* Head of a group labeled terrorist by the U.S. urges the West to back an internal political push against Tehran.
AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France – Opening the gates of the secretive world of her headquarters North of Paris, the leader of an Iranian exile group urged Western governments Tuesday to support a campaign of internal political resistance to the regime in Tehran.
Maryam Rajavi of the Mujahedin Khalq, which has been officially designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union, capitalized on the escalating diplomatic confrontation with Iran to hold a rare news conference at the heavily guarded compound on the wooded banks of the Oise River.
Rajavi, 52, called for the West to avoid responding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions with appeasement or a military invasion. Instead, she said political and economic sanctions would fortify democratic resistance among Iranians, with her group, whose name translates as People’s Holy Warriors, serving as a vanguard.
"The Iranian resistance has a capacity to bring about change," Rajavi said. "Knowing this, the mullahs have always in their dealings with their foreign counterparts demanded the imposition of harsh restrictions on the resistance, branding it as terrorist and a sect."
Despite Rajavi’s contention that she is a moderate Muslim espousing a peaceful, democratic Iran, her initiative seems a longshot at best.
Her group remains under investigation in France for allegedly carrying out terrorist attacks in Iran and plotting against Iranian government targets in Europe.
After French police arrested Rajavi during a raid on the compound by more than 1,000 officers in 2003, a number of her followers around Europe set themselves on fire. The grisly protests exposed an internal culture that mixes Marxism and Islam, isolates members from their families and gives Rajavi the status of a guru, according to French investigators and former members.
Moreover, Mujahedin Khalq’s former alliance with since-deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran alienated many Iranians. Because of the group’s lack of support in Iran and dubious image, Washington, Paris and other capitals do not see the group as a viable force, according to analysts and Western officials.
"Given the sect-like, totalitarian and terrorist nature of this organization," enlisting it as an ally seems "indefensible," said analyst Dimitri Delalieu in a recent report for the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels think tank.
Rajavi and fellow leaders were released pending the outcome of the French investigation. They say the charges are groundless and part of a politically motivated attempt by France to facilitate deal-making with the Iranian government.
In any case, the group retains a measure of relevance because it periodically has made significant disclosures about Tehran’s nuclear program. It relies on an espionage network in Iran and sometimes, analysts say, tips from Western and Israeli spy services.
"They are more marginal than ever," said Olivier Roy, a Middle East expert at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "They will maintain their contacts with Western governments only because intelligence services have so little on Iran. The CIA and others have great difficulty getting information in Iran. So because of the lack of anything better, the Mujahedin will still be able to play that role."
Rajavi appeared determined Tuesday to rehabilitate her image. A legislator each from Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal were on hand to endorse her and demand that her group be removed from lists of terrorist organizations.
Rajavi said the West should use sanctions to pressure the Iranian government to submit to a referendum on the future of the country’s political leadership that would be watched by international monitors.
"It would be fantastic if the international community could intervene and impose a referendum," she said.
But she declined to rule out armed intervention, saying, "The tactics and methods have been imposed not by us, but by the mullahs."
By Sebastian Rotella