President Obama, as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has a special responsibility: to avoid unnecessary war and at the same time, as he put it in his acceptance speech, to not shrink away from just war. Beyond that he has a responsibility for the protection of innocent lives at jeopardy in armed conflicts in which the United States has played a role.
Iran, more than Afghanistan, provides the paramount test of his powers. He will need to demonstrate that he understands the limits of ambiguity -- namely, that it has a place in statecraft only on the rarest occasions, only when intentionally deployed, and never where thousands of lives are at stake. Otherwise, the results can be disastrous. Japan might have never attacked at Pearl Harbor had the United States been clear in not wishing to impose complete sanctions on the export of oil. Vietnam might never have become America's war if U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge had not interpreted, or misinterpreted, President Kennedy's cable as a green light for the coup that led to the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem.
Today, we are witnessing the face of ambiguity -- intentional or not -- when it comes to a looming humanitarian crisis. More than 3,000 Iranian dissidents stand to either be deported from their 20-year old base at Camp Ashraf in Iraq to a vile prison camp in Iraq's harshest desert, or to be forcibly returned to Iran where they face execution.
On July 28th and 29th, Iraqi forces stormed Camp Ashraf killing eleven and wounding scores of other defenseless residents of the dissident community known as the PMOI. U.S. forces which had pledged to protect the residents of Camp Ashraf, pursuant to protected persons status under the Geneva Convention, stood idly by.
When the State Department spokesman was asked on December 11th about the announcement last Thursday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nori Al-Maliki of intentions to relocate or deport the Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf, this was his reply:
"QUESTION: On Iraq, Camp Ashraf, the Iranian opposition, says that the Iraqis are going to move them next Tuesday, I think. Are you going to try and use your influence with the Iraqis not to move them? The opposition says there'll be bloodshed if they do attempt to do that.
MR. KELLY: Well, I think what we would do, first and foremost, is to urge the Iraqi authorities to conduct any such relocation with the residents of Camp Ashraf, that it be done in a lawful and humane way. They've made clear to us, to the Government of the U.S., that they do plan to do this. And this is entirely an Iraqi planned initiative. And as I said before, we'd expect this be carried out in a humane way.
We have, all along, recognized Iraqi sovereignty over the entire territory of Iraq, including the area where Camp Ashraf is located. And as I think we've said before, the Government of Iraq has assured us that they would not deport any of these citizens to any country where they would -- if you have a well-rounded fear of being treated inhumanely.
So we -- I mean, we're engaging the Government of Iraq. Diplomatically, we respect Iraqi sovereignty. But of course, we're making it clear that we would expect these - the residents of Camp Ashraf to be treated well and with respect. " (Source; December 11, 2009. )
The underlying current in this exchange is that the United States deems the PMOI and MEK (as its affiliate) a "terrorist organization", thus giving the cover for Iraq to do with it as it wishes. Never mind that in the last year they have been removed by judicial fiat from Britain's list of terrorist organizations, and from that of the EU. Both UK and EU judicial officials decided that there was not a shred of evidence to continue to keep the PMOI/MEK on any terrorist list. Whether they belong on the U.S. list is the subject of an appeal to be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington DC on January 12th. In any event, regardless of the label attached to them, relocation to Neqrat as-Salman is not an acceptable option by any humanitarian standard.
Neqrat as-Salman is Iraq's most feared prison after Abu Ghraib. It is a desolate military prison that has been used since 1921 for detaining mostly political prisoners. According to the Wikipedia, it is a "desert prison camp built in the style of a fortress where thousands have perished over the decades there."
Amnesty International has condemned the intended move as a gross violation of human rights. British Parliamentarians have railed that this is a prelude to genocide. And all that is heard from the White House is that we are "engaging" Iraq on this matter.
What then is the signal we are sending to Iran?
Coupled with ambiguity surrounding President Obama's intentions in Afghanistan -- the announcement of a "surge" of 30,000 troops while indicating that they would begin to be withdrawn by 18 months -- the U.S. posture on Camp Ashraf is bound to be interpreted by Iran as evidence of a general lack of U.S. will to stay the course. This is true whether we are talking of compelling Iran to abandon its march for nuclear weapons, or its determination to destroy the Iranian opposition and make an example of the PMOI/MEK by having them hang in Iran or perish in the Iraqi desert.
Should such an outcome occur at a time when we should be supporting Iran's dissidents, we will have no one to blame but ourselves and our lack of clarity towards Iran. If we are forced by Iran's realization of its nuclear ambitions to take military action against Iran at a time not of our choosing, we will also have no one to blame but ourselves. One thing is certain: clarity and moral courage go together. More often than not, when there is little of one, there is little of the other.
Allan Gerson, a former Senior Counsel to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and Deputy Assistant Attorney General, is Chairman of AG International Law in Washington D.C. He is the author of The Price of Terror: How the Families of the Victims of the PanAm 103 Bombing Brought Libya to Justice, and is presently involved with other attorneys in representing the PMOI/MEK in its efforts to be removed from the U.S. List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.