Human bargaining chips in deals with Iran

By Bernd Debusmann
August 20, 2009

Bernd Debusmann (Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Seven summers ago, in a crowded conference room of a Washington hotel, an Iranian exile leader gave the first detailed public account of Iran’s until-then secret nuclear projects at the cities of Natanz and Arak. It greatly turned up the volume of a seemingly endless international controversy over Iran’s nuclear intentions.

The disclosures, on August 14, 2002, did little to earn the group that made them, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), merit points from the U.S. government. A year later, the Washington office of the NCRI, the political offshoot of Iran’s Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) resistance movement, was shut. The State Department placed the group on its list of terrorist organizations. (The MEK, also known as the People’s Mujahideen Organization of Iran, had been given that designation in 1997).

Now, another five summers later, two dozen MEK supporters are on hunger strike across from the White House to exhort the U.S. government to stick to promises to protect some 3,500 members of the organization in a camp north of Baghdad. Iraqi forces stormed Camp Ashraf in late July and the MEK says nine residents were killed in the initial assault. Two have since died of their injuries.

Hunger strikes in solidarity with the residents of Camp Ashraf were also taking place in Berlin, London, Brussels and Ottawa and at the camp itself. They draw attention to an arrangement that was both unique and bizarre – an enclave of people labeled terrorists by Washington but protected by U.S. military forces – and speak volumes about erratic U.S. policies on a group hated by Iran’s theocracy.

Those at Camp Ashraf, including around 1,000 women, have become, in effect, bargaining chips in the complicated relationship between the United States, Iraq and Iran. The raid on the camp coincided with a visit to Iraq by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. What better way for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to demonstrate  that the Iraqis, not the Americans, are in charge now that Iraqi troops have assumed control under the Status of Forces Agreement signed last year?

What better way, too for Maliki, once derided as an American puppet, to show Iran’s hard-liners and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government wants to tighten relations with Tehran? The raid on Camp Ashraf drew applause from Iranian officials, including Ali Larijani, the hard-line speaker of parliament. “Praiseworthy,” he said, “even though it is rather late.”

The MEK was founded in 1965 by leftist students and intellectuals opposed to the Shah of Iran, and it played a part in the Islamic revolution that toppled his rule in 1979. But it soon fell out with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was banned in 1981, when it began a campaign of bombings and assassinations of government officials.


In 1986, under an agreement with Saddam Hussein, it established bases in Iraq from where it launched cross-border raids into Iran.

Since 2003, when U.S. forces disarmed MEK guerrillas in Camp Ashraf and took over its protection, the government in Iran has repeatedly demanded that they be turned over to Iran. Their prospects there would be bleak, more so at a time when the Iranian government is staging mass trials of people who demonstrated against Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June.

In an open letter to President Barack Obama, in the form of a full-page advertisement in the Washington Times, MEK supporters this week warned of a humanitarian disaster unless U.S. forces reassumed control, at least temporarily. “The long-term solution to the problem is the presence in Ashraf of United Nations forces or at least a U.N. monitoring mission.”

This is not the first time that the MEK has served as a bargaining chip in Middle Eastern politics. The group was placed on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations in 1997 at a time when the Clinton administration hoped the move would facilitate opening a dialogue with Iran and its newly elected president, Mohammad Khatami, who was seen as a moderate.

The European Union put the MEK on its terrorist blacklist five years later. Critics of the decision saw it as kowtowing to Iranian demands to avoid harming important trade relations. After years of legal wrangling, the EU took the MEK off its list of banned terrorist organizations on Jan. 26, a decision that infuriated Tehran.

Somewhat ironically for a country described as the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism” by the U.S. State Department, Iran said the EU’s decision meant Europe had “distanced itself from the path of the international community in fighting terror.”

The Obama administration has shown no sign of even considering taking the MEK off the terrorist list and thus further complicate its already complicated relations with Iran. Is abandoning the people at Camp Ashraf to an uncertain fate an option?


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so these people deserve some sort of symphathy? one of the principals of this groups is to establish a communist government in are you suggsting that we support a pro-communist group? as you mentioned in the article, they carried out bombings and assasinations in iran. if this were hamas or hezbullah and they making the same request, would you write this commentary the same way??

Posted by hassan | Report as abusive

I’d like to share the best description on the War on Terror I’ve come across so far:

The War on Terror. The scope of the War on Drugs (which Bush also expanded) is exceeded only by the war on nobody in particular but on a tactic. It’s become a cause of mass hysteria and an excuse for the government doing anything.

Lifted from: worst-president-in-history/

Posted by Peter H | Report as abusive

Very well you have pointed out the facts on using humans as bargining chip. U.S. administrations one after the other tried to appease fanatic mullahs in Iran.
Reagan administration sold arms to mullahs…
Clinton administration listed the main opposition as “terrorist.”
Bush administration bombed Iranian opposition bases that already had informed his administration prior to the war that they are not a part of it.
if Obama likes to continue conutinue along the same path and look for shaking hands with mullahs is good for him but the least is he should protect the defenceless refugees that U.S. had signed an agreement to protect them.

Posted by saeed | Report as abusive

Good article. If only there were still some who would put human lives above money and trade.

What a shame!

Posted by Houman | Report as abusive

They are just as bad as mullahs and the ex shah.
Any Iranian that wastes his or her time memorizing
Koran and wants to live the life of the desert people
has no place in Iran. They want Islamic way of life, I suggest Arabestan.

Posted by Sean | Report as abusive

As you mentioned very correctly in your article, the unethical and unfair practice of using MEK as a bargaining chip started during Clinton administration and was continued by Bush. So far for 12 years, the ayatollahs were given ease of mind to suppress the people inside Iran and kill Americans and coalition forces in Iraq and other parts of the world.
If Obama wants to show a sign of change it better be to the people of Iran by removing the MEK from U.S. terrorist list and not to screw up like to other administrations before him.
The protection of Camp Ashraf is the responsibility of US forces in Iraq since Iraqi government showed that it has neither the will nor the capacity to resist the demands of the Iranian regime.

Posted by Amir | Report as abusive

I think you have touched the heart of the problem. The MEK has contributed greatly to preserving peace and security in the region by its nuclear revelations. Something deeply overlooked by the US administration. Now the problem has become even more important for Obama’s image as defender of human rights in the world, as he largely advertised in his campaign last year.
I hope the US would stick to its promises and obligations by taking back the protection of the Iranian refugees in Camp Ashraf.

Posted by reza | Report as abusive

I find the article quite reasonable. Some of the comments though, especially that by “Hassan”, seem more to be the work of Iranian intelligence services to demonize their opposition. No “human” being can see the images of defenseless civilians being run over by military vehicles and not feel sad about this. Had they been “terrorists” or anything close to that, they would never have shown so much restraint when being beaten savagely as seen in the clips: 4A

Posted by Sarah | Report as abusive

Hassan needs to educate himself a bit before making such distorted comments.

The PMOI/MEK were labeled communist by the Shah’s Savak in an effort to discredit them during the cold war.

They believe in a secular government and a free market economy.

To label an organization terrorist because they target officials of a regime that tortures, rapes, and executes those wanting a democracy would mean that George Washington, Charles De Gaulle, and other resistance movements would also be terrorists.

The people of any nation have the right to resist tyranny.

The PMOI/MEK are the vanguard against the spread of Iranian sponsored terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. It is precisely for this reason that the mullah’s, in the midst of downfall, have targeted the largest and most formidable opposition to their despotic rule.

The Obama administration needs to wake up!!!

Posted by Shahab | Report as abusive

Very well done, I admire your courrage to show the truth to the naif people of the USA. Time to act now…

Posted by Anne Bergen | Report as abusive

Dear, Bernd Debusmann

Your article shows how politics is still dirty no mater is Obama or Bush. President Obama is acting like President Kennedy but he is never close to President Kennedy comparing today to his time. Where in Iran people are screaming for freedom and NEDA is killed by dictator’s agent and senator McCain says NEDA died with open eyes, shame on us living with close eyes. President Obama and Clinton close their eyes to the written promise, US army gives to Ashraf people to be able to negotiate with dictators in Tehran.
They let IRNIAN DOG, MALIKI to kill people of Iran whom want freedom.
Shame, Shame, Shame

Posted by saeed | Report as abusive

I’m happy to see that at least some people see the US politics as it is. I feel sorry for the poor people of the MEK that have sacrificed their lives to bring democracy and freedom to Iran, but are doomed to run into obstacles provided by the west and especially the US. Let’s hope that the Obama administration wakes up and realizes that there’s no ‘bargaining’ with these mullah regime of Iran.

Posted by Milad | Report as abusive

Thank you very much for yours correct article.I hope the U.S.A take back the protection of the Camp Ashraf.

Posted by farid | Report as abusive

If the US is to avoid being viewed as treacherous and not to be trusted by the Iranian people, as it was with events of 1953, 1979, and now silence of Obama Administration on bloody suppression of election protests, then I would think abandoning the people at Camp Ashraf to an uncertain fate is certainly not an option.
The greatest asset for the US and democracy in Iran are its people who oppose the religious dictatorship as shown undoubtedly in recent events. The US would be wise not to turn this asset against itself as it would with a wrong move with the PMOI and Ashraf.
Unfortunately, recent US inaction has roused suspicions in Iranian communities that the Iraqis acted with a US green light. Nothing could be more amoral and disastorous if this were true. If it is not, then it would serve US interests to act forcefully to secure Ashraf residents rights under international law and Fourth Geneva Convention. This is not a violation of Iraqi soverignty in the least if we look at the UN’s R2P declaration.
Better act now.

Thanks a lot for your clear, honest article. Please don’t stop.

Posted by Khosrow | Report as abusive

thank you for your soppurt. the people in ashraf city are against iranian mollah’s regime and they want just peace and drmocracy for iranian people. plz soppurt them.

Posted by Mehri | Report as abusive

thank you for your soppurt. az an iranian, i dont forget your help. you know, we want justice we want peace. this violation is not only against pmoi but also against humanity. thank you.

Posted by hamid | Report as abusive

I find this article, I hope president obama realize that he is weasting his time looking for daloge with iranian regim and put aside the terore tag

Posted by Ahmad | Report as abusive

tank you for your suport from ashraf city

Dear mr Debusmann

thank your for this article, it shows the real peace seeking motives of the pmoi. I hope the world leaders will listen to your remarks and take the steps needed to fully fulfill their duty to protect ashraf from the fundamentalist in iran !!!

godbless freedom and zende bad bar ASHRAF e Paydar !!!!

Posted by shahram | Report as abusive