People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran: Iranian Dissidents In Iraq Face Uncertain Future

02/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NEW YORK--Iraq's transition of power and the security agreement calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2011 leaves the fate of 3,000 Iranian dissidents hanging in the balance.

The People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) is Iran's most prominent opposition group based in Camp Ashraf, a desert compound some 60 miles north of Baghdad in Diyala province near the Iranian border.

Like the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, the fate of those at Camp Ashraf rests in American hands and is an example of the complicated legacy of the U.S.'s recent wars. Although this situation has not received the same attention, for those involved, the stakes--in human lives, justice and prestige--are just as high.

The PMOI was founded in the 1960s in opposition to the pro-Western Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom it helped overthrow during the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iranian security forces expelled the group shortly thereafter and it has since occupied a peculiar position as an American ally opposed to the Iranian regime.

Citing assassinations of U.S. military personnel and civilians in Iran in the 1970s and other violent acts, the U.S. State Department labeled the PMOI, also referred to as Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 and in 2002 the European Union followed suit. But in 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the group agreed to give up their weapons in return for protection by U.S. coalition forces. Camp Ashraf's residents have been "protected persons" under Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention since 2004, and as such cannot be extradited or forced to return to Iran while the U.S. maintains a presence in Iraq.

PMOI supporters have long feared that the Bush administration would relinquish control over the camp before Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government is able to guarantee its security. Their concern stemmed from reports that some Iraqi ministers wished to expel the PMOI from Iraq and repatriate them back to Iran. Baghdad confirms that it wants the group to leave but says it will not use force to do so.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad stated earlier this week that U.S. forces will remain in place to protect Camp Ashraf despite Thursday's transition of power over the camp to the Iraqi government. With last month's security agreement calling for the withdrawal of American forces by 2011, the deadline looms over the heads of American military commanders and Iraqi government officials searching for a solution to this moral quandary that has left American hands tied for the past five years.

According to Joseph Logan, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, the Iranian government has identified a list of PMOI members whom they consider criminals and would like handed over to them for prosecution. The regime claims they will not hurt them, he said, "but the Iranian government can make all the promises it wishes--these types of agreements aren't worth the paper they're written on. There is a considerable amount of antagonism towards [the PMOI in Iran]. The risk is clearly there."

It is not certain whether the U.S. military is ready to take that risk. "This is a nightmare association for the Americans," Logan continued. "It is a politically untenable situation and the military wants to wash their hands of the whole thing."

Former Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Mansour Farhang contends that it is likely the Iraqi authorities will arrest and send at least the leadership back to Iran. "And it would be without getting any kind of guarantee or assurance from the Iranian government that they will be treated humanely," he said. In addition to "the good relations the Iraqi government has with Iran, the leaders of these groups are known to have committed violent acts under the order of Saddam Hussein against the both the Shias and the Kurds. So there is both personal vengeance against them as well as an obligation of the Iranian regime to get rid of them."

Amnesty International warns that Ashraf residents "would be at grave risk of torture or other human rights violations" if returned to Iran. The Association of Iranian-Americans in New York claims that 120,000 PMOI members and supporters have already been executed by the regime. According to the U.S. Committee for Camp Ashraf Residents, Tehran has declared the residents of Camp Ashraf--along with all those who fight against the government--guilty of waging war against God, a charge punishable by execution or amputation.

Farhang warned that the U.S. must not leave the camp's fate solely in Baghdad's hands. "The destiny of the Mojahedin at Camp Ashraf is going to be an issue for negotiation between Iran and the U.S.," he said. "If negotiations are left to the Iraqi government, we are going to see a different outcome."

Despite its designation as a terrorist organization, the PMOI has a vast army of supporters that includes hundreds of members of the U.S. Congress and European Parliament spanning the political spectrum. Farhang contends that this support has more to do with widespread contempt for the Iranian regime than accolades for the group itself. "But they are well organized and well financed," he said, "and have a very effective PR machine to target both the left wing and right wing that then give tacit support without understanding who they are."

While the PMOI and its supporters loudly denounce human rights violations in Iran, numerous organizations have accused the group itself of mistreating some of its members within Camp Ashraf. Accusations that the PMOI is a cult stem from mandates requiring members to show ideological and revolutionary obedience to husband and wife leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. In 2005, Human Rights Watch published a report based on testimonies from 12 former PMOI members who described "abuses ranging from detention and persecution of ordinary members wishing to leave the organization, to lengthy solitary confinements, severe beatings, and torture of dissident members."

Massoud Khodabandeh, consultant for the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Human Rights, explained that the Iraqi government is talking with some Scandinavian countries that may be willing to accept PMOI members. But for that to happen, he said, "the camp would need to be dismantled. They would have to take their uniforms off and be treated as individuals." Khodabandeh, who was a member of the group for 21 years until fleeing the camp in 1996, said the camp's residents cannot leave on their own because only those in leadership positions have unfiltered access to the outside world

The plan faces resistance from PMOI's leaders, but Khodabandeh believes that Massoud Rajavi would agree to the deal if he were offered guarantees of safety and protection from prosecution for attacks he led inside Iran that killed civilians and for his aid to Saddam Hussein in quelling the Shiite and Kurdish uprising in 1991. Yet doing so would mean the U.S. would effectively be granting immunity to the leader of a terrorist organization and an alleged criminal. In Bush's war on terror, that would be a hard option to sell.

What will happen to Camp Ashraf, then, if no solution is reached before the U.S. leaves Iraq in 2011? "That's the $64,000 question," said Logan, "and it's pretty likely that the military will withdraw from [Diyala province] before the country altogether. It's already beginning to happen." He believes it will be difficult for President-elect Barack Obama to deal with Camp Ashraf differently than his predecessors, and recent confirmation that Robert Gates will stay on as Secretary of Defense seems to support that prediction.

The situation in Camp Ashraf is just one among many complexities the United States faces as it wrestles with a disengagement strategy. "Whatever the rationales were for setting up Camp Ashraf the way it was set up, five years on we still have an unresolved mess," Logan continued. "And I honestly don't think that the people who did this really foresaw where it was going to lead." Seven years since the invasion of Iraq, he said, "[Camp Ashraf] is indicative of the fact that certain things were done with ignorance. The consequences of that are still unfolding."

If the U.S. looks the other way and the Iranian regime harms the group's members, it will make a mockery of America's image and its calls for democratic change in the Middle East. A mishandling of this issue risks badly damaging America's already tenuous credibility in the region.