To true believers, the ones who are waging a hunger strike to protest her detention in a French jail, Maryam Rajavi is the smiling face of Iran's future, the woman destined to overthrow its clerical leaders and become president of a free and democratic country.
To detractors, she is a dangerous cult figure who, with her husband, Massoud Rajavi, has led a terrorist movement that sold out to Iran's enemy, Iraq, and accepted former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's sponsorship. They say the Rajavis brainwash followers, forcing them to abandon spouses and children, and imprison or kill those who resist.
What is not in dispute is that the Mujahedeen Khalq, or People's Mujahedeen, the Iraq-based Iranian opposition group the Rajavis lead, has been designated a terrorist organization by both the US State Department and the 15-country EU. Now, in an unintended consequence of the US-led war against Iraq, the US and France are struggling to figure out just who these people are and what to do with them.
The collapse of Saddam's government has left the fate of thousands of Iraq-based Mujahedeen followers, including heavily armed troops, in US hands. A major French crackdown nearly two weeks ago against the group's local headquarters in Auvers-sur-Oise and sites outside of Paris was aimed at preventing the organization from moving the center of its global operations from Iraq to France.
"We could no longer tolerate an organization that was expanding its terrorist operations and we feared that it could start organizing and planning attacks from French soil," said Pierre de Bousquet, the director of the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, France's counterintelligence service, in an interview.
* The highly regimented group uses mind-control techniques on its members.
* The group's political wing, the National Council of Resistance, lobbies governments.
* France believes that Paris was to be used as a European base to launch terror attacks.
* Its leader and 10 supporters were arrested in a raid in Paris earlier this month.
Since last fall, he said, French intelligence noticed the arrival of an increasing number of Mujahedeen members and, after the US invasion of Iraq, of many of its soldiers. The group had rented a former paint factory in the town of Saint Ouen l'Aumone, which he said it was transforming into a communications center with a television studio and satellite dishes. French intelligence officials reported that the Mujahedeen planned to attack embassies and other Iranian interests in Europe and assassinate 25 former Mujahedeen members.
"This is by no means a political movement, a democratic movement," de Bousquet said. "It was not preparing the restoration of democracy in Iran. They are complete fanatics, a fanatical sect with a total absence of democracy, and a cult of personality."
What makes the Mujahedeen difficult to decipher is that it has at least two aspects. One operates a highly regimented operation from inside Iraq with its own army, dress code, calendar, rituals, printing presses, military training camps, clinics and what it calls "re-education camps."
The other has offices in capitals around the world under the group's political arm, the National Council of Resistance, staffed by sophisticated, multilingual representatives in suits and ties. In a contradiction in US policy, the State Department lists the group's political arm as part of the Mujahedeen's terrorist network, but it is allowed to function openly in the US and is even registered with the Justice Department as a lobbying organization.
Since the arrest in France last week of more than 150 Mujahedeen members, most of whom have since been released, the Auvers-Sur-Oise headquarters has become a place of pilgrimage and public relations. In the town where Vincent van Gogh lived and is buried, hundreds of Mujahedeen followers, including dozens of men on hunger strike, have camped out. French anti-riot police patrol the area with walkie-talkies. Huge banners bearing Rajavi's portrait have been hung.