In a dusty little enclave some 60 miles north of Baghdad, some 3,800 opponents of the Iran regime present a difficult problem for the next American president.

The Iranians, members of the People's Mujahedeen of Iran, who once mounted military operations against the Tehran regime from a sanctuary in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, have been disarmed and placed under the protection of American forces since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

But the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is now under discussion. With that withdrawal in prospect, Iran is pressing for the fighters, a military arm of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, to be returned to Iran, or at least turned over to the Iraqi government, which it believes would do Tehran's bidding. Understandably, the dissidents fear that either outcome would mean their imprisonment, torture or death.

Whether it be President McCain or President Obama handling it, the future U.S. relationship with Iran is perhaps the most pressing international issue the next president will face. The clock is ticking as Iran speeds enrichment of uranium for what it declares is a peaceful civilian nuclear program, but which the United States and a substantial number of other nations believe is a nuclear bomb or bombs. The two candidates have differing views about how to deal with Iran, but both have declared their resolve that Iran should not develop nuclear weaponry.

To hand over the mujahedeen to a cruel fate at the hands of Iran would likely cause an outcry among the American public, and in the U.S. Congress, where the former Iranian fighters have substantial support. Indeed they are credited by U.S. sources with having provided earlier accurate information about clandestine Iranian nuclear facilities.

But not to accede to Tehran's demand to hand them over could hinder any broader negotiations for less tension in the U.S.-Iran relationship.

Refugee status in the United States might seem an obvious solution to the problem. But in another bizarre twist, the Iranian mujahedeen members who are considered "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention by U.S. forces in their "Camp Ashraf" north of Baghdad, are actually listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. They allegedly supported the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

British courts and the European Court of Justice have ordered that the PMOI be removed from their respective lists of proscribed organizations.

Standard diplomatic procedure requires the White House — currently joined by both presidential candidates — to assert that in the basket of pressure tactics on Iran, military action is always an option. The reality is that both the State Department and the Pentagon know that an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities would currently be a political catastrophe and could not guarantee eliminating some of the facilities buried deeply underground. Predictably, the State Department favors diplomacy and has been trying some initiatives of a conciliatory nature.

It is trailing in front of the Iranians the prospect of a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran, a step short of an embassy and diplomatic recognition. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly has said he would welcome this. Another gesture was the first-time dispatch of a senior U.S. diplomat, Under Secretary of State William Burns, to join six-nation face-to-face talks with the Iranians. Then, after Burns had suggested sports exchanges might help rebuild bridges between the two countries, the Iranian national basketball team was admitted to play NBA basketball teams in Salt Lake City and Dallas, the fate of the mujahedeen may be an unwelcome and untimely issue.

Various Iraqi officials, some allegedly tied to Iran, have since early July been demanding that the Iranian mujahedeen be "expelled" from Iraq within six months. That is an interesting time frame, coinciding as it does with the last months of the Bush administration.

The options confronting President Bush — or McCain or Obama if the saga drags out that long — are unenviable.

One is to withdraw the protective U.S. military guards from Camp Ashraf, thus turning the mujahedeen over to Iraqi forces and probably to the hands of Iran. That would fly in the face of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ruling requiring "protection of individuals who face serious risks if returned to their country of origin."

The other option would be to transport the mujahedeen to refuge in the United States. That would require another decision: abandoning their listed designation as terrorists. Some who favor this argue that if North Korea can be de-listed as a terrorist entity, why not the Iranian mujahedeen?

It is a decision that pits principle, humanitarianism and national self-interest in the melting pot.


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.