At its monthly meeting of foreign ministers, the European Union has decided to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) from its list of terrorist organizations.
The decision marks the first time the EU has "de-listed" an organization from its terrorist index, and could free the MKO, also known as the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, to expand its activities in Europe. It is also likely to further strain Tehran's already damaged relations with the West.
Formed in the 1960s to fight the shah's regime, the Islamic-socialist MKO joined the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew him, but later fell out with the new clerical regime and fought with Saddam Hussein during Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran. Major attacks by the MKO against Tehran ceased by the early 1990s and the group renounced violence in 2001, but Tehran continues to seek MKO members' extradition.
Maryam Rajavi, the France-based leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political branch of the MKO that has been active in Europe in recent years, characterized the EU move as a "stinging defeat for Europe's policy of appeasement" of Tehran.
And Said Mahmudi, a professor of international law at the University of Stockholm, says it will end the MKO's difficulties in raising funds in Europe.
"Even though they had the possibility to contact different political organizations, there were some groups and bodies -- particularly some individuals -- who, because of the terrorist branding of the group, avoided it and didn't give it public backing," Mahmudi says.
"Now that the MKO has been removed from the EU terror list, all the groups that are sympathetic to the MKO will be able to support them publicly and help them without any problem," he adds.
Shahin Gobadi, a spokesman for the group, says that $9 million had been frozen in France alone, with "tens of millions of dollars" worth of assets also locked away in other EU countries.History Of Opposition
The development marks a striking turnaround for an organization that remains on the United States' terrorism list, while remaining a fierce enemy of Tehran.
After its founding in 1965, members of the group took up arms against the Iranian shah and were involved in the killings of several U.S. citizens working in Iran in the 1970s. The group initially supported the 1979 revolution, but then went underground when an uprising against the newly established Islamic regime went awry.
Iranian protesting the decision outside the French Embassy in Tehran
Within years of the revolution, many MKO members were jailed, some were executed, and others fled Iran and went into exile.
The MKO later helped orchestrate a number of attacks against Iran's leaders, including a 1981 bombing in which Iran's prime minister and president were killed. In 1986, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, the organization's leaders and members relocated to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein granted them refuge.
The MKO's support for Iraq in the 1980-88 war is today seen by observers as the main reason for its limited support among Iranians. It is also accused by critics of collaborating with Saddam during his bloody campaign against the Kurds, charges that the MKO denies.
But the militant group renounced violence in 2001 and has not kept arms since 2003. It has also long sought to be removed from the EU and U.S. terror lists as Tehran continued its efforts to oust the group from Iraq.Renouncing Violence
Iran's largest opposition group in exile, the MKO follows an ideology that combines Islam and Marxism and says it is the best hope for establishing democracy in Iran. In 2002, the MKO exposed Iran's covert nuclear activities.
But critics cast doubt on its effectiveness in opposing the Iranian regime, while organizations such as Human Rights Watch (in a 2005 report) have accused it of subjecting dissident members to torture and prolonged solitary confinement.
Massoud Khodabandeh, a former MKO member who currently works as an analyst with the French Center for the Study of Terrorism and an adviser to Iraq's government, describes the MKO as a personality cult obsessed with celibacy.
"I witnessed forced divorces amid cries and shouts. I witnessed how 150 children under the age of 7 -- the youngest was only two months old -- were separated from their mothers and sent to other countries because the MKO leader had said [the children] are disrupting my relations with you," Khodabandeh says.
MKO leaders have in the past rejected similar charges, but the reputation that precedes the group has opened questions about whether Brussels's move fits with its efforts to promote human rights and to fight terrorism.
"If a group makes a pronouncement that it is abandoning violence, then I think we should be able to give them the chance to prove the case, so I think that's what the European policy on these matters should be," says professor John Wilkinson, chairman of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews.
"Let us find political pathways away from violence where we can," he continues. "If a group proves that it has not lived up to its claim to abandon violence then, of course, we must revert to using the instruments of criminal justice and law enforcement to deal with it."Future Of The People's Mujahedin
Some 3,000 MKO members are currently based at Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Their presence there has led to increased concern over their fate since the Iraqi government took over responsibility for the camp from U.S. forces earlier this month.
Washington, while keeping the MKO on its list of terrorist organizations, has given members of the group who stay at Ashraf the status of "protected persons" under the Geneva Conventions.
Iraqi officials have made it clear that the group "is not wanted" on Iraqi territory, and have called on MKO members to leave voluntarily. This, in turn, led supporters and rights groups to warn that they could face torture or death if they returned to Iran.
Khodabandeh believes that the EU decision could mean a way out for those MKO members who are willing to leave Ashraf, including a number of his "friends."
"I hope that the removal of MKO from the EU terror list will enable some of those individuals to be saved from the situation they're facing in Iraq," he says. "About 1,000 of them were based in [Europe] before; they should be given the right to return to their families."
It's not clear whether the EU decision will have an impact on Washington's designation of the group as a foreign terrorist organization. The NCRI's Rajavi, for one, urges the United States to follow the EU's example.
The former U.S. administration reaffirmed its designation of the MKO as a foreign terrorist organization on January 7.
But Iran, which has said that nothing has changed "in the terrorist nature" of the group, can be expected to take some sort of action against the EU ruling.
In a possible hint at what might come, the head of the National Security Committee of the Iranian parliament on January 25 warned the EU against making a "mistake."
"There is no reason for Iran to continue tens of billions of euros in economic and trade ties with the EU in this case," Alaeddin Borujerdi said, adding that Iran has "many options" for new partners.
The Iranian parliament is expected on January 27 to discuss a draft bill "to authorize the government and the judiciary to bring those MKO members who have committed crimes to justice."