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US risks miscalculation on Iran
By Safa Haeri

Part of a calculated policy or a game, the decision by the US State Department to outlaw the National Council of the Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the political front of the outlawed Mujahideen-e-Khalq Organization (MKO), has been cold-shouldered by many Iranian political analysts, as well as by opponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran, both inside and outside the country.

"For the first time in their tortuous relationship with Iran, the Americans have a real capital of sympathy with the Iranian people, mostly with the young generation, the only one in the whole of the Arab and the Muslim worlds to really like and appreciate the Americans. They should not deceive the Iranian people by comforting a regime that has no future," Ali Keshtgar, a seasoned political analyst and editor of the Paris-based monthly Mihan (Homeland) told Asia Times Online.

In his view, Washington would make a "terrible mistake" if it really was looking to appease the Iranian mullahs by banning the NCRI. The State Department said on Friday that it had placed the NCRI on its list of terrorist organizations.

The closure, under terms of a 2001 anti-terrorism executive order by President George W Bush, came after an inter-agency debate within the administration and strongly supported by Secretary of State Colin Powell, "determining" that the NCRI is an alias for the MKO and therefore all its banking accounts would be closed and its members in the US would be informed that their activities would be regarded as harmful to the interests of the US.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately proceeded to close down the council's offices in Washington DC and other major American cities, including New York and Los Angeles. The MKO had already been declared a terrorist organization by both the US and the European Union, but the NCRI was allowed to operate, arousing bitter criticism from Tehran, accusing the Bush administration of "duplicity".

However, and as expected, Iran, proclaimed by Bush as an "evil" state, has now welcomed the move. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on Saturday that the US action in closing down the office of the "terrorist" NCRI "is a positive step that conforms to its international responsibilities. To root out terrorism, all countries, including the US, should confront the menace in all its forms decisively, and uniformly," he stated, adding that the US should have acted sooner in shutting down the NCRI's activities, according to the Iranian official news agency IRNA.

Also, one should not forget that the head of the terrorist group is in Iraq, under US control, Kharrazi said, referring to Mas'oud Rajavi, the leader of both the MKO and the NCRI and whose whereabouts have not been known since the occupation of Baghdad by the Americans.

A semi-military organization, the MKO obeys a strict Marxist-Islamist ideology and is the only armed group fighting Iran. When the allies occupied Iraq some 100 days ago, they also attacked and occupied the military bases the deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had placed at the disposal of the MKO for their operations against Iran.

But American officers on the field, faced with the menace from the thousands of Iranian agents and Iraqi soldiers of the Badr Corps, the military wing of the Tehran-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SAIRI) who had been infiltrated into Iraq in the early days of the allied occupation of Iraq, decided to use the MKO's potential for the identification of the infiltrators and allowed its members to keep their light weapons.

But the idea, though blessed by the Pentagon, was abandoned after the State Department opposed it, arguing that due to Iran's huge influence over the Iraqi Shi'ites Muslims who make the majority of the Iraqi population, it would create more trouble for the allied forces in a country ravaged by chaos.

On June 17, more than 1,000 French crack policemen and gendarmerie forces raided the MKO's international headquarters in the small town of Auvers Sur Oise near Paris, arrested 13 leaders of the group, including Maryam Rajavi, wife of Rajavi and co-leader of the NCRI, and seized "very sophisticated" communications and computer equipment, as well as more than US$9 million and 200,000 euros, all in cash.

Though it is difficult to find any Iranians sympathetic to the cause defended by the MKO outside of the organization, yet, for the first time, few political observers welcomed the American decision to ban the NCRI, fearing that not only would it encourage the ruling Iranian ayatollahs to increase their crackdown on dissidents in the country, but further isolate the powerless President Mohammad Khatami and his reformist allies in the Iranian leadership.

"I hope the decision to ban the Council of Mujahideen [NCRI] does not mean that Washington wants normalize relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a regime that is the mother of all terrorists, but that it wants to enter into a bargain over the suspected al-Qaeda people believed to be in the custody of the Iranians," Keshtgar added.

Though the State Department offered no reason for its somehow surprise decision, some Iranian and Western sources said that it might be part of the ongoing Tehran-Washington secret negotiations aimed at encouraging Tehran to hand over to the US some of the high-ranking al-Qaeda officials believed to be in Iranian custody.

According to the Americans, one of Osama Bin Laden's sons, Sa'd, his second man in command, the Egyptian Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri , al-Qaeda's spokesman, Soleyman Abou Qaith, the network's present coordinator, Seyf al-Adl, as well as Imad Muqniyeh, the head of the Iran-backed and supported Lebanese Hezbollah intelligence, are also hiding in Iran.

But the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat said last week that all of them had left Iran, probably for safer places along the Iranian-Afghanistan-Pakistan borders. As usual, Tehran immediately denied the information, reiterating that none of the men had ever been in Iran.

But since Iranian official spokesmen have insisted forcefully that Iran has not been able to identify all of the 500 al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives it detains, the denial lacks credibility.

Confirming the al-Sharq al-Awsat story, some informed Iranian sources explained that the Iranian authorities, fearing that some of the men had been officially pinpointed by the Americans, had ordered them to leave their sanctuaries in Iran.

This has happened before. Months after the American intervention in Afghanistan, American media, tipped by the Central Intelligence Agency, reported the presence in Iran of several high-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban members. At first, Tehran vehemently denied the reports, but two weeks later an unidentified intelligence source told the state-run, leader-controlled television that some 250 al-Qaeda operatives had been arrested while entering Iran from Pakistan.

"The Americans are well aware of the activities of the MKO. At the same time, they have also branded the Islamic Republic as an evil and terrorist state. It is therefore possible that Washington, by placing the NCRI on their list of terrorist organizations, wants to encourage Iran in handing over leading al-Qaeda members it detains," Keshtgar said.

Hooshang Amir Ahmadi, a professor at New Jersey's Rutgers University and chairman of the Iranian-American Council, agrees, but at the same time he says that the idea of exchanging top al-Qaeda officials against MKO leaders will not work.

In his view, on the one hand the ruling Iranian ayatollahs are no more interested in the exchange for the simple reason that they consider the group as already finished, while on the other, Washington has abandoned the idea of coalescing the MKO and the monarchists into a powerful pressure force against Tehran.

"However, the ruling conservatives, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei , the leader of the Islamic Republic, have reached the conclusion that it is better and safer to calm the Americans by continuing the ongoing secret negotiations rather than reconcile with the reformists at home," he told the Persian service of Radio France International on Saturday.

In a recent statement, officials at the State Department indicated that they were ready to go to Iran and interrogate the suspected al-Qaeda terrorists, a proposal immediately rejected by the Iranian president.

According to Amir Ahmadi, the State Department, at odds with the Defense Department over Iran, has decided that the presence and activities of the NCRI in the US is a serious obstacle in the secret talks it started with Iran early this year in Geneva and at the United Nations in New York.

It is interesting to note that Powell strongly criticized his defense counterpart for having authorized secret meetings a year ago, and more recently between mid-level defense officials with Manichur Ghorbanifar, an Iranian arms dealer-wheeler involved in the notorious Iran-Contra deal better known as the Irangate scandal of the Ronald Reagan administration.

(In order to free American hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian militias, senior members of the Reagan government secretly sold weapons to Iran in 1985 and traded the profits to supply right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua with arms).

Keshtgar says that it would make a "terrible mistake" if Washington was really looking to appease the Iranian mullahs in the "chimerical" hope of getting al-Qaeda leaders. Asked by Asia Times Online if, anyhow, Iran is in a position to reciprocate the American decision by handing over to them some of the senior al-Qaeda people, Keshtgar ruled this out, observing that not only Iran would be discredited in Arab and Islamic worlds, it would also face rebellion from its own base, the Basij volunteers, the revolutionary guards, the judiciary, the lumpen religious and the masses of uneducated people that still support Khamenei and the conservatives.

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