The U.S. State Department's inclusion of Iran's main opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), in the list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO) has been fiercely criticized by members of Congress and former U.S. government officials over the past several months. The criticism was heightened when on April 8, 2011, under a direct order from Tehran, Iraqi forces launched a vicious attack against the residents of Camp Ashraf in Iraq, home to 3,400 MEK members. Videos of the assault show Iraqi soldiers armed with AK-47s shooting at unarmed camp residents in cold blood.
The April massacre at Camp Ashraf brought into light not just the political blunder of the MEK's terrorist designation, but also its tragic humanitarian cost. Today, the lives of 3,400 people are at the mercy of an Iraqi government which uses the U.S. designation as a justification for murder. Many of the residents at Camp Ashraf have relatives in the US or Western Europe. Some, including my own brother, are former residents of the United States.
On June 18, tens of thousands of Iranian exiles gathered near Paris, France, to call for the protection of Camp Ashraf and the removal of the MEK from the State Department's FTO list. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran -- a broad political coalition which has the MEK as a member organization -- dozens of parliamentarians from around the world, including the U.S., and several former senior U.S. officials, called on Washington to live up to its obligation of protecting Camp Ashraf as a valuable ally in the region. Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge described Ashraf as "a thorn in the side of the real terrorists, the Iranian regime."
Indeed, the humanitarian challenges at Camp Ashraf and the folly of designating the MEK as a terrorist organization has been recognized by Washington for quite some time. A 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks highlights the "Catch 22" situation the U.S. has found themselves in, stating:
If the government of Iraq acts harshly against the MEK and provokes a reaction, the [U.S. government] faces a challenging dilemma: we either protect members of a foreign terrorist organization against actions of the Iraqi security forces and risk violating the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, or we decline to protect the MEK in the face of a humanitarian crisis, thus leading to international condemnation of both the U.S. government and the government of Iraq.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ashraf residents have been caught in the crossfire between the Iranian regime, Iraq, and the United States. In 2003, the U.S. bombed Camp Ashraf, resulting in hundreds of causalities and at least 50 deaths. It was later revealed that the bombings were part of a quid-pro-quo between the Iranian regime and Washington. Tehran offered to repatriate some al-Qaeda suspects if the U.S. cracked down on the MEK.
In 2004, MEK members at Camp Ashraf voluntarily handed over weapons they used to protect themselves in exchange for protection by U.S. forces. The U.S. recognized them as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Meanwhile the MEK continued to serve as an invaluable ally by being the first to expose the regime's secret nuclear weapons program. Several American Generals and Colonels have also commended the MEK for saving American lives by providing them with intelligence regarding the Iranian regime's meddling in Iraq, and with the locations of planted roadside bombs.
Fast forward to July 2009 when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's forces invaded the camp and murdered 11 residents. Video footage provided by camp residents show a U.S. soldier with a handheld video camera recording the attacks as they were happening. When the soldier is approached by a blood-soaked camp resident, he is seen shaking his head, mumbling, "I'm sorry" as he turns his back, entering an SUV, and drives away from the camp.
Just hours before the most recent attack on April 8, 2011, the U.S. military unit that was in Camp Ashraf for the previous four days was ordered out of the Camp. The order was given despite the objections of the Colonel in charge, who had requested further reinforcements to protect the residents, and flouting international laws such as the UN RtoP (Responsibility to Protect) mandate, of which the U.S. is a member state.
For those of us who remain oceans and continents away from our loved ones, barred from visits, and restricted to following events on our TV screens, we are forced to live with the fact that our family members in Ashraf are being used as human bargaining chips, mere pawns in the global game of Realpolitik. As a result, they are deprived of the most basic human rights that should be afforded to refugees and defenseless civilians.
This gut-wrenching fact haunts us day in and day out as we wait in apprehension, keeping one eye on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ashraf, and the other on the State Department's inexplicable delay in revoking the MEK's designation. Next week will be one year since the federal court of appeals for the District of Columbia issued a landmark judgment, concluding that the Secretary had erred in not revoking the MEK's designation and strongly suggested that she remove the label. It is time for Secretary Clinton to abide by the rule of law.