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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[...] 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 ……more [...]

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

thank you very much for real articel about ashraf city
and thank you for your support
us us take action ashraf needs protection

Posted by hamid | Report as abusive

Dear Sir,

I am Iranian woman , I was professor in Iran . I am against the government of Iran . I am very happy that we can find someone that can write about the truth and what happened for Iranian people in Ashraf city. It make me hopeful. I feel that yet some agency can tell and write about the truth
thank a lot for your reports .

Posted by moji | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann
Thank you for your attention to this matter. You mentioned a true fact about relation ship with Iran. I hope there is some one who can hear the truth and stop the brutality against people of Iran, from Ashraf to Tehran. we want peace and freedom. United States has obligation to keep our families and friends safe in Ashraf.PMOI is the only hope for peace and freedom for Iran.

Posted by ensieh | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann,
On behalf of the hunger strikers in front of the White House we express our appreciation for your well written article. The answer to your question at the end is No, abandoning our family members and friends in Camp Ashraf is not an option, nor silence is an option. That is we have been on hunger strike and will continue until we make our media concerned regarding this issue.

Posted by Maryam | Report as abusive

I appreciate your great article. My name is Tahereh Shafiei, I’m a teacher in Public E.S I joined my friends in hunger strike and on the 15th day I went to emergency room. I have been so worried about Ashraf City after seeing scenes of the attack.
This article was the best. Please keep up the hard work and be our voice. The Iranian people and residents of Ashraf will remember your forever.

Posted by Tahereh | Report as abusive

Thank you mr Debusmann, it is real articel ,
Ashraf is heart of Resistance for freedom of Iran

Posted by Mina | Report as abusive

I’m writing this comment from front of the White House. Today is the 24th Day we are here in hunger strike. I thank you for this article and for your support in voicing your concerns to Mr. Obama. I’m glad our voice has been echoed in Reuters so everyone can here us.

Posted by Maliheh | Report as abusive

tank you for your support.
ashraf ashraf our hoop city.

Posted by ZSani | Report as abusive

Dear mr Debusmann,
I am as a humen right deffendr.I wil thank you for writing a fait en defending the right of ahraf poepel.
I hoop the adminisratoin of us to take right decision en to protect them
godbless you

Posted by Simon Ahmadi | Report as abusive

i’m thanking you from the White House. Thank you for listening to us and being our voice globally. I hope more eyes open up to see the pain we are going through and help us.

Posted by Pardis | Report as abusive

It’s the best article. As an Iranian American living in North VA, I have been in front of the White House for about 4 months and 25 days now after the attack on Ashraf city, my family and I have been here daily.
This article touched my heart. I truly loved reading your view.
Yes we got hurt, but we are strong. We have to be strong in our hunger strike, for our country and our people and Camp Ashraf residents.
We are their voice. I’m proud of all my friends in this hunger strike and i’m proud of your good heart.

Posted by Mansoureh | Report as abusive

I would like to say thank you for the reuters article. My brother was killed in 1981, and since then we have been fighting for our freedom and democracy. Its very hard for me to accept the fact that after the US-Iraq War, in Iraq we witness such a unprovoked attack on innocent residents and killing of 11 residents. As you know they are fighting for freedom and democracy for Iran.

Posted by Fereshteh | Report as abusive

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 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 Mahmood | Report as abusive

I am among many Iranian-Americans who have been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe in Ashraf for the last 12 months. Washington did not take any action and we now have a disaster on our hand.

President Obama and his Administration have chosen to allow Maliki execute Iranian Ayatollahs orders and destroy Ashraf city. As far as Mr. Obama\’s policy on Iran is concerned, there is really no \”change\” and it is indeed more of the same. George W Bush and his administrations had secret talks with Iran and it did not take them anywhere. EU countries, collectively did the same for many many years and it took them nowhere either.

It is time for the West to realize that people of Iran are in the midst of another regime change. Ayatollahs will indeed be up rooted soon. Recall that President Carter, 18 months before the Shah\’s overthrow, proclaimed that Iran is \”the island of stability\” in the Middle East. How wrong was he? President Obama, in choosing to hold dialogue with the current Iranian regime is as wrong as President Carder was.

Mr. Obama, take the side of Iranian people. Order your army to protect Ashraf until UN can take over its security. Change your policy on Iran, which has been proven wrong, and come to understanding that people of Iran will change this regime and you will be better of to be the President who took the side of the people of Iran. You do not need to go to war with Iran, simply learn your lessons from the not so distant history and stop dealing with Ahmadinejad\’s government. He will soon be gone!

Dear writer,
Our hearts are filled with grief and anger seeing our dear Iranians compatriots in camp ashraf pay such a price for such a unacceptable attack by armed Iraqi forces. May God always protect them, and thank you for the article. Words cannot express our sympathy with writers such as you during this hard period we are going through.

Posted by soraya | Report as abusive

I’m sending this comment from the hunger strike in DC. On the evening of the 24th Day of hunger strike and sit-in I want to say: Thank you, you made us smile and be happy to read your article.

Posted by Gohar | Report as abusive

I wish the other media follow your steps like this column which was very eye opening
Thank you,

Posted by simin | Report as abusive

My father is in Ashraf and I lost my mother when I was 6. President Obama, silence is not an option, you must respond to more than 30 hunger strikers in front of your house. If you don’t want to respond to us, you are obliged to respond to the media reports.

Posted by Tootsie | Report as abusive

I just want to thank you for your excellent report about Ashraf. it was very informative.

Posted by Arezoo | Report as abusive

I am very happy, in this world that not all colours are clear, people like you open our eyes.Thank you

Posted by Amir Rezvani | Report as abusive

thank you for your very excellent report. do that as often as you can , since people with open eyes are not that many.!!! thanks again

Posted by soheila | Report as abusive

Thank you for you excellent report, i hope the USA Presidente open his eyes to this reality. thank you again.

Posted by javad | Report as abusive

thanks dear sir of your attention for iranian resistane , my best wishes

Posted by H.Baiat | Report as abusive

I want to thank you for your support from Asraf citizen in such a critical moment. sincerely your’s pirouz

Posted by pirouz | Report as abusive

tank you for your attentıon for ıranan resıstene.we dont forget our freınds

Posted by fardın | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Debusmann,

On behalf of every Iranian in exile, I would like to thank you for this clear and honest article in this very complex though very simple situation. You are a true journalist; one that seeks the truth and enlightens the world.

Thank you.

Posted by Mytra | Report as abusive

tank you for your attentıon for Ashraf People
Viva Ashraf City

Posted by sanaz | Report as abusive

People in Camp Ashraf are terrorists. They slept in the same bed with Saddam Hussein for two decades. Iranian people detest these terrorists who killed our people and our elected officials in a terror campaign.

Iraq must return the MKO terrorists to Iran so that justice would be served to them.

Posted by Bahram | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Debusmann,

Dank en thuizend time thanks for your honest article en support.

I hope that presidente open his eyes.

Posted by Fatemeh | Report as abusive

1. I do not understand why these people are sticking to this place.
2. Legally Ashraf is on Iraqi soil and hence is under Iraqi jurisdiction.
3. Neither the UN nor US has legal jurisdiction on Iraqi soil.
4. Ashraf inmates are there because of their previous friendly relations with the Saddam regime. They chose to be there and used Ashraf as a base for their activities, many of which were active military in support of the Saddam regime and against Iran
5. Most Ashraf inmates have sought asylum in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia and other countries before they move to Ashraf.
6. The situation now is very different from 2002. They are not Iraqi citizens and clearly unwelcome in Iraq.
7. It is inconceivable that they stay in Ashraf indefinitely and for what? They are not allowed to operate against Iran nor have a defined future in Iraq
8. The solution in my view is to leave voluntarily and go back to their original countries of asylum. There could be a small number of them that have family links with Iraq and such cases can considered on their individual merits. Some might wish to go back to Iran if given certain assurances.
9. Voluntary repatriation or forceful expulsions are the only options.

Posted by James Haveman | Report as abusive

If Ashraf is on Iraqi soil there shouldnt be any legal jurisdiction by US or UN. Sending them back to their original countries of asylum is best for them.

Posted by AndrewSmith | Report as abusive