The U.S. Needs to Protect the Iranian Opposition in Iraq — and Counter Tehran in the Region
America can't allow another attack on the Iranian dissidents in Iraq.
On the night of Oct. 29, Camp Liberty, which houses some 2,250 Iranian exiles, was the target of a rocket attack that killed 23 people. En route to the Vienna Talks on Syria, Secretary John Kerry quickly condemned the attack and offered the United States' condolences "to the families of the victims, and we hope for the swift recovery of those injured." He added, "We also urge the Government of Iraq to provide additional security for the camp’s residents and to find the perpetrators and hold them accountable for the attack, consistent with its obligations under the Dec. 25, 2011 agreement with the United Nations.”
On the night of Oct. 29, Camp Liberty, which houses some 2,250 Iranian exiles, was the target of a rocket attack that killed 23 people. En route to the Vienna Talks on Syria, Secretary John Kerry quickly condemned the attack and offered the United States’ condolences “to the families of the victims, and we hope for the swift recovery of those injured.” He added, “We also urge the Government of Iraq to provide additional security for the camp’s residents and to find the perpetrators and hold them accountable for the attack, consistent with its obligations under the Dec. 25, 2011 agreement with the United Nations.”
The Associated Press and the Washington Times both covered the attack. Agence France Presse and the conservative news service CNS, reported bipartisan congressional calls for action. Digital Journal included a link to detailed video footage. Another clip shows the scene shortly after the attack. The calls included two Republicans, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as a Democrat Rep. Judy Chu.
Critics of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) might say that the media coverage is really not independent because each one merely quotes what the Iranian dissidents said. But I say that when the mainstream media gives so much ink to a story, it is some evidence that they take the allegations seriously.
Critics might also say that members of Congress supportive of the MEK are acting in the interest of campaign contributions. But I say that the burden is on the naysayers to provide the evidence linking Royce, Ros-Lehtinen, and Chu as being “bought off” by the MEK. I am personally aquatinted with each of them, and I am impressed with their integrity and commitment to the MEK especially on humanitarian grounds. The attack is the epitome of a humanitarian tragedy.
Why is Iran targeting its opposition? Dissidents are trying to block Tehran’s aspirations to control Baghdad and Damascus, where the United States is fighting the Islamic State. Washington’s evolving strategy is dead on arrival on the Hill unless the Obama administration reaches out to the opposition and sees Iran as a threat across the porous border.
So how can it counter the threat from Iran? Align with others opposing Tehran and the bipartisan congressional coalition sharing that view.
Saudi Arabia’s alignment against Iran includes Israel as a silent partner. Saudis view Tehran and Damascus unfavorably. A potential partner for Riyadh and Washington is the Iranian resistance that rejects clerical rule in Tehran. All define the threat as Islamist.
On Oct. 5, 2015 Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir asked whether Iran is a “state or a revolution,” If it wants to export its 1979 revolution and revive the Persian Empire, “we cannot deal with it,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his speech before the U.N. on Oct. 1. Shifting alliances in the Middle East are drawing Arab countries like Saudi Arabia closer to Israel in confronting Iran and the Islamic State. Netanyahu’s Mar. 3 speech before the Congress stated that, “Iran’s regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world.”
Both Adel al-Jubeir and Netanyahu have previously distanced themselves from the MEK on different grounds. On one hand, Saudis attribute too much power to the MEK because of their role in bringing down the Shah — if their supporters can topple the Shah, perhaps they will side with those who wish to bring down the Kingdom. On the other hand, Netanyahu believes that the MEK is of too little consequence to cause even further trouble with the State Department, which fails to reach out to the MEK. Both assessments are based on my interviews with high level Saudis and Israelis.
My take is that the MEK is neither strong nor weak based on indicators like the following. According to my research, reported in my book Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents, during mid-2000, the Iranian regime paid more attention to the MEK than to all other groups combined, created expositions in every major city of Iran to warn the youths of the pro-democracy views of the organization, and paroled Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s daughter from prison because she was learning too many subversive ideas from MEK prisoners. In the expositions and the early release, Tehran’s tactics against the MEK backfired.
On Apr. 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing, “ISIS: Defining the Enemy.” Maryam Rajavi is President-Elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the coalition of which the MEK is the largest unit; she testified from Paris. Her written testimony showed how Tehran is an Islamist epicenter of terrorism to establish an Empire without borders and called for empowering the democratic tolerant Islam she represented.
Critics might argue that it is easy to promise democracy and criticize the regime as being an Islamist epicenter. There is “evidence” the MEK is an intolerant cult, which forces its members to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. I have interviewed family members of a young girl who committed suicide when Maryam Rajavi was in a Paris jail. The parents told me they did not believe their daughter had done so because of pressure from the MEK. Indeed, when the jailers informed Rajavi of the suicide, she immediately issued a statement saying that she neither sanctions such behavior nor wishes anyone else to do so in the future — not the words of a cult leader.
I grant the jury is out whether the MEK will be as tolerant when the regime falls as Tehran has been intolerant towards the MEK. Think of a soft landing when the regime falls as in the disintegration of communism in Europe or a hard landing like the one in Libya. If soft, then I expect a tolerant MEK.
Writing in The Daily Beast in 2010, on the first anniversary of the regime crackdown on street demonstrations, Geoffrey Robertson argued that present Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Mir Hussein Moussawi, and Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani were complicit in the mass murder of jailed supporters or members of the MEK. This allegation is supported by Ervand Abrahamian — a top historian at the close of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, who is by no means an advocate on behalf of the MEK — in his book, The Iranian Mojahedin. I touch on the Abrahamian findings in my book, and they are in accord with my own interviews of survivors of the massacre. Even with such murders, however, the MEK still survived whereas organizations that sought to make deals with Tehran were destroyed by the regime.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) garnered bipartisan criticism on the Hill. At a May 5, 2014 press conference, Senate Committee on Armed Services (SCAS) Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced completion of markup of National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016. That act had language to counter Iran’s influence in Iraq and protect the MEK, now in Camp Liberty. An Oct. 7, 2015 SCAS hearing on Iranian influence in Iraq and the case of Camp Liberty focused on resettlement of the MEK from Camp Liberty outside Iraq.
On Oct. 29, Royce linked the threat from Iran to its increased penetration of Iraq. He said, “With growing Iranian involvement in Iraq, the security situation around Camp Liberty is increasingly risky. The Iraqi government made an international commitment to protect the camp’s residents. The U.S. and international community must demand accountability.”
Bipartisan statements by over a dozen senators indicated Kerry should protect the MEK in Iraq and waive regulations to permit MEK members to enter the United States and contribute to the economy in alignment with our humanitarian values, as stated by several senators and Gen. James Jones, USMC (Ret.), first national security advisor to President Barack Obama.
“The U.S. government and military made a commitment to protect thousands of people [MEK] who surrendered their weapons and came under our protection as a result,” McCain said on Oct. 7. “Clearly, this commitment has not been sustained.” Ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), expressed a desire to help these oppositionists. “The Iranian dissidents at Camp Liberty are in an increasingly perilous situation, having repeatedly come under attack. These horrific attacks, which have killed more than 100 MEK members since 2009, clearly indicate the threat to this group from Iran and Iranian-backed militia seeking to eliminate and silence these dissidents.” Add over 23 others from the attack on Oct. 29, 2015.
McCain described the MEK as a group that received “protected persons” status in 2004 under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Col. Wes Martin, the commander of Forward Operating Base Ashraf until 2006, testified that the United States provided ID cards for each protected person under the authority of the American military on behalf of the U.S. Government.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), invited by former colleagues to attend as witness, testified that America would be “disloyal to our own national values if we did not find better ways — overt and covert — to support the democratic opposition to the dictatorial regime in Iran.”
Senators backed the moderate, pro-democracy, tolerant Islam of the MEK in the face of the Islamist regime in Tehran attempting to suppress the organization. With such bipartisan backing, there is enhanced likelihood the MEK can expand the NCRI coalition for regime change from within and broaden its base in Iran given that expectations will be higher in a post-nuclear-agreement Iran.
So what is the way forward? Alignment with those opposing Tehran, congressional allies sharing that view, and the prevention of attacks like the most recent one on Camp Liberty.
My bottom line: On one hand, the United States should cooperate with partners that share its concerns about Iran; on the other hand, we must be alert to partners that have what some deem as “shady associations,” such as the MEK. My view is that one should look at the merits of the argument, weigh the evidence, and then make a determination of which group deserves to be taken seriously. Iranian claims aside, Washington needs to be careful partnering with an organization that stands to gain from its allegations. That said, I look for converging streams of sources or one that is impeccable that might help determine the risks and gains from partnering.
One final note: The statement that accompanied my article on the MEK in The National Interest of Sept. 16, 2011, still stands true today: “The author has not received any compensation whatsoever from the MEK or related groups.” The MEK has not paid me to speak or write in the past, and I would not jeopardize my academic standing for such funds in the future. Indeed, I wrote a book entitled Rogue Regimes calling for regime change in 1999, prior to my focus on Iranian opposition organizations in Arab Rebels and Iranian Dissidents.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.