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Q&A 11:30

Aired June 17, 2003 - 11:30:00   ET


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: In France on the orders of an anti-terrorism judge, hundreds of French police and special forces made scores of arrests and raids against an Iranian opposition group. More than 150 members of the People's Mujahadeen of Iran are in custody.
The Iranian opposition group is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, but the group says France is simply trying to curry favor with Iran.

On this edition of Q&A, a look at Iran's main armed opposition.

Welcome to Q&A.

In France, a major police operation against the Iranian opposition group, the People's Mujahadeen. Based in Iraq since the early '80s, their fighters clashed with U.S. forces in the recent war but reached a truce last month. European Union has had the group on its list of banned terrorist organizations since 2002.

So why make the move now? Well, some diplomats say the arrests are good news for Tehran and that Paris may have moved against the group to bring Iran into a wider search for stability in the region and to have Tehran be more open to negotiation.

With us now is Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Clawson, these arrests are good news for Tehran?

PATRICK CLAWSON, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Oh, absolutely. The Iranian regime really detests the Mujahadeen group, quite irrationally, frankly, because the group is not that much of a threat to the regime, nowhere near as much of a threat as the student demonstrators who've been out in the streets of Tehran the last week.

VERJEE: So why are they afraid of them? Why don't they like them that much if they don't pose such a threat?

CLAWSON: Well, 20 years ago, this Mujahadeen group was a threat, and, indeed, Iran's supreme leader was injured. He still can't use his left hand because of the injuries he sustained in a bombing by that group 20 years ago.

VERJEE: So why did Paris launch the most radical crackdown in about 30 years and crack down on the People's Mujahadeen who've been operating in France for 20 years or so.

CLAWSON: Well, I could tell you stories about how all the timing must be carefully calibrated to be the same moment that we and the West are trying to do persuade the Iranians to back off on their nuclear power program with a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency today.

VERJEE: But it is...

CLAWSON: But I don't believe that.

VERJEE: But the...

CLAWSON: I don't...

VERJEE: But the timing...

CLAWSON: Yes, I don't believe that.

VERJEE: ... does coincide, and I would add to that pro-democracy activists out on the streets of Tehran. Timing could be suspect. Is it?

CLAWSON: Absolutely, but, on the other hand, the judge who ordered this in France is famous for being very independent minded and not particularly paying much attention to the French government. So I suspect that it was a coincidence.

VERJEE: So you don't -- you think he did it without any coordination, even loosely so, with the French government?

CLAWSON: He's been known to do that in the past. I wouldn't put it beyond him to have done it again. I'm sure the French government is delighted by the timing, though, if, in fact, he had to ask them about the matter.

VERJEE: So you don't see it as a wider French foreign policy objective?

CLAWSON: Oh, I think there's a broad French foreign policy objective of going after those who raise money for very suspicious causes, like as the Mujahadeen have been doing for years, and the French have been moving to crack down on that over the last few years. I was talking about the timing of having these arrests today as distinct from, let's say, next month.

VERJEE: With us on the line now from London, Patrick Clawson, is Ali Safavi. He's the London spokesman for the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Now that's an umbrella Iranian opposition organization.

Ali Safavi, first of all, what is your group's affiliation with the People's Mujahadeen?

ALI SAFAVI, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF RESISTANCE OF IRAN: First of all, let me make a slight correction, Zain, that you pointed out at the outset of your program, that the Mujahadeen did not take part at all in the Iraq war, they did not even fire a single shot against the coalition forces, and they made that position clear more than a month before the ever started.

Having said that, the Mujahadeen, of course, is one of the five member organizations of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, and, quite frankly, I think, with all due respect to Patrick, whom I know very well, the Iranian regime's constant demands from all of its European partners and even the United States to crack down on the Mujahadeen -- it stems from the fact they feel a serious threat from the Mujahadeen to their own survival, and, indeed, it was on the basis of this particular threat that they faced that they even demanded that the United States and the -- and Britain bomb Mujahadeen bases in Iraq.

And so, in that context, the action by the French today, in my judgment, is part and parcel of a policy of appeasing the Iranian regime, and I would say that contrary to the expectation that the more you give concessions to this regime, the more you embolden it to continue with its practices, and, if history is a judge, in the past quarter of a century -- quarter-century, the policy of giving concessions to Tehran has amounted to basically nothing.

VERJEE: OK. Well, another kind of judge, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, says that the raids were carried out on the orders of him, and he said "for criminal association aimed at preparing terrorism acts and for financing a terrorist enterprise." That's according to the interior ministry. It goes on to say that the group's offices, the Mujahadeen Khalq in Paris, are considered, quote, "an organizational, logistical, and operational base of questionable financing."


VERJEE: Your reaction.

SAFAVI: First of all, let me say that the charges that the -- you mentioned are absolutely preposterous. The Mujahadeen or those who've been arrested today in Paris have been living in Paris for many, many years, more than two decades, and they have -- all have legal status.

Ironically, if that's the case, one wonders why the loca -- one particular location there was in -- has been given French protection for the past 22 years.

And I would say if the French are looking for the terrorists, they're barking up the wrong tree, and they should go to Tehran and look to the Iranian regime, which, as you may know, has been designated by the United States Department of the State as a leading state sponsor of terrorism and is responsible for more than 80 percent of all the actions around the world, including the Khobar Tower bombing, the Argentinean bombing, the -- ironically, the bombings of the streets in Paris in 1986.

VERJEE: OK, but...

SAFAVI: So, in that context, I would say that the charges that have been trumped up are basically designed to justify an illegal (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and politically misguided action by the French police today.

VERJEE: You're leveling these accusations against the Iranian government and what you say are the vast state-sponsored terrorist acts, but the Mujahadeen Khalq is on the list in the United States -- and the Europeans' list -- of terrorist groups.

SAFAVI: Well, that is correct, but let me say again that when the Mujahadeen was first put on the list of terrorist organizations by the U.S. administration in 1997, a senior Clinton administration official said that the action was a good (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to Tehran regime, and the same view was repeated by the assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the past, in the Clinton administration, Martin Indyk, who told "Newsweek" in September of 2002 that the listing of the Mujahadeen was a part of a two-prong strategy by the Clinton White House to curry favor with the Tehran regime.

And so, ironically, I would say that the actions that the Mujahadeen have undertaken in Iran have been directed only -- and only-- against legitimate military targets, but, more importantly, in the past 22 months, the Mujahadeen has not carried out any military activities inside Iran, and, as you know, of course, it agreed voluntarily to hand over more than 2,200 pieces of heavy equipment to the coalition forces, so...

VERJEE: OK. OK. I want to focus again on this crackdown itself and this issue of questionable financing. Police said they fund something like $1.3 million in the houses there in cash. Why...


VERJEE: Why in cash?


VERJEE: Why that money floating around in hundred dollar bills?

SAFAVI: Yes. They have also said that they found some computers, and they found some telephones. There's nothing illegal about having computers and telephones and...

VERJEE: But having $1.3 million...

SAFAVI: ... even...

VERJEE: ... in cash is questionable.

SAFAVI: ... and even money. Given that they have arrested 160 people, obviously, these people need money to make a living, and so, quote frankly.

I think there's nothing really serious about what the French police are saying. It is simply to justify an unjustifiable morally and politically misguided action on their part, and, quite, frankly, as I indicated to you, the charges are absolutely false.

VERJEE: Patrick Clawson, the charges are absolutely false. They are baseless, groundless, is really what Ali Safavi is saying. What do you think?

CLAWSON: Well, the Mujahadeen have a history of -- shall we say -- loose fund-raising practices in which they misrepresent what they are doing, to say that they're raising for humanitarian purposes when, actually, they send their money to their insurgent army in Iraq, which -- I'd agree with Ali it's not terrorists, but it's an insurgent army and funding that illegal in most countries.

So the Mujahadeen history suggests that the charges may be accurate. After all, we've seen Mujahadeen members in Britain, in Canada, in the United States, in Los Angeles, so -- convicted of similar offenses.

VERJEE: Patrick, here's how Iran responded to the French crackdown. Let -- I just want to put up what Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Hamidreza Assefi had to say on the state news agency.

He said, "We have been waiting a long time for the French authorities to act against them and conform with the decision of the European Union which had declared this small group to be terrorists as well as in line with international law."

The minister also added that Iran had passed on its information about the group to Interpol as well as to French authorities.

Is the Mujahadeen Khalq being used as a political tool in any way by Washington, by France even for some sort of leverage over Tehran?

CLAWSON: Well, as Ali described, the Clinton administration officials are -- have openly acknowledged that that was the reason why the Mujahadeen were listed as a terrorist group in the first place.

It wasn't based on some detailed investigation of Mujahadeen activities that said, oh, my goodness, they're terrorists. It was a political gesture to the Tehran government.

And I think it's very unfortunate when listings of groups of -- as terrorists is made on that kind of criteria. That should not be how we make decisions like this.

VERJEE: Ali Safavi, even if that may be the case, decisions ought to not, in Patrick Clawson's view, be made like this, it has been made, there has been a crackdown, it is happening now, why now? Why do you think?

SAFAVI: I -- I think that's a question that perhaps you should ask the French government. I will say that the...

VERJEE: But you have an opinion.

SAFAVI: ... the action coming today, I think, in view of the fact there had been more than week of demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of the students in Tehran and other cities calling for a regime change, and, ironically, on the same day that the International Atomic Energy Agency is having a meeting to discuss the Iranian regime's rogue behavior concerning its secret nuclear weapons program, I think, quite frankly, sends the wrong message -- entirely wrong message to the Iranian regime.

And it demonstrates that the regime can go ahead with its domestic suppression, its continued (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the nuclear activities, and, also, its export of terrorism and fundamentalism with impunity, and so in that context -- as to why they did it today, as I said, it's just a decision that they ought to explain to the world, and I think, quite frankly, it -- the action has aroused a great deal of anger and demonstration and things of that nature.

In fact, one woman, I was just told, had set herself on fire in front of the French embassy here in London, and she has been taken to a hospital. So you can imagine that the people both in Iran and abroad are not going to take the French action rather lightly, and they're going to basically view this action on the part of the French as siding with the fundamentalist terrorist regime in Iran, and...


VERJEE: OK. OK. I want -- Patrick -- I want Patrick Clawson to come in here. Patrick, Ali Safavi is saying this is the wrong message to the Iranian regime. Is it the wrong one, or is it one that won't -- would make the Iranian regime more open to negotiation?

CLAWSON: If the Iranians think they can get something for nothing, why should they negotiate? If the West had wanted to put on the table an offer to the Iranians saying, look, if you will back off on your nuclear program, then we'll do some nice things for you, we might have had some negotiations. But to do something nice to Tehran without getting anything in return, bad mistake.

VERJEE: Patrick Clawson, we'll leave that as the final world.

The deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ali Safavi, a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. It's an umbrella Iranian opposition organization. He joined us from London.

Thank you both.

That's this edition of Q&A.



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