Freedom Fighters Again

The decision this week of the foreign ministers of the European Union to take the Iranian Mujahideen Khalq off the list of terror organizations should be of great interest in Israel. Are Hamas and Hezbollah also in line? This debate is yet another example of the well-known maxim that the definition of a terrorist is a matter of geography, and even more so, of political interests. One man calls him a terrorist, while another sees a freedom fighter.

No other organization has known such reversals, it seems, as the Mujahideen Khalq. Until 1997, this organization, which had been set up in Iran in the 1960s to oppose the Shah's rule, enjoyed freedom of action. It has aroused special curiosity because it is still headed by its founder, Maryam Rajavi, who has a degree in metallurgical engineering from Tehran University, where she organized students and sent protegees to establish similar groups at other universities in Iran to demonstrate against the corrupt regime of the Shah and his intelligence arm, the Savak.

The movement of women students whom Rajavi managed to enlist later spearheaded the revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini back to Tehran from Paris. But within a year and a half of the revolution, Rajavi was forced to flee her homeland for Paris. Her women students' movement had fulfilled its task and was replaced by the Revolutionary Guards, who backed the extremist mullas.

In those years, tourists to Europe or the United States could encounter Iranian women who were carrying placards and pictures depicting the atrocities of the revolution. They asked for a signature on a petition and a donation. People who supplied their full address would soon receive detailed background information about the opposition movement. Volunteer groups in Europe made sure that the women of the movement received financial assistance but most of their funding came from Iranian exiles.

In 1989, Rajavi was appointed the movement's secretary general. She wrote a "freedom manifesto" containing 16 main points of the principles for Iran once the mullas were deposed, including the freedom for women to wear anything they pleased, and doing away with polygamy and the marriages now customary in Iran that make fleeting adultery acceptable. The manifesto also speaks of Iran's having good relations with all other countries, of a free-enterprise market economy and of cultural regeneration that does not necessarily find its sources in religion. Rajavi started receiving invitations to international seminars on the status of women and human rights. She attacked Russia and China for selling weapons and nuclear reactors to Iran, and she demanded that the United States strictly adhere to its policy of sanctions against Iran.

U.S. suspicious

However, it was specifically the United States that treated the organization with suspicion, considering it a left-wing organization with communist leanings, an extension of the Soviet Union. While France warmly embraced the activists, Washington gave them the cold shoulder.

The American approach did not disturb the Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. The organization operated as one of his arms, and he allegedly used thousands of these Iranians in his war against the Kurds. The freedom fighters, or the terrorists, of Mariam Rajavi and her husband Massoud, received all possible military assistance from Saddam, and he put the large Ashraf compound at their disposal.

Washington was not disturbed by the organization's anti-Iran activities until 1997, when Mohammed Khatami was elected president of Iran, and new and more pleasant winds started blowing from his direction toward the U.S. Khatami requested that the movement be included on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, and Washington acceded. It took the European Union another five years to adopt the American decision. Even the fact that the organization revealed, in 2002, Iran's nuclear plans did not help it.

But when Saddam was deposed and Iraq was conquered in 2003, the Mujahideen camp went over to the Americans, who found themselves suddenly responsible for the lives of people whom they had earlier defined as terrorists.

Awkward position

Now the Americans are being asked to defend them from the new Iraqi regime, which is trying to take revenge on anyone who helped Saddam. This month, when the agreement for military cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq went into effect, the American administration found itself in a strange position. While it is responsible for the lives of Mujahideen Khalq members, it cannot act on their behalf in an official capacity since according to the agreement, the organization's camp now falls under the responsibility of the Iraqi government, which, because of its special ties with Iran, has announced it will dismantle the camp, and that all its inhabitants must find a new residence outside the country. In practical terms, this means that if no other country will give them political refuge, they will have to go back to Iran, where they likely face imprisonment or death. The only lifeline they can expect is from the European countries that no longer define them as terrorists. However, they also pose a problem for Europe.

The decision to take the organization off the terrorist list, which originally met with opposition from France, does not merely stem from the recommendations of the courts in Europe. It is a clear hint to the regime in Tehran, a kind of "sanctions substitute." It is also a warning light for Israel. The politics of defining terrorist organizations could also mean a new examination of the definitions with regard to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel cannot be immune to the possibility that the European Union will decide to take "its" terrorist organizations off the list. Not because Europe believes that Hezbollah is a charity organization or that Hamas is the Arabic acronym for WIZO, but because Israel will get on the nerves of the EU. A kind of "sanctions substitute."