress members. Those who like them include sectors of the Defense Department and other members of Congress. (Iranian monarchists like them, while most Iranians regard them as traitors.)

The State Department declared the People's Mujahedeen a terrorist organization in 1997. One hundred and fifty U.S. congress members protested, but the designation remains in place. The European Union, too, considers them terrorists.

Despite that branding, the Defense Department and its supporters see the group as an asset in toppling Tehran's clerical regime. On April 15, the U.S. Central Command revealed it had negotiated a cease-fire with the People's Mujahedeen that would have allowed them to keep weapons and maintain their organization intact. Clearly they were meant to be kept in reserve as a source for intelligence briefings, and to intimidate the mullahs. Following protests from Iran and the United States, however, the fighters were only nominally disarmed, turning in their heavy weapons.

Patrick Clawson and Daniel Pipes, conservative commentators with ties to Paul Wolfowitz and other Washington hawks, wrote in May in the New York Post that Washington should remove the group's "terrorist" designation, since their efforts would further U.S. policy in the region. They referred to the fighters by their initials, MEK or MKO: "Maintaining the MKO as an organized group in separate camps in Iraq offers an excellent way to intimidate and gain leverage over Tehran."

Clawson and Pipes reflected current Pentagon thinking. A June 6 article in the New York Daily Forward quoted Larry Johnson, former CIA and State Department official: "The Office of Special Plans has been willing to reach out to the MKO and use them as a surrogate to pressure Iran."

The Paris raid was a serious blow to the organization. It accomplished the arrest of symbolic leader Maryam Rajavi, and her husband Masoud Rajavi, acknowledged as the group's real leader, and confiscated 1.3 million dollars. It touched off protests throughout Europe, including at least three self-immolations.

Instead of commenting specifically on the Paris arrests, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said only, "We certainly applaud efforts around the world to take these actions against terrorist groups." But the U.S. overseer in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was more forthcoming. "The Mujahedeen ... is a terrorist group, it has been identified as that ... If (the French) have arrested some people, I am glad to hear it," he said at a Baghdad briefing.

Iranian opposition groups suspected that the raid came out of a deal between the governments of France and Iran. However, London's Financial Times and The New York Times reported that important U.S. intelligence contributed to the operation.

The People's Mujahedeen adventure should raise a red flag for Americans. There are too many dissonant voices speaking in too many different directions to constitute a comprehensive Iran policy -- from a split Washington to U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq. There is much wishing that the clerics would simply disappear, and half-hearted, ineffectual feints at making that happen.

However, lasting change in Iran will not come from better plots and schemes from Washington. Iranians themselves see such notions as both na•ve and arrogant. Eventually, the Iranian people will create the changes they need to realize their aspirations as a nation and a people. They know, and Americans should know, that outsiders cannot do it for them, particularly not outsiders who have been feuding with them for more than 20 years. Washington should learn that frequently, the most effective strategy is to do nothing.

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Albion Monitor July 1, 2003 (

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