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France: Police Arrest Members Of Iran's Armed Opposition, But Why Now?

The French police have rounded up some 160 members of Iran's armed opposition, the People's Mujahedin. The move has surprised some observers because for the past 20 years the group has been free to operate in France and many other European countries, as well as the United States.

Prague, 18 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- When the French police cracked down on the People's Mujahedin this week, they did so in force.

Some 1,300 police and national security officers took part in a broad sweep yesterday of the organization's offices in over a dozen locations in the greater Paris area. Some of the raids saw masked riot police equipped with automatic weapons storming houses while helicopters circled overhead. By day's end some 160 people were in custody.

The raids were conducted according to a court order which accused the People's Mujahedin of "criminal association aimed at preparing terrorism acts" and of "financing a terrorist enterprise." The People's Mujahedin -- also known by its Persian-language name as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq -- is the main armed Iranian opposition group and the military wing of an umbrella exile opposition party, the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI).

A French police spokesman told RFE/RL's Radio Farda yesterday that the officers found no explosives in the Mujahedin's offices but did uncover plenty of cash -- $1.38 million in $100 notes and also 150,000 euros.

The police also confiscated boxes of files and paperwork for a court investigation into the group's activities and possible criminal trials of some members.

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said the decision was taken to dismantle the organization because it was trying, in his words, to set up a "base camp" in France. He provided no details.

The arrests immediately sparked protests by angry Mujahedin members and sympathizers in London. There, a crowd of some 50 protested outside the French consulate yesterday, with one man setting himself alight. Police said the 38-year-old man's injuries were critical but not life-threatening.

Analysts say it is not yet clear why Paris decided this week to finally move against the Mujahedin. The European Union put the group on its list of banned terrorist organizations in 2002 over its routine infiltration into Iran to assassinate officials. Washington also considers the Mujahedin to be terrorists. But until now the Iranian armed opposition's fund-raising and organizational activities have been widely tolerated in the West, in part due to support from conservative politicians who oppose the Islamic Republic.

Ben Faulks, an expert on Iran at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says it is hard to see what immediate threat the French court saw in the Mujahedin but it almost certainly was not any plan to carry out terrorist activities in the West:

"They have been there a long time and the [Mujahedin's] interests would be the worst served by trying to stir things up. An attack in France is almost unthinkable, particularly given the fact that they have managed to sort out a kind of working relationship with the U.S. [and given the fact] they want to keep their noses clean and concentrate on perhaps gaining U.S. support for some kind of activity in Iran," Faulks says.

The analyst says speculation about the reasons for the arrests ranges from the possibility that Paris learned the Mujahedin were using bases in France to plan an attack on Iran to the possibility that the arrests are part of Western diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to accept tighter controls on its nuclear development program.

"A guess might possibly be that the French government somehow sees it as beneficial in their relations with Iran. Possibly there were attacks planned against the Iranian mainland and the French might have a case for making arrests on that basis. Possibly it is just that the French are trying to use [the arrests] somehow as leverage in Tehran, possibly as part of wider efforts to get Iran to sign up to the Additional Protocol on nuclear issues," Faulks says.

France had poor relations with Tehran immediately after the Islamic Revolution but in the decades since has developed strong trade and diplomatic ties which it would not want compromised by Mujahedin attacks traced to its soil.

At the same time, the EU has called on Iran to sign a so-called Additional Protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) allowing more intrusive, short-notice inspections of its nuclear program. The United States has accused Iran of concealing efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies it has any such programs.

While analysts say time is needed to see just what are France's motivations, the Mujahedin itself has accused Paris of bending to pressure from Tehran.

Ali Safeva, a London-based NCRI official, told Reuters yesterday that "this action is part of a dirty deal with the terrorists who rule Iran."

Tehran has long demanded Paris move against the Mujahedin. The Iranian Foreign Ministry yesterday praised the arrests, saying "this is a positive step taken by France and we are expecting their people to be handled like other dangerous terrorists."

The Mujahedin had maintained a fighting force of several thousand soldiers in northern Iraq since the mid-1980s under the protection of Saddam Hussein, but its cross-border operations against Iran now have been curtailed by the U.S. occupation authority. U.S. forces, which initially clashed with the Mujahedin early in the Iraq war, have reached a cease-fire accord with the group under which the fighters are restricted to a few bases and their heavy weapons have been impounded.

The group, which has Islamic and Marxist roots, originally participated in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution but soon after broke away and now espouses a secular system of government. Since the early 1980s, the armed Iranian opposition has had offices in Paris, many other European capitals, and Washington.

Among those arrested yesterday were Miryam Rajavi, who the umbrella NCRI has said would become Iran's president should the country's clerical leadership be toppled. She is the wife of the Mujahedin's founder, Massoud Rajavi, whose whereabouts are not known.

The group is reported to have little support in Iran due to its past support from Iraq, which fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. It has not been involved in the student-led protests in Tehran over the past week.