Recently, French police raided several headquarters of the Iranian Paris-based People’s Fighters and arrested more than 100 leaders and members. The judicial authorities asserted that the sweep was a pre-emptive strike to behead an upcoming series of terrorist activities, allegedly planned by the group. Paris said it found millions of U.S. dollars in cash, radio transmission equipment and propaganda material in the raided apartments. It added that a plan was on its way to “attack Iranian embassies in Europe.” Hence, the arrest campaign was painted as anti-terrorist.
The Chirac government was consolidating its position as an aggressive partner in the international crusade against terror. Some were even whispering that the dismantling of networks in France, with global reach in Europe, was a perfect comeback for the French president. In a matter of hours, the Elysee version caught fire in the West, including in the United States. Anchors were swift to label the arrests as French participation in U.S. efforts to root out terrorism. The Atlantic rift was on its way to bridging, hoped the reminiscent of Western solidarity. In fact, it could have been the case, had only the detainee been al Qaeda, Hezbollah or any group of global reach. In reality, there was another story to the play.
About 24 hours after the crackdown, an Iranian exile set himself ablaze in protest against the arrests. The self-immolation by fire repeated itself with men and women across Europe. The exiles, in contrast with the Wahabi and Khumaini methods, kill themselves, not others, to raise awareness. Spokespersons out of London said the Chirac government had cut a deal with the Iranian regime.
Because of its attitude on Iraq, France was kept out of post-Saddam’s financial benefits. Iran is an oil-producing country and a rising arms client. Its needs in technology parallel those of Baghdad before the invasion and may surpass them. But perhaps the most converging interest between Mr. Chirac and the mullah may well have been the new geo-politics of the region. The United States has removed Saddam’s Ba’ath Party and is now moving on Khamenei’s theocracy.
Paris lost in Baghdad, but it wants to resume the battle against Washington’s influence in Tehran. The Iranian opposition claims an obscure deal selling out the anti-mullah organization based in France in exchange for a French role in Iran. The idea may seem to be Machiavellian, especially as domestic tensions are exploding on Iran’s campuses. But the Iranian opposition insists. They say evidence is omnipresent.
Weeks before and after the fall of Baghdad, the diplomatic ballet between the two capitals increased. Foreign Minister De Villepin visited Tehran for “coordination.” What seemed to have hastened the pace of the cooperation was the spreading student demonstrations in Iran. The generation freedom was taking over the campuses in the capital and soon spilling over to the neighborhoods. Khamenei, at first restraint, called the demonstrators “enemies of Allah.” An accusation which under religious laws, can lead to death sentence. President Khatemi, a reformist at home, has more influence overseas.
By the day, the student intifada was widening. Ironically, two expatriate groups were able to support, amplify and sustain the youth. One, based in the United States, is the Constitutional Mon Archic Movement led by Pahlevi II, the shah’s son, a charismatic leader whose appeal to the younger generations is growing steadily. The other group, based in France, was the Marxist Mujahideen Khalq. His leaders, Massoud and his wife Mariam Rajawi, were equally charismatic. The exiled Iran was by far more sophisticated than the Iraqi opposition. Its influence against the mullah is therefore politically lethal.
Paris said it beheaded a “military” branch. The opposition rejects this allegation. The only armed militia the Khalq had was in Iraq. It surrendered its weapons to the U.S.-led coalition forces last month. French authorities said the group has targeted Iranian embassies in Europe. But one does not engage in military violence in the West, when demonstrations are rocking the foundations of the regime. What the People’s Fighters were about to do, was a broadcasting campaign to topple the fundamentalists in Iran.
To the latter, this was more dangerous than arms and explosives. After 23 years of hosting it, Mr. Chirac may have decided to side with the mullah against the leftist organization. He may have designed an all-out winning plan: get rid of an Iranian opposition, which would have turned to Washington anyways; satisfy the Tehran establishment and enjoy its benefits in the region; and finally, block the United States at the Eastern doorsteps of Iraq.
Mujahideen Khalq are, indeed, revolutionary. They have opposed the shah and have found refuge in Iraq and France. The question at hand within the Beltway is heavy: How to define an enemy of evil. If the Iranian clerics are one, how should we deal with their enemies?
Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies at Florida Atlantic University and an MSNBC analyst.