As millions of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran over the past week to protest the presidential-election results, exiled opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) saw its moment. "This uprising is the result of 30 years of murder, oppression and corruption by an Iranian regime we've dedicated our entire lives to fighting," Mohammad Mohaddessin, chairman of foreign affairs for the Paris-based group told TIME. "Even if protesters aren't calling for [the NCRI] to take power, it's only natural that, given our organization's experience, our clandestine networks are playing an important role informing and assisting the Iranian people to achieve its desire of regime change."
Authorities in Tehran claim that isn't the half of it. After weekend clashes between security forces and protesters pushed the official death toll from 10 to 17, Iranian police accused the NCRI and its "terrorist" supporters of fomenting the violence. As evidence, Iran said several NCRI-linked operatives had been arrested after smuggling guns and explosives into the country and carrying out "terrorist acts." On Sunday, the NCRI dismissed the story and mocked what it called the "preposterous and threadbare claims to justify the suppression and killings inside Iran." Those claims were designed, the group said, to mask the regime's "fear of the Iranian people's nationwide uprising and the fact that many young people are being drawn" to the NCRI's drive to remove the mullahs from power.
Dramatic as all that sounds, it doesn't square with the reality described by Iran experts. Diplomats, academics and intelligence officials say most people inside Iran want nothing to do with the NCRI or its primary member organization, Mujehadine-e-Khalq (MEK) whose bloody attacks on the Iranian regime in the 1980s and '90s landed it on the U.S.'s terrorism list. Experts say the NCRI's support in Iran is now tiny and its international base is shrinking. The NCRI and MEK, say Iran watchers, have become little more than an excuse or handy alibi for Tehran's crackdown.
"The Iranian population is generally frightened of or repelled by [the NCRI], and the supporters in [Iran] ... have all mostly vanished," says Olivier Roy, one of France's leading experts on Middle East politics and Islam. "It now basically operates abroad as a sect with international branches whose membership is dwindling as its base grows older and young people shun it."
The group's officials disagree. They claim the NCRI has thousands of members in Europe and North America. As evidence, they point to a rally outside Paris on Saturday that drew as many as 90,000 people to protest the situation in Iran. NCRI leaders are also quick to point out that the organization supplied information from inside Iran that was pivotal in documenting Tehran's military nuclear ambitions a fact acknowledged by Western diplomats.
While conceding that the NCRI's clandestine networks in Iran have been hit by the execution of what he says has been thousands of members and sympathizers over the past two decades, foreign-affairs chairman Mohaddessin says a recent burst of recruiting and activity has restored some of the group's ability to operate inside the country. Operatives there, he says, are busy gathering intelligence and organizing to undermine the regime. According to Mohaddessin, sympathizers secretly monitored more than half the polling stations during the presidential election, providing the NCRI with enough information to claim that scarcely 15% of Iranian voters bothered casting ballots at all, a number at odds with the reportedly massive turnout seen by foreign media and other observers and the government figure that put participation at 85%.
The NCRI was founded in 1981 to serve as an umbrella organization to Iranian opposition groups, and its dominant force has always been the MEK, which espouses a curious mix of Marxism and Islamist militancy. MEK originally worked with radical Islamist organizations to topple the Shah and rid Iran of what it described as Western imperialism. In the wake of the 1979 revolution, though, the group found itself under attack by its former allies in the new Islamic regime and took up arms. Its military wing was based in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. From there, MEK carried out assassination and terrorist strikes inside Iran and fought alongside Saddam's army in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
"Many Iranians know victims of MEK violence or still feel the fear and fury its name provokes," says a French counterterrorism official who has followed the NCRI and MEK. "Because MEK remains widely hated in Iran, the mere threat by Iranian leaders that it and NCRI are waiting to take over in the event of crisis tends to chill musings of regime change in Iranian streets."
The U.S., Canada and European Union put the MEK on terrorism blacklists nearly a decade ago. Those governments also alleged that the NCRI was essentially the political arm of the MEK, a claim the NCRI says misrepresents the relationship between the two groups. Though the resulting blacklisting has withstood legal challenge in the U.S. and Canada, a European court this year struck down the MEK's terrorist listing in the E.U. The new ruling was based on an earlier British court decision that ordered the terrorist designation be lifted because of a lack of evidence that the MEK had been involved in terrorist activity since it renounced violence in 2001. (In Iraq, the U.S. Army disarmed MEK's Ashraf compound in the country's east in 2003, calling it a security threat. The Iraqi government has indicated it will close the camp completely.)
The NCRI says the idea that it is a terrorist group is a politically motivated smear. Mohaddessin argues that Iran fears the NCRI as the only opposition force capable of toppling the revolution and so continues to paint the group as extremist. NCRI officials readily acknowledge that the MEK is a member of its coalition but say the organizations operate independently. In the past, they've also stressed that MEK strikes in Iran did not amount to terrorism because they avoided civilians and targeted members of Iran's political and security structures. "Our legal, just struggle aims to bring democracy and freedom to Iran," Mohaddessin urges. "The claims of violence and extremism are the lies the mullahs use to try to discredit us with Western nations."
Middle East expert Roy says the claims and counterclaims miss the bigger point. While Iranian leaders obsessively hate the NCRI for historical reasons, he says, the NCRI is largely an irrelevancy these days. "Tehran uses it as a scarecrow with its own change-hungry public, while Western nations use it as a way of rewarding or punishing Iran," Roy says. "More or less consideration given to [NCRI] can act as punishment or reward for Iranian action. Meanwhile, the group itself does little beyond grow weaker with time."