Death no longer stalks the White House gates. The hunger strike of more than two dozen Iranian-Americans (as part of a vigil of hundreds of concerned people) came to a close Thursday with the news that 36 Iranian dissidents forcibly taken by Iraqi forces had been allowed to return -- most in emaciated condition -- to their enclave at Camp Ashraf, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
For more than 70 days, the hunger strike and vigil continued with the demand for the release of the hostages and protection for the 3,400 members of the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), stationed at Camp Ashraf.
But it would be a mistake of enormous proportions to believe that the problem of Camp Ashraf and the specter of forced repatriation of its members to Iran or forced displacement inside Iraq (where the dissidents would be exposed to terrorist attacks by Tehran's operatives) are no longer a matter of grave humanitarian and national security concern. We should not be lulled into a false sense of safety that the problem has gone away.
At stake are the lives thousands of MEK members who are dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's mullah regime and its replacement by a democratic pluralistic government.
On July 28 and 29, Iraqi forces -- undoubtedly heeding the call of Iran, which wants nothing as much as the eradication of the camp and the repatriation of its residents to Iran -- forcibly entered the enclave. The operation against the unarmed and defenseless residents left 11 dead, hundreds wounded and 36 arrested.
The State Department maintains that sovereignty over all of Iraq, including Camp Ashraf, belongs to the government of Iraq and brushes off serious concern by pointing out that in any event, the MEK remains on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
But Iraqi sovereignty does not entitle neglect of the U.S. promise to protect the residents of Camp Ashraf. This concerns a solemn pledge made by U.S. forces early in 2004, when they entered the enclave and signed written agreements stipulating that the residents would be granted protected-persons status under the Geneva Conventions until their final disposition.
The MEK terrorist designation, as concerns Americans, revolves around its purported role in the death of six American service members and military contractors 35 years ago.
As corroborated by former Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, the designation in 1997 came about largely as a result of President Clinton's efforts to induce Iran's then-president, Mohammed Khatami, to adopt a more moderate posture. (It didn't work.)
In this context, it appeared on an internal State Department determination, which held that terrorism against our foes (even if directed against judges issuing death sentences without recourse to legal process) should be of as much concern to the United States as terrorism directed against American citizens.
The highest court in the United Kingdom recently overturned the terrorist designation in Britain as totally without merit. A similar conclusion was reached by the European Union. Interestingly enough, when the MEK filed a petition for revocation of its designation in July 2008, the State Department's top counterterrorism official, Gen. Dell L. Dailey, recommended that the petition be granted.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, overruled him -- ostensibly because of the department's zeal not to allow anything to undercut its efforts to negotiate directly with Tehran.
Having been involved as an attorney for the PanAm 103 families in their quest to hold Libya accountable for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, I had dealt with the conditions for removal of Libya from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Clear criteria for designation of an organization as a terrorist entity, and its corollary -- clear criteria for de-designation -- are essential if we are to remain a country of laws rather than one where diplomatic whim controls despite severe legal consequences. Yet, in dealing with MEK designation, the State Department refuses to specify applicable criteria. Such a posture degrades the terrorist designation to a mere political tool.
Clearly, neither Iraqi sovereignty nor the unwarranted U.S. terrorist designation can justify turning a blind eye to the fate of 3,400 people at Camp Ashraf who have dedicated their lives to ending the mullah regime in Tehran.
This is not only a matter of grave humanitarian concern, but also one that bears serious implications for U.S. national security interests. What lesson, after all, would Iran draw if we were to allow repatriation of the residents of Camp Ashraf?
What lesson would the world draw if it witnessed the U.S. government's inability to curry any influence with Iraq, a country in which we have invested so much of our resources and human treasure?
What is to be done? I recommend that two steps be taken immediately:
1.) President Obama or a high-level envoy needs to forcefully tell Iraq's leadership that the U.S. government will not countenance repatriation of the residents of Camp Ashraf or their forcible displacement within Iraq. The only safe place for them is Ashraf. Muted State Department assurances cannot suffice. In any event, no European or other nation seems prepared to welcome the residents of Camp Ashraf to its own shores.
2.) The U.N. secretary-general needs to express the United Nation's concern and work to set up a monitoring post at Ashraf to ensure that they are protected.
These steps are in America's interest. It cannot afford to ignore the potential for atrocities against the residents of Camp Ashraf. To abandon the MEK in their hour of need, especially when they are staunch opponents of the regime in Tehran, would only serve to encourage Iran to pursue its militaristic policies at home and abroad and to dispel the trust of America's allies.
*Allan Gerson, a former senior State and Justice department official, is chairman of AG International Law in Washington and represents the MEK. He is the author of "The Price of Terror: How the Families of the Victims of the PanAm 103 Bombing Brought Libya to Justice" (HarperCollins, 2002).