It has been variously described as a cult and the only significant Iranian resistance movement. The People’s Mujahedeen is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe and the United States, yet the group continues to stage rallies and court lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The U.S. military that bombed its Iraq-based armed wing two years ago now protects its camp north of Baghdad, where its members have been granted Geneva Convention refugee status. And in France, where the People’s Mujahedeen established its political headquarters in the 1980s, it regularly hosts press conferences in Paris to level fresh charges about Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
Now, as the standoff continues over Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities, some suggest the People’s Mujahedeen could play another role: As one of the few sticks available to Western governments — short of U.N. sanctions — to prod Tehran into compliance.
"I think the way we have treated the Mujahedeen has not been very intelligent," said Yves Bonnet, a former head of France’s internal DST intelligence service, and author of a book on Iranian politics. "Instead of making the Tehran regime worried by supporting an opposition movement they fear, we’re trying to sterilize the Mujahedeen. And in doing so, we’re playing into the arms of their adversaries — the Iranian government."
Such a view is hardly universal. Critics argue that supporting the People’s Mujahedeen grants legitimacy to a disreputable organization, dogged by allegations of human rights abuses and undemocratic behavior.
Other analysts point to a bad precedent: Bogus information on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program provided by Iraqi opposition groups. "I think we need to view what the Mujahedeen is saying with some very healthy skepticism," said Bob Ayers, a terrorism expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Still others suggest that using the Mujahedeen to pressure Tehran would have only limited effect.
For its part, the Mujahedeen has spared no effort to clean up its reputation. It organizes periodic rallies — including one in front of the White House Thursday — to get off the U.S. and European terrorist lists, and to promote itself as a democratic alternative to the Mullah’s regime.
Based in the picturesque Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise, the Mujahedeen’s political wing — known formally as the National Council of Resistance of Iran — has a formidable public relations machine. It publishes a slick magazine peppered with articles about the Western lawmakers and Iranians who support it.
"The Iranian community abroad is a microcosm of the Iranian community in Iran," said 53-year-old Ali Safavi, a member of the Mujahedeen’s foreign affairs committee, in an interview in Paris. He claims the vast majority of those politically active in the Iranian diaspora support the group.
"If there were an election held tomorrow in Iran under U.N. auspices — free of rigging and fraud and all parties could participate — I think our movement would by far gain the most number of votes," Safavi added.
Many scoff at such claims.
"They’ve managed to convince more than a few unsuspecting members of the European parliament and U.S. congressmen and women that they are a legitimate democratic opposition group," said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the International Crisis Group in Washington, DC, echoing the view of a number of experts. "But in reality, anybody who has been to Iran in the last 10 years would tell you they have little, if any, support on the streets."
There was a time, however, when the Mujahedeen enjoyed considerable support on the Iranian streets. Founded in 1965 by Iranian students bent on toppling Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the group briefly allied itself with the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But the Mujahedeen, which mixed Islam with Marxist philosophy, soon fell afoul of Iran’s new theocratic government.
In 1981, after several of its leaders were executed, the group moved to an unsettled exile in France. When Paris began forging diplomatic ties with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1986, it expelled the Mujahedeen’s charismatic leader, Massoud Rajavi.
Rajavi moved to Iraq, where Saddam gave him shelter and millions of dollars in funding. He established the group’s military wing there, launching terrorist attacks across the border in Iran, and targeting Iranian interests overseas.
In 2003 — as French authorities again appeared to be seeking closer ties with Tehran — police raided the Mujahedeen’s sprawling compound in Auvers-sur-Oise, arresting 160 people on allegations of funding terrorist activities. Among those detained were Rajavi’s wife Maryam, who heads the group’s political wing.
But today, Maryam Rajavi meets freely with French and other European politicians, and reportedly enjoys police protection whenever she leaves her home. A French judicial investigation putters on — to save face, Mujahedeen members say, for lack of incriminating evidence.
Treatment of the Mujahedeen by other Western governments also appears pegged to shifting diplomatic relations with Tehran. In 1997, the Clinton administration classified the Mujahedeen’s armed and political factions as terrorist organizations — reportedly to score points with former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. In 2002, the European Union put the group’s armed branch on its terrorist list.
Today, however, some U.S. and European lawmakers are lobbying for the Mujahedeen to be treated as a credible weapon against Tehran. "We should use them for information on what’s going on inside Iran," said Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado), who supports lifting the group’s terrorist designation. "They’re willing to do what’s necessary to bring the regime down, and we could take advantage of that."
Supporters say the Mujahedeen could be used in providing intelligence information on Iran’s nuclear program. That may be one reason, according to reports, why the U.S. military shifted from bombing to guarding the Mujahedeen’s camp in Iraq. Indeed, the group’s allegations three years ago about an Iranian enrichment facility in Nantanz were "on the mark," said a diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna.
But the group’s subsequent nuclear disclosures have been of dubious value, the diplomat added, speaking on background. "The IAEA certainly doesn’t rely on them as a credible or regular source of information," she said, "even though it does read and check them out."
More worrying, perhaps, is the organization’s reputation. The Mujahedeen has long been described as a personality cult revolving around its leaders, the Rajavis. Men and women at the Iraq camp sleep separately and are barred from marrying. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report accusing the Mujahedeen of torturing and preventing some of its dissenting members from leaving the camp, during Saddam’s time.
Some U.S. soldiers and European lawmakers say they have found no evidence of past abuse there. And the group argues former members interviewed by Human Rights Watch are on the payroll of Iran’s intelligence service. But critics like Ervand Abrahamian, author of a 1989 book on the Mujahedeen, says that is its standard response to damaging allegations.
"It would be a sign of desperation if Washington resorted to the Mujahedeen as an instrument against the Iranian regime," added Abrahamian, a Middle East history professor at Baruch College, in New York. "I can’t imagine anyone more discredited in Iran than the Mujahedeen."