Friday, August 15, 2003

The United States yesterday seized assets and shuttered the Washington offices of the People’s Mojahedin, the major exile opposition to fundamentalist Iran since it came to power under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the late 1970s.

In the process, however, the U.S. government may have alienated a recent source of intelligence on the Islamic republic of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

U.S. Treasury agents closed the National Press Club offices of the Iranian opposition, also known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran and notified vendors in the United States and abroad that the group was considered a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

The Treasury Department also took steps to freeze the group’s bank accounts while Justice Department officials delivered a cease-and-desist order to individuals associated with the organization.

Treasury Department spokesman Taylor Griffin told the Associated Press that nearly $100,000 in financial assets belonging to the group was found in the United States and was frozen.

The U.S. representative of the group accused the Bush administration of giving in to demands of the Iranian government.

The decision to target the group came after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell determined that it was the political arm of Mujahideen Khalq, which has been listed as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997. This name for the opposition group is a translation of People’s Mojahedin.

Although many U.S. officials believe the various names stand for the same group, the rebels themselves say the groups are only close affiliates.

Under former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s protection, the People’s Mojahedin used Iraqi soil to stage attacks on Iran throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including assassinations of leading member of Iran’s security services.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. forces reached a cease-fire with the organization in its northern Iraq enclave, temporarily allowing the group to keep its weapons. In negotiations in May between U.S. and Iranian officials, the Iranian side proposed a swap of Iranian rebel fighters for the transfer of al Qaeda operatives in Tehran’s custody.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, the group’s U.S.-based representative, suggested the opposition group had become a pawn in negotiations with Iran.

“This appalling act by the State Department is clearly kowtowing to the demands of the terrorist religious theocracy ruling Iran and is giving in to the godfather of international terrorism,” Mr. Jafarzadeh told the AP. “It will convince Tehran’s rulers that their policies of blackmail and terrorism is profitable.”

State Department acting spokesman Tom Casey told United Press International yesterday that the decision to designate the group as a foreign terrorist organization had no connection with U.S. policy toward Iran.

The group is also listed as a terrorist organization by the European Union. French police in July raided the European headquarters of the group outside Paris and arrested about 150 people. Many were quickly freed.

Under a Sept. 23, 2001, executive order created to freeze terrorist assets, the group is deemed “to have committed, or to pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”

But a case could be made that it has actually enhanced U.S. national security. Last December, it made satellite images available to the U.S. media of a uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran. The information turned out to be correct, and earlier this year the Iranian government allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the facility.

One U.S. official said yesterday that much of the group’s recent intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program has been borne out. “If you look at the information they have released to the public over the last year, it is very clear these people have someone on the inside.”

In November of last year, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, persuaded more than 100 members of the House to sign a letter calling on the State Department to remove the People’s Mojahedin from the list of foreign terrorist organizations.

In an interview with the Hill newspaper, Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said, “This group loves the United States. They’re assisting us in the war on terrorism. They’re pro-U.S.”

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