WASHINGTON - It's not every day that a group listed by the United States as a terrorist organization and accused by former members of being a dangerous cult holds a news conference at a posh hotel just a block from the White House.
But then the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group that held another in its regular series of news conferences at the Willard Hotel last week, is not a typical terrorist group.
Al-Qaida, after all, does not have polite spokesmen in suits and ties who routinely eat lunch with Washington reporters. Hezbollah can't get hundreds of members of Congress to sign petitions of support. And Shining Path doesn't have a cooperation agreement with U.S. Central Command.
Yet the Iranian exiles have all that and more.
In fact, of the 36 deadly groups from around the world that are officially designated by the State Department as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the National Council of Resistance of Iran - also known as the Mujahedeen Khalq and the People's Mujahedeen - is the only one that has a public office in the National Press Building, a few blocks from FBI headquarters.
How this came to be is a tale as murky as the group itself and as conflicted as Washington's attempts to confront Iran's ruling mullahs over their nuclear intentions.
The exile group and its supporters in Congress insist that it is a pro-Western movement committed to replacing Iran's ruling Shiite clerics with a democratic, secular government. Yet experts, human-rights groups and former members say that the group's origins are Marxist and anti-Western and that its leaders demand cultlike devotion, requiring followers, for example, to divorce and remarry on command.
The State Department reviles the organization, declaring in its most recent annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report that the group's history "is studded with anti-Western attacks as well as terrorist attacks on the interests of the clerical regime in Iran and abroad." But the Justice Department has refrained from closing the National Council's Washington office, and the Central Intelligence Agency has found many of the group's revelations about Iran's secret nuclear facilities to be credible and useful.
The Iranian exiles enjoyed the patronage of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and are alleged to have conducted massacres of Iraqi Kurds and Shiites on Hussein's orders. Yet some Pentagon hawks dream of one day using People's Mujahedeen fighters as a proxy force to overthrow Iran's ruling clerics.
"Since 1981, they've had a very effective campaign in the main councils in the West," said Ervand Abrahamian, a history professor at Baruch College in New York who wrote a book about the group. "They have a lot of money. They have spokesmen who know how to deal with congressmen and the press. But people who sign their petitions don't know anything about the mujahedeen.
"It's hypocritical," Abrahamian said. "If we are running a war against terrorism and one day we define a group as terrorists and the next day they cease to be terrorists, that undermines U.S. credibility."
The National Council was founded in the 1960s in opposition to the shah of Iran and, at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, supported the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy. But the group's leaders later broke with the fundamentalist clerics who took power in Tehran. Thousands of followers in Iran were persecuted and killed, and many of the survivors fled, chiefly to Iraq and France.
In France, according to Abrahamian and the accounts of several former group members in a 1994 Wall Street Journal article, the group's leaders, Massoud Rajavi and his wife, Maryam, increasingly demanded unquestioning, cultlike obedience. The group's publications likened Massoud Rajavi to a god.
Last month, French riot police raided the group's suburban Paris headquarters, which the head of France's counterintelligence agency called "an operational center for terrorism." Maryam Rajavi and more than 150 others were arrested and released on bail, but not before nine followers set themselves on fire in protest.
In Iraq, the People's Mujahedeen assembled an army of several thousand fighters who staged occasional raids into Iran and, according to former members and the State Department, participated in Hussein's suppression of Kurds and Shiites.
That armed force is in limbo. The U.S. Central Command, under pressure from the State Department, ordered the fighters to surrender hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers and heavy weapons. But the Pentagon stopped short of disbanding the group.
The National Council has long survived in such Washington policy crevices. The group first landed on the terrorist list during the Clinton administration, when White House officials were making diplomatic overtures to Iranian moderates who, at the time, looked poised to assume power. The exiles promptly counterattacked, rallying the support of 220 members of the House who declared that the group represented "legitimate opposition to the oppressive Iranian regime."
Now the Bush administration has adopted a much harder line toward Iran's ruling theocrats and their seeming pursuit of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, raising the National Council's hopes that it might soon be recognized by the White House as a viable opposition group - and removed from the terrorist list.
Officials of the National Council strongly deny that the group is a cult or that People's Mujahedeen fighters helped Hussein purge his opponents inside Iraq.
"An organization that has presence in about 200 cities around the world, that has had 120,000 of its members and supporters executed by the Iranian regime, that organizes demonstrations by tens of thousands in European capitals, that has included people from all strata of Iranian society - I don't know what kind of a cult is that," said Alireza Jafarzadeh, the National Council's representative in Washington. "All the facts confirm that we are the real potential allies of anyone who opposes the Iranian regime."
Howard Witt is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.