Thursday, July 28, 1988

Iranian opposition bids for power

Mojahedin tries for breakthrough before cease-fire

Christian Science Monitor
Thursday, July 28, 1988
By E.A. Wayne, Staff writer

WASHINGTON - As Iran and Iraq begin indirect cease-fire talks at the United Nations, the anti-Khomeini People's Mojahedin is being pushed into the spotlight as it tries to prove its legitimacy on the battlefront.

The group claims to have launched the attack Monday from Iraq into western Iran. Representatives say their National Liberation Army (NLA) has penetrated about 95 miles into Iran, captured two cities, and inflicted at least 30,000 casualties on Iranian government forces.

Iran says it has stalled and pushed back a joint offensive by Iraqi and Mojahedin forces. Information reaching Washington indicates that, at least initially, Iraqi forces operated along with the Mojahedin.

The attack appears to be an effort by the most active of the Iranian opposition groups to take advantage of war-weariness and disgruntlement inside Iran before a cease-fire is imposed and United Nations observers put in place.

The interregnum before a cease-fire and settlement may be the best chance these anti-Khomeini activists will have to prove their appeal inside Iran for some time to come.

In Iraqi eyes, the Mojahedin's National Liberation Army is also a means of keeping the pressure on Iran without overtly involving Iraqi troops, say US officials. According to diplomatic sources in Washington, the Iraqis told the Soviets this week that if Iraq's forces stopped offensive operations, there could well continue to be operations inside Iran by the Mojahedin.

The Mojahedin is the most militant and best organized of the Iranian opposition groups, US officials say. But ''it is one of many groups and we don't support any,'' says an official who is well-versed on US policy.

Indeed, the general assessment among specialists in Washington is that the Khomeini regime remains firmly in power, even if beset by many problems. Thus US policy is focused on awaiting Tehran's willingness to improve relations, rather than supporting alternatives, such as the Mojahedin.

A number of US specialists on Iran dismiss the Mojahedin as marginal, and some continue to view it as the leftist radical movement of the late 1970s, when some of its members attacked US personnel in Iran. Others argue that it has evolved over the years in an effort to appeal to the broad mass of Iranians. They see it as a relatively moderate Islamic socialist movement opposed to the theocratic rule of the current regime. It has disavowed the anti-US attacks of earlier years.

The Mojahedin has some backing in Congress. In late June, 153 senators and representatives signed a letter to Secretary of State George Shultz reflecting the Mojahedin's theses that the Khomeini regime was in serious trouble and should be replaced.

In private, some US officials who watch the region closely say they are impressed with the discipline, dedication, and organization of the Mojahedin. They say that, in a relatively short time, the group has built a conventional fighting force which, though still small, has attracted many Iranians willing to die in the struggle against Khomeini.

The largest handicap the Mojahedin faces, says a US official with long experience in the region, is that it has had to base its operations in Iraq since being expelled from France in 1986.

''It's hard to find a historic precedent where an opposition force has gained power while fighting beside an enemy of the homeland,'' he says. Yet, he quickly adds, if the Mojahedin is hated for this in Iran, ''why does it continue to attract large numbers of Iranian volunteers to its army?''

The forced dependence on Iraq, however, is reflected in the Mojahedin's military operations, US officials say. A top official who is knowledgeable about US intelligence on the war says Mojahedin forces have not yet staged a significant military operation by themselves.

Mojahedin spokesmen rebut such charges. They argue that though operations may be coordinated with Iraq, this week's military operation and earlier ones were carried out exclusively by NLA forces.

The NLA claims to have captured the Iranian town of Mehran and held it for three days in June. It maintains it took 1,500 prisoners, caused 8,000 casualties among defending troops, and seized $2 billion of military equipment. To back up its claims, the Mojahedin took 40 Western journalists along to see the mopping-up operations, examine the spoils, and interview prisoners. But US officials say Iraqi units were in the front line of the attacking forces that took Mehran.

Indeed, this week's operations appear designed to show that the Mojahedin is an independent force that can take advantage of dissension within Iran.

In a recent interview with the Monitor, Moshen Rezai, the international affairs secretary of the Mojahedin, said events of the past few months have accelerated the deterioration of the Khomeini regime. He contended the prospects for overthrowing it were ''much brighter.''

Mr. Rezai said that a surprising number of Iranian troops had surrendered during the June attack on Mehran and joined the NLA ranks. The NLA attacks, though smaller than Iraqi operations, he asserted, have ''a much more lethal impact because we are Iranians.''

The Mojahedin's political analysis, he explained, is that Khomeini has used the war as a lid for economic and political problems, but that popular disillusionment has become too great for that to work. The NLA's presence and operations, Rezai argued, adds to the pressure by showing ''that the regime is defeatable.'' He contended these operations ''will break the spell that has blocked an explosive situation'' and that when it breaks, the NLA will try to become the core around which anti-Khomeini forces will rally.

This appears to be the logic behind this week's attacks - to see if the NLA can take advantage of low troop morale to foment desertions and rebellion in Iran.

While the odds seem poor, Mojahedin spokesmen argue that shortly before the Shah fell, his regime seemed invincible. ''When power is centralized in one person,'' one says, ''all can crumble at the moment of defeat.''

This may be the best opportunity the Mojahedin will have to prove itself for some time to come. If a cease-fire and eventual settlement is agreed in the war, the current regime will have the opportunity to address many of the popular grievances that have shaken it and Iraq would be less likely to let the Mojahedin operate militarily across the border.