Washington may court moderates within Iran rather than outside opposition
The change in tone from Washington toward Tehran is complicated not only by historic acrimony but also by a complex relationship with Iranian opposition movements.
U.S. officials have made it clear that the Obama administration represents a possible opening for Iran.
"With respect to Iran, there is a clear opportunity for the Iranians … to demonstrate some willingness to engage meaningfully with the international community," in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
This is in stark contrast to the previous administration and its policy of isolation. Gary Sick, a top White House aide on Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis and now senior research scholar at Columbia University, says though the administration of George W. Bush had hoped for a better relationship with Iran in the wake of the conflict in Afghanistan, that policy was largely abandoned when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
Ali Safavi, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran — a Paris -based group calling itself the Iranian Parliament in exile — said the approach to the Iranian regime, as well as its opposition, would be a litmus test for the Obama administration.
"There has been no shortage of goodwill gestures from the Americans toward Iran with the goal of moderation, but so far this course has failed," he said.
The NCRI, which includes members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a dissident group based in Iraq’s Diyala province, has lobbied the international community to back a 16-point plan for regime change in Iran. It led a successful campaign in January to remove the PMOI from the terrorist list adopted by the European Union.
Maryam Rajavi, the controversial leader of the NCRI, hailed the decision as a victory for the Iranian resistance, saying the move paved the way for democratic change in Iran.
But the group’s image as a cult with a storied history of terrorist activity, both in Iran and across the globe, makes courting the opposition as a viable avenue for regime change in Iran tenuous at best.
The PMOI and the NCRI are both listed by the United States as terrorist organizations for their links to violent opposition to the Iranian regime.
President Bill Clinton in 1997 included the PMOI on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations following the election of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Sick says that effort was part of a broader policy of appeasement toward the moderate Khatami, adding the State FTO list is a reflection of who Washington likes as much as who it doesn’t.
The PMOI arrived on the scene in the 1960s as a movement opposing the Western-backed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, and supporting the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. The ideology of the PMOI, centered on Marxism, was in contradiction to the Revolution, however, and the group was exiled to Paris in 1981.
With France recognizing the Iranian regime in 1986, however, the group established itself in various camps throughout Iraq from which it ran a campaign of violence against Tehran. Though largely targeting Iranian government officials, its killing of American contractors in Tehran in the 1970s, participation alongside Saddam Hussein’s forces in suppressing Kurdish and Shiite rebellions in Iraq in 1991 and its later attacks on Iranian embassies in 1992 earned it a spot on the terrorist lists of several nations.
Its reputation for militancy, however, was not supported by recognition as a major fighting force. The PMOI surrendered its tanks and heavy artillery to U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion. Its members are now considered protected persons in Iraq under the Fourth Geneva Convention and claim to have abandoned their militant agenda in favor of peaceful opposition.
The PMOI, and its representatives in the NCRI, claim to hold valuable intelligence on Iranian operations, including Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The group often touts its unveiling of the nuclear program at the Natanz weapons facility in Iran, though several analysts note developments at Natanz were all but flaunted by the Iranian regime.
Massoud Khodabandeh, a former member of the PMOI, said those claims, and the intelligence value of reports from the NCRI/PMOI in general, are at best questionable, at worst useless.
"It is widely believed that intelligence given out by the PMOI about Iran’s nuclear facilities was given to them by Western intelligence contacts," he said.
Meanwhile, allegations have mounted that the U.S. intelligence community has funneled money to the PMOI for operations against the Iranian regime. An article in The New Yorker magazine in 2008 suggested the Bush administration had set aside some $400 million for covert operations against Iran, with a portion going to the PMOI.
The NCRI’s Safavi, however, called those allegations "completely bogus," and U.S. intelligence officers contacted for this story said there was no evidence to support those claims, though the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he "wouldn’t be surprised if the allegation turned out to be true."
Meanwhile, with Iraq emerging from U.S. occupation with a shaky democracy, the relationship between Baghdad and the PMOI remains tense.
With the PMOI widely reviled in Iraq for supporting the violent suppression of the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions, and in Iran for its historic assassination policy, the group has few friends outside its groups of supporters in Europe and the United States.
Though Iraq does not have an extradition treaty with Iran, several top Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have said the group is no longer welcome in Iraq.
Both the NCRI and PMOI, through persuasive and astute campaigns aimed at generating sympathy both in the media and among world leaders, including those in the United States, have pushed for a delisting campaign with an effort to sever its ties to its terrorist past.
International lawyers in Washington, D.C., representing the PMOI filed a petition in July with the U.S. State Department seeking removal from the FTO list there, but U.S. officials say the FTO designation is appropriate.
Speaking to reporters following the Jan. 26 EU delisting, State Department deputy spokesman Robert A. Wood said "nothing has changed from our standpoint" concerning either group.
Meanwhile, the outcome of the January provincial elections in Iraq may indicate a subtle shift in Iraqi relations with Iran as the pro-Tehran Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council was trounced in the elections, largely by Maliki’s more secular State of Law slate.
Former Iranian President Khatami — widely seen as a moderate — has announced plans to run for president again in June, and though an appeal in the PMOI FTO listing case is expected to reach the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this summer, with U.S. policy currently leaning toward courting moderates within Iran, rather than outside opposition groups, little seems likely to change in the future.
By DANIEL GRAEBER, UPI Correspondent,