February 23, 2018

U.S. Seeks Surrender Of Iranian Group

Policy Is Reversed on Exiles in Iraq
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2003; Page A01

The Bush administration, increasingly concerned about the activities of an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq, has decided to actively seek its surrender, just weeks after the U.S. Central Command arranged a cease-fire that allowed the group to keep many of its weapons and maintain its camps.

The closely held decision was reached by President Bush’s senior foreign policy advisers last week and is part of a larger struggle within the administration over its policy toward Iran. The country shares a long border with Iraq and has alarmed U.S. officials with its links with terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Some State Department officials are eager for a thaw in relations with Iran. But the Pentagon and other administration officials believe the Iranian government is facing severe internal pressures from popular discontent, and see little reason to engage with Iranian leaders.

That left the fate of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq in the midst of a tug of war within the administration, officials said.

Some Pentagon officials had suggested that the exile group, which is seeking to overthrow the Iranian government, could serve as a proxy force against Iranians who have moved across the border into southern Iraq and at least would make the Iranian government worried about U.S. intentions in the region. The group, also known as the People’s Mujaheddin, has maintained for the past decade thousands of fighters armed with tanks, armored vehicles and artillery in camps along the Iraq-Iran border.

But the State Department, which in 1997 labeled the group a foreign terrorist organization, successfully argued that the United States could not condone its existence in the midst of fighting a war against terrorism. Moreover, State Department officials believe, last month’s cease-fire agreement was a betrayal of an arrangement the administration set with Iran before the Iraq war to disarm the group.

In a meeting in January between U.S. and Iranian officials, and through messages subsequently delivered through British diplomats, the United States suggested it would target People’s Mujaheddin as a way of gaining Iran’s cooperation to seal its border and provide assistance to search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots during the war.

U.S. forces in early April bombed People’s Mujaheddin camps, killing about 50 people, according to the group, before the cease-fire was arranged about three weeks ago, at a time of growing alarm within the administration about spreading Iranian influence among Iraqi Shiites. The People’s Mujaheddin are based in three camps northeast of Baghdad near the Iranian border.

In the aftermath of the U.S. military victory, State Department officials said, Iran has sent signals that it is interested in improved relations with the United States. In what some regarded as a significant development, Iran’s former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said Iran’s resumption of ties with the United States could be put to a referendum.

In an apparent reference to previous failures by the countries to begin a constructive dialogue, he said, “We missed certain opportunities, or took late or wrong measures, or even did not take action.”

The cease-fire arranged April 15 by Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq, appeared to have convinced the Iranian government it was double- crossed on the issue of the People’s Mujaheddin. The official Iranian news agency has broadcast reports saying the United States was cooperating closely with the group, including allowing its fighters to dress in U.S. military uniforms at border crossings.

Earlier this week, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi declared that the cease-fire “has dealt a severe blow to America’s prestige. It showed that the administration was not honest when it talked about terrorism.”

Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, said, “The way this plays out may make the Iranians nervous about what our intentions are.”

But, in what could be seen as a victory for the State Department, senior officials decided last week that the cease-fire was counterproductive to the administration’s larger aims in the region and the war on terror.

“The P.C. decided they can continue to exist for now, until Centcom can effect a complete surrender of this group,” an administration official said, referring to what is known as the principals committee, the president’s senior foreign policy advisers.

White House, Pentagon and State Department officials declined to comment on the decision, which was communicated over the weekend through a special channel to the Iranian government.

Iran may have signaled its pleasure at the development Wednesday. During a visit to Luxembourg, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi suggested that Iran is seeking to improve relations with the United States, which were severed during the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah. “Generally, Iran wants to expand its relations with all countries, even America,” he said.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, the Washington representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political arm of the People’s Mujaheddin, said the cease-fire allowed the group to keep its weapons in a noncombat formation and would allow it to respond in self-defense to attacks by Iranian troops.

Jafarzadeh said the United States agreed to the cease-fire because it began to understand that Iran poses a greater danger to U.S. interests in Iraq. “When U.S. forces saw with their own eyes the level of the threat posed by the Iranian regime, they realized this cease-fire was appropriate,” he said.

Jafarzadeh said that based on information collected by the People’s Mujaheddin, at least 14,000 Iranian troops, in civilian clothes, and 2,000 clerics have entered Iraq from Iran to try to create a Iranian-leaning Islamic state in the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein. U.S. officials dismiss those figures as exaggerated.

Jafarzadeh also provided copies of documents that he said showed the involvement of the Iranian government, at the highest levels, seeking to influence the political situation in Iraq. One document, dated April 19 and stamped “top secret,” dealt with using the Red Crescent (the Islamic Red Cross) as a cover for Iranian efforts to gain control in major cities in the south, he said.

The People’s Mujaheddin — who U.S. analysts say received funding from Hussein’s government — has rejected the label as a terrorist group, saying it is on the same side as the United States. Clawson said he believes it was “silly to list them as a terrorist group,” because they have not attacked U.S. targets since the shah of Iran fell in January 1979. “They are not engaged in terror attacks,” he said. “They do armed attacks against Iran.”

One U.S. official said that about three months ago, 300 to 400 Iranian troops entered northern Iraq to join forces with Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, who is close to senior officials in the Pentagon. The arrangement was troubling to officials in the State Department, but the official said the Pentagon did not appear concerned.

Later, as concerns mounted about Iranian influence in post-Hussein Iraq, some of the same officials who had shrugged off the earlier insertion of Iranian troops began to maintain that the presence of Iranian forces was proof a tougher stance against Iran was necessary. Some officials even began to press for using the People’s Mujaheddin as a proxy force against the Iranians.

“I know it sounds Machiavellian, but it played out that way,” the official said.