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Exiled group feels heat as Europe ups Iran contacts

The MEK regards itself as the most significant Iranian opposition group outside the country
— Paris (AFP)

A controversial exiled Iranian opposition group is coming under increased pressure in Europe as it nervously eyes the intensification of European talks with Tehran in search of reviving a deal on the Islamic republic's nuclear drive.

Supporters of the People's Mujahedin (MEK) regard it as the sole credible opposition group based outside Iran, although it is held in deep suspicion by many Iranians, including those opposed to the clerical authorities.

The MEK and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella group that essentially acts as its political wing, have accused the West of "appeasement" towards Iran over the troubles that it has faced.

Last week, French authorities cited security concerns for banning a major rally organised by the NCRI on July 1 which the group hoped would gather tens of thousands of people.

On June 20, Albanian authorities launched a raid against a MEK camp that has housed its members for a decade as part of a deal agreed in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The group is led by Maryam Rajavi and has high-profile supporters

The NCRI said one MEK member was killed, a claim denied by Tirana. It also said Albanian police seized 200 computers.

And in an incident whose circumstances have yet to be fully explained, a bomb was thrown into an office of the NCRI outside Paris earlier this month without causing injuries, according to police and the group.

- 'Policy of appeasement' -

Maryam Rajavi who leads both the MEK and NCRI, told a meeting outside Paris that the incidents were the products of a "policy of appeasement" by the West, alleging they "took place at the request of the Iranian regime".

The MEK is outlawed by the authorities in Iran, which accuses the group of carrying out a violent campaign of attacks in the early 1980s.

It had for decades worked to oust the shah and initially backed the 1979 revolution. But it rapidly fell out with the new authorities and backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war, meaning its members had to be moved after the US-led 2003 invasion.

It still claims to have a network inside Iran and boasts of exposing the existence of Iran's then-secret nuclear programme in 2002, which led to confrontation with the West.

Detractors accuse the MEK of being a cult

It has high-profile Western supporters, including former US national security advisor John Bolton and ex-vice president Mike Pence.

But detractors regard the group as a cult and argue it does not represent the Iranians who poured into the streets from September last year in a new protest movement.

This could make it vulnerable as Europe seeks to keep contacts alive with Iran in search of a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, an accord the MEK bitterly opposed.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi held telephone talks on June 10 while EU foreign policy number two Enrique Mora met his Iranian counterpart last week in Doha.

Paris is meanwhile keeping a close eye on the fate of four French nationals held by Iran, regarded as hostages by rights activists.

Iran last month released a Belgian aid worker in exchange for a Iranian diplomat convicted by Belgium over a plot to attack a 2018 NCRI rally outside Paris.

- 'Raises questions' -

Jason Brodsky, policy director at US-based group United Against Nuclear Iran, said the juxtaposition of events "certainly raises questions".

"The Islamic Republic has long complained about MEK's presence in Western countries, so I would not be surprised if its officials raised the issue in their conversations with Western counterparts," he said.

If MEK's status in Europe was up for discussion, it would represent a "paradigm shift" as Europe and the US had always wanted the talks on the nuclear crisis to be limited to that issue, he noted.

"This is certainly a dynamic to watch," he said.

MEK members are based at a camp in Albania

The MEK has never had smooth ride in the West: it was expelled from France in the mid-1980s as Paris sought to improve relations with the new Islamic rulers. It was only in 2012 that the US removed MEK from its list of terror groups after years of lobbying.

There is also genuine fear among European officials that after the 2018 foiled plot, NCRI rallies could themselves be targets of attacks.

There is a "current and real risk" of such an attack, said Paris police chief Laurent Nunez as he informed the July 1 rally's sponsors of the ban.

But in the letter seen by AFP, he also warned: "The rally could be the scene of tension between supporters of MEK and other Iranian opposition activists who have been engaged in a struggle for influence since the beginning of the protest movement in Iran."

The Iranian government has been particularly riled in recent weeks by activities claimed by the MEK, which have included hacking into the computer system of Raisi's administration.

But Tehran has meanwhile reacted with glee to the increased pressure against the MEK.

"Because of their terrorist nature, the MEK will always be a threat to the security of their hosts," said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani.