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Analysts Debate Reasons for Sudden French Crackdown on 'Mojahedin Khalq' - 2003-06-22


In Paris Sunday, a judge ordered the continued detention of the leader of the Iranian opposition People's Mojahedin and 10 of her followers who face trial for possible links with terrorism.

For more than 20 years, Mojahedin members who oppose Iran's clerical regime have been treated like any other foreign dissidents living in France. Most appear to have been legal residents. Police even protected the Paris-area headquarters of the group's political arm, known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

But since more than 150 Mojahedin followers were arrested last Tuesday, the French government has sketched an increasingly unpleasant portrait of the group. Rather than a non-violent opposition movement, top French officials say the Council of Resistance maintains terrorist ties and has been plotting attacks against Iranian interests in Europe.

Officials say the woman who leads the group, Maryam Rajavi, has turned the Council into a personality cult, exemplified this week by the more than dozen Iranians in France and abroad who set themselves on fire to protest her arrest. Mrs. Rajavi is also married to Massoud Rajavi, who heads an outlawed armed resistance branch called the Mojahedin Khalq.

But after tolerating the group for so many years, what explains the sudden French crackdown? French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard has some theories.

Since the Iraq war, he said the Mojahedin Khalq lost its base near Baghdad, from where it once launched armed attacks in Iran. He believes the group decided to relocate to France, where the headquarters of its political arm is located.

He says besides Mojahedin fighters arriving in France recently, millions of dollars of unknown origin also began arriving at the group's political offices in the Paris suburb of Auvers-sur-Oise. In fact, French police say they found $6-8 million in various Paris locations during the Tuesday raids, along with sophisticated communications equipment.

During an interview published in France's Le Figaro newspaper Friday, the French counterintelligence head, Pierre de Bousquet de Florian, confirmed the government's belief that the armed Mojahedin branch planned to shift its base to France.

But Mr. Jacquard and other analysts say France also may have had other motives for cracking down on the Mojahedin.

He says by arresting Mrs. Rajavi and other top opposition members, Paris is offering a diplomatic carrot to the Iranian government, with hopes Iran may respond in kind, possibly by endorsing U.N. nuclear inspections, and other non-proliferation measures.

Like Mr. Jacquard, Maurice Botbol, editor-in-chief of Intelligence Online, a Paris-based Internet newsletter that specializes in terrorism, among other topics, believes France was trying to score diplomatic points with the Iranian government, and with Washington as well, by arresting Mojahedin members.

What is clear is that the raids mark France's first major crackdown against an Iranian dissident group. Over the years, France has been the exile-of-choice for a number of prominent Iranian politicians and opposition leaders, both before and after Iran's 1979 revolution.

Some were later assassinated, apparently under orders of Iranian officials. That was believed to be the case of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister to serve under the former Shah, Reza Pahlavi, who fled to France as the first stop of his exile.

France earlier had sheltered the man who overthrew the Shah. Ayatolah Khomeini recorded sermons at his home near Paris, and they were smuggled into Iran to lay the groundwork for the Shah's overthrow and the establishment of the Khomeini religious regime.

When Iran's first post-revolutionary president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, fell foul of the country's powerful clerics, he also fled to France. On board Mr. Bani-Sadr's plane was another political dissident, the Mojahedin Khalq's leader, Massoud Rajavi.

Mr. Bani-Sadr still lives in the Paris suburb of Versailles, where he gives occasional lectures and lobbies against the Iranian government.

However, he and Mr. Rajavi split years ago. Mr. Bani-Sadr accuses Mr. Rajavi of betraying peaceful opposition efforts. At the same time, Mr. Bani-Sadr believes the Mojahedin movement has lost much of its power and he wonders why the French government decided on its crackdown. Mr. Bani-Sadr says he fears the French government may next move against other Iranian dissidents living in France

But Mr. Botbal, of Intelligence Online, is among a number of experts who say Paris will limit its arrests to the Mojahedin Khalq because of its impressive military and financial arsenal and possible links with a vast racketeering web stretching across Europe.