TIME: A group condemned as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and Europe says it can provide a third way around the nuclear impasse. TIME
A group condemned as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and Europe says it can provide a third way around the nuclear impasse
Web Exclusive | Europe
By JAMES GRAFF
Aden Ramtini, 41, an ethnic Azeri from Iran who runs a small taxi business in Stockholm, is a far cry from anybody’s image of a terrorist. But there he was last weekend with his wife and two small kids in tow at a gathering outside Paris in support of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), which was deemed a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the U.S. in 1997 and has since been similarly condemned in the European Union.
As the PMOI head Maryam Rajavi is bringing the crowd of as many as 30,000 people to its feet repeatedly with the familiar message “Let my people go!”, Ramtini tells an equally familiar tale: at the age of 17 he moved to Camp Ashraf, the PMOI’s headquarters in Iraq, and spent six years there; his older brother was killed by Khomeini sympathizers in 1989; and he would love to go back to Iran “but not the Iran of the mullahs.” He swears the West has got the PMOI all wrong. “How can all these people from all walks of life to be part of a sect or terrorist group?,” he says.
It’s a point that Rajavi, the charismatic leader of the PMOI, never tires of making. Three years ago, French anti-terrorist forces raided her headquarters compound in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise northwest of Paris, and detained her and more than a dozen other PMOI officials. The raid set off a wave of hunger strikes and self-immolations by distraught Iranian exiles. Last month a French court lifted the final legal restrictions on activities and contacts for Rajavi and 16 others. Yet the terrorist designation for PMOI and the related National Council of Resistance of Iran remains in place.
Getting that designation lifted was the central purpose of last weekend’s show of force at a giant conference center in Le Bourget north of Paris, for which exiled Iranians and a smattering of non-Iranian supporters had been bussed to Paris from all over Europe. Rajavi’s push is nothing new, but she contends that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s stubborn insistence on attaining a nuclear capability makes it more urgent than ever. Dressed in a pale green silk dress with a matching headscarf, Rajavi presents her organization as a “third option” for resolving Iran’s impasse with the West between outright military invasion and a “policy of appeasement vis-à-vis the mullahs.”
The concessions the West has dangled before the Teheran regime help with the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, spare airplane parts, even U.S. security guarantees will do nothing to move Ahmadinejad and the mullahs to give up their nuclear program, she says; the only solution is the peaceful overthrow of the regime through international-sanctioned free elections. Rajavi or her husband Massoud, said to live underground somewhere in Europe, would be happy to take the helm thereafter.
Some of what PMOI supporters say could be endorsed by the Bush administration and the governments of France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which have spearheaded so far fruitless negotiations with Iran since November 2004. “Once they have the bomb, that regime will be there forever,” says Azadeh Zabeti, a London lawyer. “It’s imperative that we do something now.” But there are also reasons why Western governments remain wary: among them are the group’s ideological origins in a mixture of Marxism and Islam, the aid they offered to and received from Saddam Hussein, and charges, which they deny, implicating them in terrorist acts in Iran. Many independent analysts, such as Paris-based sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, say the group has few supporters inside Iran.
The PMOI’s terrorist listing was first secured nine years ago as a concession to the reformist government of Mohammed Khatami, but it has been consistently renewed since then. A legal challenge to the designation was denied in 2004 by the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, in a judgment written by John Roberts, now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At Le Bourget, a number of sympathetic politicians spoke in support of the organization, but none who have the ear of sitting governments.
The widow of President François Mitterrand, Danielle, headlined the French contingent, which also featured Edith Cresson, whose stints as prime minister and European Commissioner brought her little credit. And so the battle continues. The Le Bourget gathering had the harmless character of a political rally-cum-family reunion rather than the menace of a terrorist conclave. But the PMOI represents a Third Way the West is still unlikely to embrace even if it has no other good options either.