Iran's Armed Opposition Wins a Battle — In Court

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In the same week that Iran hosted a conference of Holocaust-deniers and its President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, warned that Israel will wind up like the Soviet Union in the scrap heap of history, a European Union Court ruled that a fiercely dedicated armed group that opposes his regime had been unfairly placed on the E.U.'s official list of terrorist organizations. The Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) is also on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations, although much to Tehran's chagrin, the U.S. did not hand over the group's fighters when it took control of their main base in Iraq after the fall of Saddam.

So, was the European court ruling a sign that the E.U. is about to unleash the MEK on the mullahs? Hardly. The ruling of the Court of the First Instance, the second-highest court overseeing the laws of the European Union, was largely procedural. It found that when the E.U. put the MEK on its list of terrorist organizations in 2002, it should have informed the organization about the basis for that action. The court acknowledged that the European Union is not obliged to inform a possible terrorist organization before its assets are frozen — "It must be able to benefit from a surprise effect," stated the court — but that the group should be granted access to the reasons for the decision.

For Maryam Rajavi, the president of the MEK, the judgment was the culmination of a long and bloody battle. "This verdict proves the legitimacy of the resistance of the Iranian people against religious fascism, and the victory of justice over secret deals," she said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Rajavi has been talking in that epic tone for a long time, notwithstanding the MEK's checkered history. The group was founded in 1965 as a leftist-religious faction opposing the Shah's regime. But it was no less opposed to the Islamist regime that arrived with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, which executed thousands of the group's supporters. By the mid-1980s, the group had cozied up to Saddam Hussein, who provided them with funds and a compound, Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad. The U.S. government has accused the group of helping Saddam brutally put down a Kurdish rebellion in the early 1990s, and of launching numerous attacks inside Iran.

The Clinton Administration declared the MEK a terrorist organization in 1997, partly as a carrot to the "reformist" administration of Iran's then-President Mohammad Khatami. The E.U. followed suit after 9/11, but as the drums of war began sounding against Iraq, Rajavi and her husband, Massoud, left Camp Ashraf. Massoud's whereabouts are unknown, but Maryam repaired to a bridgehead in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town northwest of Paris. French anti-terrorist police raided the place in 2003, securing millions of euros and taking Rajavi and some of her collaborators into custody. Several of Rajavi's followers set themselves on fire to protest her arrest, confirming official French concerns about the cultish nature of the group.

Yet while the French were investigating Rajavi's group in France, the more than 3,000 MEK adherents at Camp Ashraf have been under the benevolent protection of the U.S. military since early 2003. With this ruling, Rajavi hopes, they and what she claims are their far more numerous supporters in Iran will be freed to answer a call from the homeland. "I say to the mullahs that they're finished," said Rajavi in Strasbourg. "A new era will open with the installation of liberty and democracy in Iran."

European Union officials tell TIME that Madame Rajavi is celebrating prematurely, because they have no intention of taking the MEK off the terror list, despite the growing number of European Parliamentarians who view the group as a force that could somehow supplant the mullahs' regime. "The next list will come out in early 2007, and we're going to comply with the court and publicly state the reasons for any group or individual on it," says Jesus Carmona, spokesman for the European Union's anti-terrorism authority. "But it wasn't an arbitrary decision to put this group on that list."

Nor is there any evidence that the U.S. is in any rush to clarify its ambiguous stance on the shadowy group. Sure, Ahmadinejad is a worrying threat to the international community, and he proved this week that enriching plutonium isn't the only way he has to thumb his nose at it. But the debacle of U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the region may have put paid to the notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.