Strange bedfellows in the conflict with Iran

As the European Union prepared to consider tough new sanctions against Iran on Monday, a group of eminent Americans was cozying up here to an exiled Iranian opposition group that the United States classifies as terrorists.

Even undeclared war makes strange bedfellows, and none more so than the former politicians, generals and spooks on the panel at a conference in Paris on Friday evening and their hosts, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran.

In its checkered history, the PMOI has been accused of murdering American servicemen, was involved in not one but two invasions of the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution, and allied itself with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

More recently it claims to have provided information exposing details of Tehran’s nuclear program, while vigorously denying widespread speculation that it might have assisted in recent unexplained assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Western governments, including that of France where the group’s leadership is based, regard the Mujahedeen as more of a cult than a political movement.

Presiding over Friday’s conference in the old Bourse building in Paris was Mariam Rajavi, the movement’s leader and wife of its founder, Masoud Rajavi. He has disappeared from public view, perhaps emulating the Hidden Imam of the Shia Muslims whose legend figured in the creation of the Rajavi personality cult. Dressed in a familiar outfit of a modest but brightly colored suit and matching headscarf, she was greeted with chants of “Mariam, Mariam,” from the almost exclusively Iranian audience.

Americans on the international panel included General Hugh Shelton, former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff; Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor; and Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Attorney General. Other panelists included Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former French foreign minister. Gen. Shelton told Rendezvous he believed the U.S. had a sworn obligation to protect Mujahedeen refugees being evicted from Camp Ashraf in Iraq by Iraqi government.

Camp Ashraf was a heavily armed encampment under Saddam Hussein from which Mujahedeen fighters attempted to invade Iran at the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. They were driven off. Today they enjoy little support in their home country, in spite of Mrs. Rajavi’s claims to lead the main resistance to the Islamic Republic, apparently because their efforts were seen as treacherous by many Iranians.

In the 2003 war that unseated Saddam Hussein, U.S.-led coalition forces attacked Mujahedeen military units but subsequently a ceasefire was arranged. Before the conflict, the Rajavis had repaired to their long-time base in the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise, which French anti-terrorism police raided in 2003, seizing millions of euros.

“There’s no longer any reason to keep these people on the terrorist list,” said Gen. Shelton, expressing an opinion that has won widespread bipartisan support in Washington, as my colleague Scott Shane has reported. The PMOI — also known by its Persian title Mujahedeen-e-Khalq — has used a seemingly bottomless budget to push its case in the corridors of the U.S. Congress and to finance international meetings to maintain its profile.

Despite that, the State Department has adamantly refused to remove the group from its list of foreign terrorist organizations. A U.S. court ruled in 2010 that the government must allow the PMOI a chance to rebut unclassified information the government used to justify its designation, Legal Times reported at the time. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has the matter under consideration.

The Mujahedeen fears the administration wants to keep a diplomatic line open to Iran in the escalating nuclear dispute. “Did you see those reports of Obama sending a secret letter to Tehran,” said a Mujahedeen insider knowingly. Listing the PMOI as terrorists is the one thing on which Washington and Tehran agree and a delisting would be certain to derail any diplomatic initiative that might be under way.