The Washington Post, July 6, 2003
Other groups on the State Department’s terrorism list — such as al Qaeda and Hamas — have been relentlessly hunted down, their assets confiscated, their supporters thrown into jail. By contrast, the Iranian group has established a substantial political presence in Washington — lobbying Congress, holding news conferences and raising funds to finance an armed uprising against the Islamic government in Tehran.
Outraged by what they see as gaping inconsistencies in the government’s anti-terrorism policies, State Department officials are pushing for the freezing of the group’s financial assets and the closure of its Washington office. Their stance has been bolstered by a major crackdown against the Mujaheddin in Europe and a federal appeals court decision upholding the group’s designation as a terrorist organization.
“The government is looking at the activities of this group in the U.S., and will be taking appropriate action,” said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council. He referred questions about the timing and nature of such actions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
The People’s Mujaheddin has long been the focus of controversy inside and outside the U.S. government, with some accusing the group of terrorism, including the murder of U.S. citizens, and others arguing that its goal is the overthrow of the world’s leading terrorist state. The debate has come to a head as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the seizure by the U.S. Army of the main Mujaheddin training camp, which was established with financial and logistical support from the government of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Together with its affiliated organizations, the group claims tens of thousands of supporters worldwide, many of them fanatically loyal to the organization’s husband-and-wife leadership, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. After the French police raided the group’s headquarters outside Paris last month, and arrested Maryam Rajavi, two Mujaheddin supporters burned themselves to death in violent protests. A French court ordered Rajavi’s release last week.
Critics depict the Mujaheddin as a terrorist, cultlike organization that has escaped prosecution in the United States only because it is seen in some quarters as a useful pressure point against Tehran. Supporters argue that the group was placed on the State Department’s terrorism list in 1997 as a concession to the Iranian government when the Clinton administration was exploring prospects for a restoration of diplomatic relations.
Either way, the Mujaheddin has become a prime example of the politicization of the State Department’s terrorism list, illustrating how political considerations can help determine whether an armed resistance group is labeled a foreign terrorist organization.
“The Mujaheddin are bad guys, and they deserve to be on the list,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The U.S. has to be consistent, and if we are begging Iran to stop supporting international terrorism, we shouldn’t be dealing with people they consider terrorists.”
“Their status should be reexamined,” said Raymond Tanter, who served on the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. “I have seen no evidence that justifies them being on the list, in the sense of the deliberate targeting of civilians for political gain.”
Within the government, the fight to declare the People’s Mujaheddin a terrorist organization has been led by the State Department’s Near East bureau, which has also argued the case for dialogue with Tehran, and the counterterrorism bureau, which is responsible for drawing up the terrorism list. Some Pentagon officials, by contrast, have argued that the group is engaged in legitimate armed resistance against a dictatorial, anti-American government.
In the initial aftermath of the victory over Hussein, the U.S. military in Iraq seemed inclined to treat the group as a potential ally. Under instructions from the White House, the Pentagon reversed its position and surrounded Mujaheddin training camps. Under the terms of the ceasefire, some 5,000 Mujaheddin fighters surrendered an arsenal of heavy weapons, including 300 tanks, 250 armored personnel carriers and 250 artillery pieces, in addition to 10,000 small arms.
A senior Pentagon official, Douglas Feith, told reporters in Washington that the Mujaheddin was being treated as “a terrorist organization.”
Fusing Marxist and Islamic ideologies, the People’s Mujaheddin traces its origins back to the early 1960s as an armed opposition movement to the shah of Iran. According to the State Department, the group killed several U.S. military personnel and U.S. defense contractors during the 1970s, and supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic revolution. The group split with the Islamic government shortly afterward and launched a new assassination campaign in 1981, using suicide bomb tactics to target senior clerics and government officials.
In 1991, according to the State Department, the Mujaheddin assisted the Hussein government in Iraq in suppressing Kurdish and Shiite uprisings. More recently, the group has been involved in mortar attacks and hit-and-run raids on Iranian military outposts and government buildings near the border. French officials have accused the Mujaheddin of preparing attacks on Iranian embassies in Europe.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, Washington spokesman for the Mujaheddin’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described the terrorist allegations as “ridiculous and unfounded.” He said that the Mujaheddin had cooperated with U.S. forces in Iraq and supplied “valuable information” to Washington about Iranian nuclear programs, and was “the biggest defender of democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance” in Iran.
“U.S. policymakers have to decide which side they want to be on in Iran — the side of the people or the side of the ayatollahs,” said Jafarzadeh, who operates from an office in the National Press Building in the District.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the government is required to freeze funds of foreign terrorist organizations and can also deny visas to their supporters. Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled there was “sufficient” evidence in the public record to support the State Department’s contention that the Mujaheddin engaged in “terrorist acts.” The State Department maintains that the “National Council” is simply an alias for the Mujaheddin.
Lawyers for the National Council say they plan further appeals.
The government is already engaged in a long-running legal battle with Mujaheddin supporters in California. According to investigators, the group raised between $5,000 and $10,000 a day from travelers at Los Angeles International Airport for victims of the Iranian government, money that was then laundered through an auto-parts business in Dubai and used to buy weapons. A U.S. district judge threw out the case last July, on the grounds that the State Department had failed to give the Mujaheddin a fair hearing, but the government has appealed the ruling.
Support for the People’s Mujaheddin appears to be cooling on Capitol Hill, the focus of an intense lobbying campaign by the group. The group’s most prominent supporter, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), issued a news release last November saying that 150 House members had signed a statement describing the Mujaheddin as a “legitimate resistance movement.” But her office declined to provide a detailed list of the signatories, and at least one congressman, Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), has told the Hill newspaper that he was duped into expressing support for the group.
The Mujaheddin have “virtually no support” inside Iran, according to Ervand Abrahamian, a history professor at Baruch College and author of the most detailed study of the group. He said the organization had degenerated into a tightknit cult dedicated to studying the thought of Massoud Rajavi, as interpreted by his wife, Maryam.
Ideologically, said Abrahamian, the Mujaheddin have reached “a dead end. . . . The last thing young Iranians are interested in these days is revolutionary Islam, martyrdom and Saddam Hussein.”