AP Interview: Iran opposition chief sees rebirth

ELAINE GANLEY Associated Press Published:

AUVERS-SUR-OISE, France (AP) -- The leader of an Iranian militant group that was taken off the U.S. terror list on Friday says the move will change her group's "balance of power" with the world -- predicting a higher profile in politics, fundraising and diplomacy and increased anti-regime activity in Iran.

The U.S. State Department said the People's Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) hasn't committed terror for more than a decade. The group has also complied with demands that more than 3,000 of its once-armed members abandon their base in Iraq near the Iranian border for a camp outside Baghdad, an essential step to ending their decades-long presence in Iraq.

The U.S. decision means that, effective immediately, any assets the group has in the United States are unblocked and Americans are permitted to do business with the organization.

A court order had given Clinton until Oct. 1 to act. The group was removed from the European Union's terrorist list in 2009.

Maryam Rajavi, the Paris-based head of the exiled opposition group, said in a rare interview that she hopes the organization can now have the ear of the world's diplomats to help bolster its bid to overthrow Iran's clerical regime. She stressed that its goal was to replace the Islamic Republic with a democratic government.

"It now has become evident for everyone that these (terror) allegations were untrue," she said, praising U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for her "courage."

"Our cause is democracy and the freedom of democracy for the future of Iran," Rajavi said. "We are against fundamentalism which is in power in Iran ... ... The mullahs' (clerical) regime is the center of the exportation of terrorism and fundamentalism in the Middle East."

However, a senior State Department official suggested that removing MEK from the U.S. terrorist list does not translate into a shared common front against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The official said Washington does not view MEK as an opposition movement that can promote democratic values in Iran. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

"They are not part of our picture in terms of the future of Iran," the official said.

The Iranian regime is sure to be furious at the U.S. decision to delist MEK -- for years the only armed exile opposition group. The group, which began as a guerrilla movement fighting Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, helped overthrow the monarch in 1979 then quickly fell out with the Islamic Republic's first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

MEK later teamed up with Iraq to battle Iran in an eight-year war in the 1980s, then from its Iraqi base continued military action against neighboring Iran.

The United States contends the group was responsible for the killing of several American military officials and defense contractors in the 1970s, carrying out attacks on Iran from its base in Iraq.

The MEK spent huge sums of money over years lobbying for removal from the U.S. terror list, holding rallies in European capitals and elsewhere that featured luminaries like former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge from the administration of George W. Bush. Former House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was among those recently welcomed by the MEK to Paris.

Rajavi, 58, wore what has become a trademark headscarf among MEK women during the interview Friday at MEK's headquarters in the leafy town of Auvers-Sur-Oise north of Paris. She denied claims by critics that MEK has all the earmarks of a cult, saying it is Iran who seeded such allegations as part of their "psychological war" against the group.

"All the energy and potential of our movement were chained" during the 15 years that MEK was listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, she said, speaking in French as well as the Iranian language of Farsi through a translator.

At its headquarters, the group was preparing for a jubilant fete on Saturday, plastering walls on the street with red drapes and photographs of "martyrs," as it refers to members who have been killed.

"The diplomatic scene will be completely different" because the group's status as a pariah will evaporate, Rajavi said, reiterating MEK's long-standing denial of terrorism.

But, she said, "the most important impact ... will be seen inside Iran."

"The balance of power, the balance of power is going to change. For example, the first message for the Iranian people will be they won't fear increasing their activity and increasing their demonstrations," she said. The fear "will evaporate ... and that will lead to the expansion of anti-regime activities within Iran."

With a clean bill of health in the West, the Iranian regime "will no longer have the excuse" of acting against an organization deemed terrorist by the United States.

Mujahedeen, protected in Iraq under dictator Saddam Hussein, were disarmed after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and are disliked by the new Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite Muslims like those in Iran.

The United States had insisted the MEK's members leave Camp Ashraf, their home in Iraq, as a condition for removal from the terrorist list. All but several hundred militants are now located in Camp Liberty, a former U.S. base outside Baghdad, looking for placement in third countries.

Among those transferred to Camp Liberty were Rajavi's 30-year-old daughter and her 32-year-old son, she revealed.

A veil of mystery has long clung to the group, not the least over the whereabouts of its main founder, Massoud Rajavi, who married Maryam in 1985. He has not been seen publicly since at least 2003, although he continues as MEK's co-leader, and his portrait greets visitors at the well-secured entranthe group's French headquarters.

There has been speculation that he is dead. Rajavi countered those reports Friday and said he is alive but would provide no details.

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Bradley Klapper contributed to this story from New York.

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Follow Elaine Ganley at --www.twitter.com/Elaine_Ganley.