LONDON — In a victory for British politicians pushing for regime change in Iran, an appeals tribunal ruled Friday that their government had no authority to ban a leading Iranian opposition group as a terrorist organization.
The ruling, which could help the group gain legal status across Europe, was hailed by proponents of the cause as a significant boost to efforts to organize democratic opposition to the Islamic government in Tehran.
But by legitimizing an organization with a history of deadly attacks in Iran, the British panel’s decision could also undermine Iran’s willingness to cooperate on international anti-terrorism fronts and inject a new stumbling block into negotiations over the Persian Gulf nation’s nuclear program, British officials have warned.
The successful appeal was filed by three dozen members of the British Parliament, many of whom say they hope to empower Iranian opposition groups to peacefully overthrow the government in Tehran.
"This judgment will help Iran build a new country," said Robin Corbett, chairman of the parliamentary committee that filed the appeal. "Iran will be free."
The British government said it would probably appeal the ruling.
The case involves the People’s Mujahedin, also known as the Mujahedin Khalq, which over the years has carried out bombings, assassinations and cross-border attacks aimed at unseating Iran’s government. The group maintains that it has abandoned violence and is working to promote democratic transition, but it says it cannot effectively carry out its political activities when it is banned as a terrorist organization.
Outlawed in U.S., Europe
The group is outlawed by the U.S. and throughout the European Union. Its lawyers said it hoped to use Friday’s ruling to win reconsideration internationally and step up efforts to topple the Iranian government.
"The fundamental solution to Iran’s crisis is neither foreign military intervention nor appeasement. The solution is democratic change by the Iranian people, and resistance. For this solution to work, all obstacles placed in the path of the resistance must be removed," said Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an umbrella political opposition group that includes the People’s Mujahedin.
Rajavi spoke to cheering supporters in London by video link from the group’s headquarters in Paris. Dozens of Iranians filled the street outside the courthouse in London after the decision was announced, some weeping, many waving the group’s flag, while organizers handed out sweets.
"Thank you!" the crowd chanted repeatedly.
The British warned in evidence presented to the Proscribed Organizations Appeal Commission that delisting the group could present foreign policy problems for Britain.
"The government adopted a cautious approach in relation to the de-proscription of the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran," Home Office minister Tony McNulty said in a statement.
"I remain convinced that where terrorism is concerned, the rights of the law-abiding majority and the overriding need to protect the public, both in the U.K. and abroad, must lead us to take such a cautious approach," he said.
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saeed Jalili, noted that U.S. officials also regard the group as a terrorist organization, and he said he had been assured that the British government would attempt to retain its prohibition.
"Some of you have seen for yourselves the terrorist activities of this group inside Iran. They have assassinated, they have killed and injured innocent Iranian citizens. This will not at all be a good precedent for Britain," he said during a visit to London to negotiate Iran’s nuclear dossier with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
In 2002, the National Council of Resistance provided the first public reports of Iran’s then- secret nuclear program, and some U.S. military officers say the group has provided valuable intelligence about Iran’s leadership and could be a key ally.
A State Department counter-terrorism official said Friday that the Bush administration was not considering removing the People’s Mujahedin from its own terrorist list, where it was placed in 1997.
U.S. officials believe the group, also referred to as the MEK, is capable of committing acts of violence harmful to American interests.
By Kim Murphy