- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Iran’s resistance

My e-mail fills up daily with dozens of press releases, analyses, articles and exhortations from interest groups; there seem to be as many of them in Washington as there are countries and causes.

Many of these I kill out, either because I find the groups so extreme that nothing they say is to be taken seriously or because their causes are too obscure or bizarre. But there are others that have to be looked at, because they occasionally make news.

One of these is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), better known to many in Washington as the Mujahedeen Khalq or the People’s Mujahedeen.

The group at one time had a very effective lobby in Washington, with the ability to get as many as 200 members of Congress to sign letters in its support — this in spite of the fact that the State Department considered it a terrorist group, largely because of its roots as a Marxist group seeking to overthrow the shah of Iran.

Since Iran’s Islamic revolution, however, its members have been ardent opponents of the ruling mullahs and have worked hard to ally themselves with the United States.

Nevertheless, they were added to the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, when the Clinton administration was seeking an opening to the reformist Iranian government of Mohammed Khatami.

The terrorist listing, among other things, forced the group to shut down its lobbying activities in the United States. Although it still has supporters in Washington who drop by from time to time, the official e-mails and phone calls now generally come from Paris.

A nuclear bombshell

So it was from Paris that we received a call early last week saying the group would make major disclosures about Iran’s nuclear program at a press conference on Wednesday in the French capital.

We always treat such announcements with caution, especially when they come from designated terrorist groups. But we are also mindful that it was a similar revelation from the NCRI two years ago that brought public attention to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And with three European powers having announced a deal with Iran to freeze its nuclear program earlier in the week, the issue was hot.

We asked Paris-based freelancer Jennifer Joan Lee to cover the press conference. Washington reporter Sharon Behn got on the phone to various nuclear experts and administration officials even before the press conference to let them know that we would be seeking to verify whatever was announced.

As it happened, the NCRI held not just one but two press conferences — simultaneously. It said that Iran already had in place a secret military-run uranium-enrichment plant and that Tehran had bought blueprints for an atom bomb from the now-defunct arms network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Our attempts at independent verification were less satisfying. Miss Behn’s government contacts were unwilling even to look at the group’s announcement, because the NCRI is on the terrorist list. And the independent experts were reluctant to comment without a chance to study the details of the revelations.

We were still trying to figure out just what we had when the wire agencies moved an urgent story from the press delegation traveling to South America with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Talking with reporters, Mr. Powell said the United States had received indications that Iran was trying to fit a nuclear warhead onto one of its existing medium-range missiles.

This didn’t prove the NCRI’s announcement — nor even Mr. Powell’s for that matter — but it certainly made them relevant. We went ahead and combined the two stories into one, leading with Mr. Powell’s remarks and bringing in the NCRI announcement in the body of the story with all our reservations spelled out.

I’m still not sure whether this was the best way to handle the story, but at least we were not alone. I was comforted on Thursday morning to see that The Washington Post had handled it exactly the same way — and made it the lead story on its front page.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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