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How Iran’s expatriates are gaming the nuclear threat


In the spring of 2003, another Iranian opposition group, the Mujahideen-e Khalq (people’s Mujahideen), or M.E.K, was also trying to exploit the opportunity created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Its situation was more complicated, as its forces were based in Iraq and Saddam had been its financial backer and protector, but this was not the first time that the M.E.K had turned adversity to its advantage. Founded in the mid-nineteensixties by middle-class students at Tehran University opposed to the Shah, it has shifted from an eclectic mixture ofIslamism and Marxism to anti-imperialism, and, finally, to its latest incarnation, which espouses democracy, freedom, and women’s rights. Like the monarchists, the M.E.K’s leaders claim that theywill bring a pluralistic democracy to Iran that will be fuendly to the West.

Just before the Shah was deposed, Massoud Rajavi, who as a politicalscience student at T ehran University had been part of the group’s governing committee, was freed from prison and assumed its leadership. Although at first Rajavi seemed a potential Khomeini ally, by 1980 he and the Ayatollah were enemies. (M.E.K members were prevented, through electoral fraud, from winning seats in the parliament, and Khomeini banned Rajavi from appearing on the ballot as a Presidential candidate.) In an effort to launch another revolution, Rajavi mobilized the M.E.K against the regime. In mass demonstrations in June, 1981, scores of people were killed or arrested and later executed. Rajavi escaped to Paris. The regime continued to target the M.E.K, carrying out hundreds of executions a month, and, with Rajavi calling for "revolutionary justice," the M.E.K, in turn, assassinated hundreds of regime officials, clerics, and judges, ‘often through suicide bomb attacks.

In Paris, Rajavi formed the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which initially was a genuine "council," including other opposition groups in addition to the M.E.K., but the other groups subsequently dropped out. Rajavi’s style of leadership was autocratic from the start, but by the mid-eighties the signs of a personality cult were unmistakable. According to Ervand Abrahamian, in his authoritative book, ”The Iranian Mojahedin," M.E.K members, especially in Westem Europe, lived in communes, and each member had a supervisor, to whom he or she had to recount, hour by hour, the day’s activities, which ended with a prayer and the chant "Greetings to Rajavi." Members had to surrender all their financial assets. Reading non-M.E.K. newspapers was prohibited, and self-criticism was obligatory. Those who wanted to marry had to obtain permission from the organization, which often provided a spouse as well. ”In short, the Mojahedin had metamorphized from a mass movement into an inwardlooking sect in many ways similar to religious cults found the world over," Abrahamian wrote. This transition was epitomized by Rajavi’s involvement, in 1985, with Maryam Azodanlu. Maryam was already married, to Mehdi Abrishamchi, one of Rajavi’s close associates. Rajavi overcame that fact by making the romance a matter of revolutionary necessity. FIrst, he said that he was making Maryam his co-Ieader-and that it would transform thinking about the role of women throughout the Muslim world. Then, about a month later, it was announced that Maryam was divorced from Abrishamchi and that the two co-leaders would marry, in order to further the "ideological revolution." The announcement implicitly compared the marriage to one of the Prophet Muhammad’s.

In 1986, the French government, eager to improve Franco-Iranian relations, yielded to demands from the Islamic Republic and expelled Rajavi and many of his followers. Rajavi went to Iraq, where he created the National Liberation Army of Iran, with about seven thousand M.E.K. troops. The M.E.K. established communes, training camps, clinics, schools, and prisons. In the ongoing Iran-Iraq war, the M.E.K. provided Saddam with intelligence on specific targets in Iran, and received arms, funds, and protection. (For this collaboration, above all, the M.E.K. is despised in Iran; several hundred thousand Iranians died in the war. "It is one of the issues where the Islamic regime and the people agree," Mshin Molavi, the Iranian journalist, said. "Language is really important in Iran. For the U.S., the government says ‘Global Arrogance "-the term has largely supplanted the familiar "Great Satan"- "but the people say ‘Americans.’ The government refers to the M.E.K. as monafeqin, which means hypocrite; it’s a very loaded term, meaning almost a kind of blasphemy. And the people, too, casually say, ‘Those monafeqin.’ ") .

In Iraq, M.E.K. fighters (many of them women) lived in military camps where vows of celibacy were mandatory, dissent suppressed, and any contact with outsiders strictly monitored. According to former M.E.K. members, some of their comrades who decided that they wanted to leave the M.E.K. camps were imprisoned or killed. The system of indoctrination, however, appears quite effective. When, in June, 2003, Maryam was arrested and imprisoned in France, several of her followers in Europe immolated themselves. Today, images of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi gaze out from walls in M.E.K. offices and barracks in Iraq, and adorn placards and T-shirts at M.E.K. demonstrations (as, for example, at the United Nations last September, where M.E.K. members protested against President Ahmadinejad, who was addressing the General Assembly).

As the best-funded and best-organized Iranian opposition group, the M.E.K. has a highly sophisticated and successful propaganda machine. A1i Safavi, a deft, smooth-talking Iranian émigré, acts as a spokesman for the N.C.RI., the M.E.K’s political wing. "For years, the Saudi lobbying machine in Washington was put to use by the M.E.K," Vall Nasr, the Naval Postgraduate School professor, told me. "Reza Pahlavi and other exiles were envious of the contacts A1i Safavi had." Despite the fact that the M.E.K has been on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations since 1997, the group has many supporters in Congress, including Representative lleana Ros- Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, who noted in April, 2003, that "this group loves the United States. They re assisting us in the war on terrorism-theyre pro-U.S."

In the weeks before and after the invasion of Iraq, American and Iranian officials held talks; as with the U.S.-led invasion of Mghanistan, there were common interests. The Americans were planning to remove Saddam Hussein, and to establish a democratic Iraq in which the long-oppressed Shiite majority would gain greater political power. The Iranians, as Shiites, heartily approved both measures. A Shiite-dominated government in Iraq would at least be friendly, if not an Iranian proxy. Iran, therefore, not only would not cause trouble for the U.S. invasion but would offer assistance in the early reconstruction period. In the course of the talks, however, the Iranians asked for assurances that U.S. forces would treat the M.E.K. members, most of whom were in a facility called Camp Ashraf, near Iraq’s border with Iran, as a hostile, Saddam backed force. An Iranian official told me that ultimately such assurance was given.

A military officer who was monitoring intelligence and communications £rom American troops as they approached Camp Ashraf, where some four or five thousand M.E.K. fighters were living, told me, "They were clearly a target. We viewed them as a possible ally of Sad dam. But, once our folks rolled up on the camp, it was Wait a minute, were going to hold up and talk’" A ceasefire was negotiated.

In the Bush Administration, the usual factional conflict now erupted over the question of what should be done with the M.E.K. At the State Department, Richard Armitage said, "Some of us were arguing that they should be disarmed

they’re a terrorist organization. And the Pentagon was arguing, Maybe we can use them in Iran. And Dr. Rice"-Condoleezza Rice, then the national-security adviser-"I heard her say one time, ‘Look, a terrorist group is a terrorist group.’ "

In the end, the M.E.K. fighters were largely disarmed, and were restricted to Camp Ashraf, under U.S. control; then, suddenly, they became a bargaining chip. On May 12, 2003, three truck bombs were detonated in Western housing complexes in Saudi Arabia, killing twenty people, seven of them Americans. According to U.S. intelligence, A1 ~eda figures connected to that bombing were in Iran, and U.S. officials demanded that the Iranians turn them over. The Iranians responded that they would do so, but only in exchange for the M.E.K.-terrorists for terrorists. The Administration said no.

If the Administration had gone ahead, it would have laid the basis for discussing other parts of a grand bargain," Martin Indyk, a top Middle East negotiator in the Clinton Administration, said. In the spring of 2003, no longer in the government, he spoke with Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zari£ "After the toppling of Saddam, the swiftness of that victory and the presence of U.S. forces on all oflran’s borders got the attention of the hard-liners. They sent signals to the Bush Administration that they might be ready for a grand bargain."

"That’s nonsense," an Iranian official said. "The discussions were initiated by the United States. The idea did not originate in Tehran." The official said that the regime received a proposal through an intermediary who said that it had originated on the seventh floor of the State Department. He said that the gist of the proposal was that Iran and the United States should agree to start negotiating with mutual respect, and that each side would address the others concerns. The official wouldn’t specify details, because he still hoped that the proposal could serve as the basis for future talks.

According to Indyk, who was one of

a number of conduits between the two countries during this period, "Zarif said that everything would be on the table: their nuclear program; their sponsorship

of terrorism-he was quite open about it. He said they would drop support for the Palestinian terrorist organizations. But they had certain requirements, regarding their role in Iraq and in the Gulf: They wanted us to concede their dominance in the Gulf: We’d essentially be partners. And what kind of security guarantees could we provide?"

The Iranian official said that the regime responded with a counterproposal, which had only minor modifications. "And that was the end of the story. It was April, May, 2003. There was no reaction."

(A former U.S. government official who had read the proposal speculated that the confusion about its provenance may have originated with the intermediaries.)

If the Administration’s engagement faction had had its moment, it was short lived, and the proponents of regime change clearly carried the day. The proposal was dropped. "Once that was off the table, the Iranians went into a different kind of calculation," Indyk said. "As we became bogged down in Iraq, we were much less of a threat, and we needed them not to playa destabilizing role." Indyk ticked off examples of U.S. actions that had benefited Iran: beating back the Taliban, overthrowing Saddam, empowering the Iraqi Shiites, and pushing the Syrian Army out of Lebanon, which left a vacuum that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah was able to fill. ‘The Iranians are markedly strengthened. It’s a perfect storm! And all by our own actions." Indeed, the Iranian official remarked to me recently, "Since the revolution, we’ve never felt stronger in the region."

The M.E.K, demonstrating its longhoned talent, was wresting opportunity from this latest misfortune. Having lost its Iraqi patron, naITowly escaped annihilation by U.S. forces, and come close to being delivered into the hands ofits bitterest enemy, it was promoting its candidacy as an agent of regime change. In Camp Ashraf, M.E.K fighters being interviewed by American intelligence officials struck consistent themes, according to a former U.S. military officer. FlI’St, they should be taken off the F.T.O. list. Their forces could then assist the Coalition Provisional Authority, patrolling the border between Iraq and Iran. And, more broadly, this former officer

continued, "they saw themselves as the equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress, the Chalabi group that was used so heavily in prewar planning. They wanted to be like that, and part of the solution of a new Iran." A person close to the M.E.K said that it offered to provide intelligence, both on Iran and on Iranian activity in Iraq.

In fact, the highlight of the M.E.K resume is its role as an intelligence source. Over the years, it has made periodic claims about Iran’s nuclear programs. The claims have always elicited skepticism from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization that monitors nuclear proliferation. In August, 2002, the M.E.K’s political wing, the N.C.RI., announced at a news conference in Washington that its sources had discovered that two secret sites were being built, south of Tehran, to provide fissile material for nuclear weapons. One, it said, was a plant that would be used for nuclear-fuel production, in the desert town of Natanz, and the other was a heavy-water production plant, for the extraction of plutonium, in Arak. This time, the I.A.E.A. was able to confirm the allegations, and in early 2003 the M.E.K attained a level of credibility it had never had before.

An Iranian-American political activist told me, however, that the N.C.RI.’s intelligence had actually come from Israel. This person said that Israel had earlier offered it to a monarchist group, but that that group’s leaders had decided that "outing" the regime’s nuclear program would be viewed negatively by Iranians, so they declined the offer. Shahriar Ahy, Reza Pahlavi’s adviser, confirmed that account-up to a point. "That information came not from the M.E.K but from a friendly government, and it had come to more than one opposition group, not only the mujahideen," he said. When I asked him if the "friendly government" was Israel, he smiled. "The friendly government did not want to be the source of it, publicly. If the friendly government gives it to the U.S. publicly, then it would be received differently. Better to come from an opposition group." Israel is said to have had a relationship with the M.E.K at least since the late nineties, and to have supplied a satellite signal for N.C.RI. broadcasts from Paris into Iran. When I asked an Israeli diplomat about IsraeYs relationship with the M.E.K, he said, "The M.E.K is useful," but declined to elaborate.

While the M.E.K fighters in Camp Ashraf were making their case to American intelligence officers, the N.C.RI. was working its levers in Washington. In 2003, an associate from the powerful Republican lobbying group of Barbour Griffith & Rogers invited Neil Livingstone, the C.E.O. of Global Options, an international risk-management firm, and Gregory Minjack, who was an executive at Public Strategies, a Washington-based crisis-management company, to explore the possibility of getting the M.E.K off the F.T.O. list, and to promote its usefulness. Even though the N.C.RI. was allowed to operate in the United States, the job would have to be handled carefully, because receiving funds from an organization on the F.T.O. list is prohibited. Payment was supposed to come from U.S.-based Iranian expatriates.

For several weeks, the three companies worked on a pitch, sending representatives to meet with different expatriate Iranians who might serve as fund-raisers for the effort. Livingstone told me that he has known some M.E.K fighters for decades. ‘There are a few cult like aspects to them," he said, but added, "I like them, because they bug Iran." Minjack, who did a good deal of the legwork, learned that the M.E.K was eager to serve as a proxy for the Bush Administration. "The M.E.K people were saying, ‘Let us be your surrogates, the lead troops-and then the disaffected will rise up,”’ he said. "It was to be a Bay of Pigs kind of thing."

The M.E.K also wanted to be the government-in-waiting, Minjack recalled, so he asked whether the organization had any documentation to show its democratic bona fides. A constitution? Statutory documents? Members gave him "a big stack of stuff,” which he asked an analyst at the Hoover Institution to examine. "I wanted to see whether Hoover would give them a seal of approval-saying, if something happens, this group has the intellectual basis to fill the vacuum." The analyst declined to become involved. All this maneuvering came to an abrupt halt on August 15, 2003, when the Treasury Department shut down the N .C.R!. office in Washington; the State Department had argued that the office was functioning as part of the M.E.K.

As the Bush Administration became wholly absorbed by Iraq, the M.E.K concentrated on making itself useful to the U.S. there. In the past eighteen months, it has provided a steady stream of intelligence on what it claims are Iran’s activities in Iraq, and its Washington advocates continued to lobby on its behalf Last summer, Raymond Tanter, a former National Security Council staff member and a visiting professor at Georgetown University, told me that he considered the M.E.K. the only opposition group capable of overthrowing the regime. He added that he had spent six hours with Maryam Rajavi in Paris, and found her to be a "very impressive woman." (Massoud Rajavi’s whereabouts have been a mystery since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.) Tanter predicted that the M.E.K. would be removed from the terrorist list and used by the U.S. against the regime. "I foresee a situation where Laura Bush, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, and Maryam Rajavi are posing for a picture in the White House," Tanter said.


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