U.S. Hopes of Iran Change Have Little to Hang On

Tyler Marshall and Sebastian RotellaLos Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Dec 5, 2004.

They came from across America and, 15,000 strong, marched to Capitol Hill on a chilly autumn day to denounce the fundamentalist Islamic government in Iran and appeal for action by the Bush administration.

The protesters, mostly Iranian exiles or Iranian Americans, cheered speakers who offered words of support for the People's Mujahedin of Iran, the best-organized group opposing the regime in Tehran.

"Iran will be [America's] focus in the near future, and the People's Mujahedin are our best bet to counter the regime," Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) told the crowd at last month's protest.

Although there is little dispute that the group is committed to overthrowing Tehran's ruling mullahs, the People's Mujahedin also carries some hefty baggage: It is on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

The group, also known as the Mujahedin Khalq, has been accused of being a totalitarian cult whose members killed Americans in the 1970s. It was involved in the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran and eventually took refuge in Iraq, where it cozied up to Saddam Hussein and fought for his regime in its 1980s war against Iran. Until last year, it had heavy weapons, including tanks, at its disposal.

The troubles surrounding the People's Mujahedin are emblematic of a larger problem facing advocates of change in Iran: the lack of viable alternatives.

The prospect of a political vacuum looms large as U.S. policymakers grapple with ways to prevent a hostile Islamic government from moving closer to mastering the technology to build a nuclear bomb and the means to deliver it.

The Iranian regime, which equates dissent with treason, has effectively blocked the growth of internal opposition groups. Meanwhile, exile organizations are either too small to be effective or, like the People's Mujahedin and the monarchists who supported the late shah, lack broad appeal.

Asked about possible U.S. support for regime opponents, a senior Bush administration official responded: "What opposition?"

The dearth of organized Iranian opposition does not mean the ruling clerics enjoy strong support, regional experts stress.

Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council member for Iran, was involved in negotiations during the embassy takeover. He said evidence, including voting patterns, suggested that between 70% and 80% of the Iranian electorate opposed the ruling clerics and would be happy to see them replaced.

"The opposition is enormous, but at the moment, it's a leaderless movement," said Sick, who now teaches at Columbia University.

"It's a society in dissidence, but the people are not out in the streets fighting the regime," said Olivier Roy, a scholar at the Center for International Studies and Research, a think tank in Paris.

Middle East specialists and Bush administration officials cite a variety of reasons that, despite such a high level of discontent, there remains so little organized opposition in Iran and among the vast Iranian diaspora, which is concentrated in the U.S. and Western Europe.

They note that the moderate Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, failed to deliver on his stunning 1997 electoral mandate for democratic reform. Khatami was unable to mobilize the electorate or establish new parties to counter the hard-liners, who gained time to regroup and launch a systematic crackdown that crippled the reformist movement, they said.

A sense of disillusionment among potential democratic activists who have watched the 1979 revolution yield not freedom but a tyranny of another kind is also a factor, experts said.

"There's no counterrevolutionary drive to spill the blood of others," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East specialist who is now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Until this happens, it's hard to see people taking the necessary risks to build the kind of network needed to overturn the regime."

The Iranian diaspora's successful integration into Western countries, concern about reprisals against relatives in Iran and what experts describe as a general lack of cohesion have combined to blunt the development of a broad opposition movement in exile, analysts said.

The People's Mujahedin, clearly the largest and most effective of the existing opposition groups, as well as the only one with its own military capability, is surrounded by controversy.

Although the group professes to support democracy, equality for women and human rights, former members accuse it of exploiting its followers by separating families, confiscating their wealth, worshiping group leaders like gurus and maintaining control through torture, beating and kidnapping.

A group closely linked to the People's Mujahedin, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, has scored intelligence coups, exposing previously unknown aspects of Tehran's nuclear program. On Thursday, it released alleged details of a new Iranian long-range missile.

But there is a debate on whether the revelations have come from the group's own network inside Iran, as it claims, or was merely fed by Israeli and Western intelligence agencies, as critics claim.

According to Paris-based expert Roy, the 4,500-member People's Mujahedin is the only significant armed resistance movement to the Iranian regime. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the group possessed tanks, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of heavy weapons.

Yet he too noted its many liabilities, including the fact it is designated a terrorist organization in both the United States and Europe. The group, which traces its roots back to opposition to the shah in the 1960s, is headed by a couple, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, and is now based outside Paris.

Those who speak for the group deny terrorist activities and reject other accusations, including its alleged cooperation with Saddam Hussein's intelligence service and the killings of U.S. military officers and civilian employees working in support of the shah's government.

"None of this is true," said Ali Safavi, who is president of a privately funded Middle East policy research group in the Washington area and is closely associated with the People's Mujahedin. Safavi claims that most of the accusations against the group are regime- instigated lies meant to discredit the group.

The Clinton administration's decision to designate the People's Mujahedin a terrorist organization in 1997 was intended as a goodwill gesture toward Tehran amid hopes that Khatami's election might lead to a diplomatic opening, some officials said at the time.

U.S. warplanes were ordered to bomb its camps in Iraq during and immediately after last year's invasion of Iraq despite the group's declaration that it would not oppose advancing American forces. But the strikes were called off after the group disarmed -- voluntarily, it says -- to American forces.

The U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who negotiated the disarmament, reportedly suggested its status as a terrorist organization should be reviewed.

In France, the group's image was shattered in June 2003 by a massive raid on Maryam Rajavi's compound in Auvers-sur-Oise, a placid town outside Paris. The operation resulted in the arrest of Maryam Rajavi and more than 150 members, most of whom, including Rajavi, were released on bail in the following weeks.

In the weeks after the raid, at least nine of Rajavi's followers across Europe set themselves on fire to protest the terrorism charges filed against Rajavi and her inner circle. At least three of the protesters died from their burns, and critics charge that the group's leaders ordered the self-immolations.

French prosecutors plan to bring Rajavi and her aides to trial on charges of leading a terrorist sect that was preparing to undertake violent actions in Europe and Iran after the loss of its military sanctuary in Hussein's Iraq. Critics also say the organization has carried out attacks on civilians in Iran and Iraq and had a close partnership with Hussein's security forces.

The organization "has slid into a terrorist logic," Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, director of the French domestic intelligence service, said in an interview with Le Figaro newspaper in June 2003.

"The statements about the ... goal of bringing democracy to Iran must be contrasted with the extraordinarily autocratic character of the movement, which is dominated by an excessive cult of personality," De Bousquet said.

Like cults everywhere, the People's Mujahedin relies on classic techniques of psychological manipulation, such as isolation and brainwashing, said Massoud Khodabandeh, who broke with the group in 1996 after years as a bodyguard and telecommunications expert for the Rajavis.

"First in importance is the sect culture. Then comes the terrorism," Khodabandeh said in a recent interview. "Compared to Al Qaeda, it's more of a sect than an operational terrorist group. But there has been terrorism. And the burnings last year showed the potential of the members for being terrorists. If you can kill yourself without questions, you can kill someone else without questions."

Such allegations reduce the group's appeal to regime opponents, despite its disciplined organization and military potential. Because of all this, political analysts believe any change of power in Tehran is unlikely in the short-term.

"Even under the most optimistic scenarios, regime change is going to be a long, drawn-out process," Gerecht said. "Virtually everyone in the country hates the regime, but that doesn't do you much good if there's no cutting edge to it."