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?