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Most-Favored Terrorists - Newsweek World News - MSNBC.com

Most-Favored Terrorists - Newsweek World News - MSNBC.com
Most-Favored Terrorists
What’s behind the French arrests of Iranian freedom fighters?

Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 8:49 a.m. ET July 19, 2003
June 27 - It’s the same season now in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise that it was when Vincent Van Gogh spent his last days here. Crows fly above cornfields and the narrow streets are made for strolling in the sultry early-summer heat. “Really, it’s seriously pretty; it’s open countryside, characteristic and picturesque,” the painter wrote to his brother Theo in 1890. And it hasn’t changed so very much since then, except for the coils of razor-wire, the riot police, the Iranian flags and the scores of hunger strikers on Rue des Gords.

UNTIL THE EARLY morning of June 17, when French SWAT teams went over the walls, the riverside compound on this quiet street served as a political headquarters for the most famous (and infamous) group trying to overthrow the government of Iran: the Mojahedin e-Khalq (People’s Mojahedin), which is listed by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist organization. For years the outfit was a pawn of Saddam Hussein. But now the Muj, who are some of the Iranian ayatollahs’ oldest enemies, may be America’s new friends and thus, perhaps, France’s new enemies.

As I walked down the street past the hungering protesters, recumbent beneath signs pleading for the release of their leaders, a weird rush of memories came over me. Probably you’ve seen members of the Mojahedin yourself, now and then, collecting anti-ayatollah petitions on city sidewalks, as insistent and as in-your-face as cult members. Usually they show off grotesque photographs of torture victims mutilated by the regime, but sometimes they hand out flyers with a picture of Maryam Rajavi, the green-veiled, green-eyed wife of their founder, Massoud Rajavi. Her smiling visage is pinned up all over the Rue des Gords. She’s the kinder, gentler, more matronly face of the movement. She’s also the most important member now jailed in France.

Who are these people? You might have asked yourself as you edged by their petition tables. If there’s no simple answer, it’s because they seem to keep reinventing themselves.

I first saw the Muj in action more than a quarter-century ago on the streets of Washington, D.C., where their ranks were made up of Iranian scholarship students raging against the Shah. (Clouds of tear gas filled the air around the White House, and President Carter and the Iranian monarch had to wipe the fumes from their eyes.) A little more than a year later, when the Shah was toppled back in Tehran, the Muj were one of the most powerful forces on those riot-torn streets, collaborating with Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership of the revolution even as they maneuvered to usurp it.

Historian Shaul Bakhash describes the ideology they preached in those days as “drawing on Islam, social Darwinism, Marxism and critiques of capitalism.” An Iranian royalist acquaintance of mine, who did some jail time with members of the organization, describes them in two words: “Pol Pot.” “They would have killed hundreds of thousands if they took over,” he says. “Even more than the ayatollahs.” But these days they talk a lot about pluralism and democracy, elections and constitutions, women’s rights and secularism.

The Rajavis fled to exile in France in 1981 after a powerful bomb evidently planted by their minions wiped out several of their theocratic enemies. The blast killed the secretary general of the Islamic Republic Party, four cabinet ministers, six ministerial undersecretaries and 27 members of parliament—but failed to bring down the clerical regime. Nor did a succession of other bombings later in the year. Retribution on their followers was horrific. And the uprising they’d hoped for never materialized.

In 1986, no longer welcome by the French, the Rajavis and their troops moved to Iraq under the patronage of Saddam Hussein. He’d been at war with Iran for six years at that point, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranian troops, some of whom were would-be martyrs, many of whom were simple conscripts. Today, the Muj say they were just trying to make peace, and encouraged Saddam to do so. They say the Iranian people understood and see them as heroes. The Iranians I’ve met in Tehran, especially former conscripts who found themselves up against the Muj on the battlefield, see them as traitors.

What’s clear is that to the the mullahs, the Muj were a threat; so much so that in 1987 Iran started sending hit teams to Europe to kill as many major figures in the organization as they could find. They gunned down Muj leaders in Germany, in Switzerland and in Italy. Among the victims was Massoud Rajavi’s younger brother Kazem, killed near Geneva in 1990. France eventually offered asylum again and qualified protection within its borders for political activities, and the Muj settled once more into a quiet life by the slow-moving waters of the Oise. They were so innocuous as far as their neighbors were concerned that the Auvers town council is now lobbying for Maryam Rajavi’s release.

What’s hard to understand, given this history, is why the French suddenly decided now to move against the people they’d been sheltering all this time.

One key could be the U.S. connection. When the American military conquered Iraq, it gave the little Mojahedin army of 5,000-or-so fighters special treatment. Never mind the group’s official terrorist label and its long ties to Saddam, the 4th Infantry Division’s commander, Gen. Ray Odierno, spent two long days negotiating a truce with the organization. When the talks finally ended and he spoke to the press, Odierno was more than charitable. “It is not a surrender. It is an agreement to disarm and consolidate,” he said, adding that “on the surface they appear to have some of the same goals the U.S. has in forming democracy and fighting oppression.”

U.S. officials won’t say if they intend to use the Muj as a means to attack the Iranian regime, especially at a time when that government faces mounting protests (for which the Muj try to claim responsibility). But the French are floating suggestions that the group could be Washington’s most-favored terrorists. An internal document from France’s security police, leaked to the daily Le Figaro, claimed that “in case of an Anglo-American attack” on Iran itself, the Muj were organizing operations against Tehran’s consulates and embassies in Europe as well as “the physical elimination of former members of the movement collaborating with the Iranian intelligence services.” At recent meetings, some in the group supposedly talked about resorting to “suicide operations (self-immolation),” according to the report. In the event, after the arrests at Auvers several Muj partisans set themselves ablaze in Paris, Rome, London and Bern to protest.

Over coffee and sweets inside the headquarters in Auvers, spokesmen for the Mojehedin e-Khalq scoff at the notion their group would carry out terrorist attacks in Europe. They never have, they say, and never would. Some suggest that the arrests and threatened extraditions back to Iran are just France’s way of currying favor—and perhaps winning lucrative contracts—with the Tehran regime. “We condemn this shameful haggling with the mullahs,” proclaim the posters on Rue des Gords.

It’s a muddle, this case. Could the French government be so cynical that it would stage these arrests just to win contracts for oil deals and airplane sales? Or does it really believe the Americans might invade Iran, and thus set off a wave of terror in Europe? As I mulled all this over on the drive back to Paris, I kept thinking about the name the French interior ministry gave the raid on the Mojahedin headquarters: “Operation Théo.” It’s a reference to Van Gogh’s art-dealer brother, who is buried beside him on a hilltop overlooking Auvers. But what perverse sense of culture or history inspired such a rubric for such an action?

When I got home I pulled a copy of Vincent’s letters off the shelf and looked at the last lines—the very last lines of the very last unfinished note to Theo. If there was no clear answer, there was an odd reflection of the question some of the French may be asking themselves right now: “You’re not in the business of selling men as far as I know, and you can take a side, I find, really acting with humanity, but what do you want?”

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