The Obama administration is facing a difficult foreign policy and humanitarian challenge that could have serious implications for its relationship with Iran.
It concerns 36 Iranian dissidents, promised protection by the United States, held captive in Iraq by Iraqi soldiers. Without American intercession, they may be returned to Iran, where they face dire retribution from a regime that has shown how brutal it can be to those who defy it.
The decision the United States must take is whether to stand aloof from the disposition of the 36 dissidents, risking criticism on humanitarian grounds, or to intervene, irritating the sovereign government of Iraq and infuriating Iran.
The 36 dissidents are part of a force of more than 3,400 members of the People's Mujahedeen Organization of Iran who once mounted military operations against the Tehran regime from sanctuary in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. During the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military surrounded the PMOI's Camp Ashraf, some 60 miles north of Baghdad. The PMOI surrendered their weapons and the Americans pledged protection of the camp and its inhabitants.
The Mujahedeen have been credited with supplying U.S. authorities accurate information about clandestine Iranian nuclear facilities and other intelligence.
With the signing of a Status of Forces Agreement and the beginning withdrawal this year of American forces to their bases, the United States ceded sovereignty over Camp Ashraf to the Iraqis. The United States sought, and received, promises from the Iraqi government that Camp Ashraf's population would be protected after the handover.
But Iran has been pressuring sympathetic Iraqi politicians to close the camp and expel the PMOI members. On July 28, Iraqi forces, saying they were establishing a police presence in the camp, launched an attack, killing 11 dissidents, wounding 450 and taking 36 hostages. U.S. forces nearby remained aloof.
An Iraqi judge ruled that the 36 dissidents, who went on a hunger strike in captivity, should be released. But Iraqi Interior Ministry officials, using new tactics, have argued that the dissidents entered the country illegally and should be expelled — obviously to Iran. If this tactic is successful, it could be applied to the 3,400 or so PMOI members remaining in Camp Ashraf.
One bizarre complication is that the PMOI is listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, mainly on grounds of guerrilla action it took earlier against the present Iranian regime. The U.S. army was directed in 2003 to protect an organization banned by the State Department as terrorist, but which has provided helpful information to the United States.
Iranian exiles in the United States and the free world have been demonstrating for some time in support of the dissidents. Various entities have raised their concerns. In reply to a petition on behalf of a majority of British Members of Parliament and 200 members of the House of Lords, a senior State Department official, "responding on the president's behalf," declared the United States is doing its utmost to ensure that residents of Ashraf "will not be transferred to any country where there are substantial grounds to believe they would be subject to persecution … or to torture."
One solution to the Iranian dissidents' problem would be for the United States to give them asylum as political refugees. However, the United States can hardly accept them as such while it continues to brand them members of a terrorist organization. Nor would that sit well with the Tehran regime, with which the United States seeks engagement on Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weaponry. In view of the political implications, an asylum decision would need to take place at the highest official level, at least the secretary of state, if not the president.
The PMOI has raised the prospect of the United Nations dispatching a monitoring force to Camp Ashraf. That is even less likely while such Iranian friends as Russia and China sit on the U.N. Security Council that would have to authorize it.
Clearly, the Ashraf dissidents should not be sent back to Iran against their will. That requires that the United States exerts enough pressure on the Iraqi government to keep its word.
John Hughes teaches journalism at Brigham Young University. He is a former editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News and a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column.