Looking for a few good spies
Washington calls the Iranian MEK a terrorist
group. But some administration hawks think its members could be useful
By Christopher Dickey, Mark Hosenball and Michael
February 6, 2005
Feb. 14 issue
This is a terrorist cultleader? Maryam Rajavi
is dressed in a Chanel-style suit with her skirt at midcalf, lilac
colored pumps and a matching headscarf. Over a dinner of kebab,
rice and French pastries, Rajavi smiles often and laughs easily.
She's at once colorful and demure, like many an educated woman
in the Middle East. Indeed if George W. Bush -- who relies on
powerful females for counsel -- were pressed to identify a Muslim
model of womanhood, this 51-year-old Iranian would look very much
But of course that's exactly the impression Rajavi seeks to give.
Behind her smile is a saleswoman's savvy -- and a revolutionary's
zeal to prove that she and her mysterious husband, Massoud Rajavi,
are neither cultists nor terrorists. Maryam Rajavi is demanding
that the exile groups they lead together, centered on the Mujahedin-e
Khalq (People's Holy Warriors) or MEK for short, should be taken
off the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, their
assets unfrozen and their energies unleashed. The MEK, Rajavi says,
is the answer to American prayers as Tehran continues to dabble
defiantly in both terrorism and nuclear arms. "I believe increasingly
the Americans have come to realize that the solution is an Iranian
force that is able to get rid of the Islamic fundamentalists in
power in Iran," she told NEWSWEEK in a rare interview at her
organization's compound in the quiet French village of Auvers sur
Oise. The group's own former role in terrorist attacks dating back
to its support for the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979, Rajavi insists,
is ancient history. And the MEK is not a Jim Jones-like cult as
critics allege, with forced separation between men and women and
indoctrination for children, all overseen by the Rajavis' autocratic
style. Instead, she insists, it is "a democratic force."
Whatever Rajavi's true colors, NEWSWEEK has learned that her
role may be growing in the calculations of Bush administration
hard-liners. At a camp south of Baghdad -- it's called Ashraf,
after Massoud Rajavi's assassinated first wife -- 3,850 MEK members
have been confined but gently treated by U.S. forces since the
invasion of Iraq (once they were allies of Saddam against their
own country in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war). Now the administration
is seeking to cull useful MEK members as operatives for use against
Tehran, all while insisting that it does not deal with the MEK
as a group, American government sources say.
Some Pentagon civilians and intelligence planners are hoping
a corps of informants can be picked from among the MEK prisoners,
then split away from the movement and given training as spies,
U.S. officials say. After that, the thinking goes, they will be
sent back to their native Iran to gather intelligence on the Iranian
clerical regime, particularly its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Some hawks also hope they could help to reawaken the democratic
reform movement in Iran, which the mullahs have silenced. "They
[want] to make us mercenaries," one MEK official told NEWSWEEK.
Yet the administration's new engagement with MEK members has,
so far, done little to clarify its still-murky approach to Iran.
That is worrisome to many critics at home and abroad -- especially
since Vice President Dick Cheney said in recent weeks that Iran
was now at the "top" of the president's national-security
agenda. Last week, on her first trip abroad as secretary of State,
Condoleezza Rice sought to play both hawk and diplomat, reviving
the old role she negotiated so often as Bush's national-security
adviser. Pressed by reporters, Rice declined to deny that Bush's
policy toward Iran is regime change, and she even hinted broadly
that it was. Rice said that Iranians "should be no different
than the Palestinians or the Iraqis or the Afghans or peoples around
the world -- the Ukrainians -- who are determining their own
future." All these places have elected new governments under
different degrees of U.S. pressure.
At the same time, however, Rice reassured her European counterparts
in London, Paris and Berlin that, like them, the administration
is putting diplomacy first. That mainly means continuing Washington's
lukewarm support of a European effort to win a permanent freeze
on Tehran's covert nuclear program, along with new rights for inspectors
to verify the pact. Rice is also mulling over some new proposals
from her own staff that call for Washington to wedge open a new
relationship with the Iranian regime by striking "little deals" on
areas of overlapping interest, such as Iraq, the Afghan border
and the Gulf.
Confused? So are the Europeans. Rice, in fact, privately acknowledged
to her European colleagues last week that the administration is
still unable to agree on an Iran policy. She also indicated it
will take months more to figure one out. One reason is that none
of the options is very good. Many inside the administration believe
the diplomatic efforts of the so-called European Three -- Britain,
France and Germany -- are mere Band-Aids and will only delay
Tehran's unstinting efforts to build a nuclear bomb, which intel
analysts say is about five years off. But even most hawks agree
that U.S. military options in Iran are just as unpalatable. What's
left? Bush hopes that his rhetoric of freedom will inspire dissidents
within Iran. But some hard-liners in the Defense Department want
a more "forward leaning" policy: quietly pushing for
regime change by making use of exiles like former MEK members.
Still, Rice and other top State officials remain leery of the
MEK, despite renewed efforts to back and fund the group on Capitol
Hill. In a conversation with one European counterpart last week,
Rice seemed to belittle the Defense Department's recruitment efforts,
saying "the Pentagon is playing at the margins" of the
administration's Iran policy. Sources tell NEWSWEEK that the CIA
is also resisting the recruitment of agents from the MEK because
senior officers regard them as unreliable cultists under the sway
of Rajavi and her husband. A Defense Department spokesman denied
there is any "cooperation agreement" with the MEK and
said the Pentagon has no plans to utilize MEK members in any capacity.
Rajavi, for her part, is adamant that her organization will never
be broken up. "There have been efforts to recruit individuals,
or to dismantle parts of the movement," she says. "These
have failed." Supporters of the MEK on Capitol Hill, where
at least one bill is aimed at restoring the organization to State's
good graces, say that some of its intelligence has already proved
very accurate. (It was the MEK last year that revealed Iran's secret
nuclear facilities at Natanz.) It is also clear that Tehran deeply
fears the group's influence. "The Defense Department is thinking
of them as buddies and the State Department sees them as terrorists.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle," says Rep.
Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California. "Maybe they should
get time off for good behavior." Perhaps. But that would require
a coherent policy first.
With John Barry and Richard Wolffe
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
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