The self-styled Iranian resistance group called the People's Mujahedeen of Iran has been described as a cult, a terrorist group, and the only significant Iranian resistance movement. Its armed wing is based in Iraq, and its political branch is located in the French town of Auvers-sur-Oise. Now, with the current standoff over Iran's nuclear weapons program, some see the controversial People's Mujahedeen as a bargaining chip the West can use to prod Tehran into compliance.
During four decades of existence, the People's Mujahedeen has been many things to many people. The Iranian opposition group is listed as a terrorist organization in Europe and the United States, yet it continues to stage rallies and court lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The U.S. military, which bombed the Iraq-based armed wing of the group two-years ago, now protects its camp north of Baghdad, where its members have been granted Geneva Convention refugee status.
In 2003, French police raided the People's Mujahedeen's political headquarters outside Paris. They arrested 160 people, as part of an inquiry into alleged terrorist funding. But no charges were pressed. Today, the group hosts press conferences in Paris to level fresh charges about Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
Despite its ambiguous image, one thing is clear: The People's Mujahedeen is bent on toppling the regime in Iran.
Experts like Yves Bonnet believe Western governments should be making better use of it to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear-enrichment program.
Bonnet is a former head of the DST, France's internal intelligence service, and the author of a book on Iranian politics. Instead of using the group to try to put pressure on the Iranian government, Bonnet says, Western governments are trying to sterilize the People's Mujahedeen.
A number of U.S. and European lawmakers agree. They include European Parliament member Paulo Casaca, who heads an informal parliamentary group supporting the People's Mujahedeen.
"It has significant support in the European Parliament since we are more and more aware that Iran poses a threat - not only to the Iranian people but to global peace, democracy, and stability," said Paulo Casaca.
One of the ways Western governments can give the group more clout, supporters say, is to stop identifying it as a terrorist organization. In the past, the Mujahedeen has been blamed for launching strikes against Iran from its base in Iraq, and for terrorist activities targeting Iranian interests overseas.
In 1997, the United States classified both the armed and political branches of the People's Mujahedeen as terrorist groups. The European Union put the Mujahedeen's armed branch on its own terrorist list in 2002.
The group says it renounced terrorism five-years ago.
Today, People's Mujahedeen members like Ali Safavi argue that the group is the only viable and popular Iranian opposition movement. Safavi is a senior member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the groups political wing. During a recent interview in Paris, Safavi said there is great support for the People's Mujahedeen, inside and outside Iran.
"If there were an election held tomorrow under U.N. auspices, free of rigging and fraud, and all parties could participate, I think our movement would have the most number of votes," he said.
But critics like Ervand Abrahamian doubt this claim. Abrahamian is a professor of Middle East History at Baruch College in New York, and an expert on the People's Mujahedeen. He says the group and its founder, Massoud Rajavi, had a lot of support during the Iranian revolution, when they briefly collaborated with Ayatollah Khomeini to topple the Shah of Iran. But he says that is no longer true.
"My opinion basically is that they are a fringe group - very much around one personality, that's Massoud Rajavi," he explained. "And that they have lost most of their social support which they had, which was considerable social support between 1978 and 1981."
Critics also accuse the People's Mujahedeen of human-rights abuses. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report about alleged torture and detention of members in Iraq who wanted to leave the group. The Mujahedeen says the allegations are false.
The Mujahedeen's effectiveness in providing intelligence on Iran's nuclear activities is also controversial. A diplomat close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Vienna, said the group was right on the mark three-years ago about an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility. But generally, she says, the IAEA treats the Mujahedeen's periodic claims about Iran's nuclear program with skepticism.
Terrorism expert Bob Ayers, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, says the Mujahedeen could be of limited use to Western governments in their current standoff with Iran.
"They represent a vehicle whereby the West can signal its displeasure to Iran by supporting them, by not putting them in jail," he explained. "By giving them Geneva Convention refugee status in Iraq. All of these are messages to Iran which say, 'We have levers which can destabilize you, if you do not do things the way we expect you to do them.'"
But in the end, Ayers and a number of other analysts believe the West will need more powerful arguments to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear enrichment activities.
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