Our Enemy's Enemy Is Our Enemy? The Strange Case of the U.S.-MEK Relationship

The enemy of our enemy is our friend. Every schoolboy knows this. Somehow, the U.S. State Department thinks differently. It persists in keeping the MEK/PMOI (the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran), the largest Iranian anti-mullah militant organization, on the State Department's List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. It persists in doing so despite the fact that the MEK has rejected terrorism for over a decade, never targeted Americans (except in the case of a splinter group in the early 1970s, which also murdered a number of the MEK as well), and is a key proponent of democracy and freedom in Iran.

Puzzled as to how this could occur, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), Chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, felt compelled to declare at the Congressional Iran Briefing on June 10, 2010, that: "It is questionable to list on that [State Department] List entities which are not enemies of the United States but are enemies of the enemies of the United States." Moreover, Congressman Brad Sherman continued, "I have difficulty understanding what has the MEK done, even remotely, in recent times, that causes the MEK to be on that list. I do know there is no entity more feared, more hated by the mullahs who run Iran, than the MEK -- which is perhaps the finest compliment that could be paid to that organization."

This tendency to treat the enemy of our enemy as our enemy would only be bizarre if it were strictly a legal issue. Recently, the State Department claimed in the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals in Washington DC that it has "secret" evidence that the MEK remains committed to terrorism. (Over strong objection by one of the appellate judges about entertaining "secret" evidence where the other side does not have an opportunity to see it, the Court of Appeals nevertheless decided to examine the merits of the State Department position and to issue a ruling sometime in the near future). However, there are immediate life and death consequences to the State Department's determination to treat the MEK as Public Enemy No. 1 despite its record of providing the international community with vital information about Iran's nuclear capabilities. Relying on the State Department designation, the government of Iraq has said that it is determined (following the dictates of Iran as the U.S. completes its withdrawal of forces) to forcibly relocate 3500 MEK members located at Camp Ashraf in Northern Iraq. Either they would be expelled to Iran, where a terrible fate would await them, or shipped to a prison camp in Iraq's harsh southern desert.

The clock is ticking. Responding to mounting concerns about the safety of the Camp Ashraf residents, several members of Congress, led by Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), convened in Washington on June 10th to introduce the "Pro-Democracy Movement in Iran Resolution." That resolution calls upon the Obama Administration to remove the MEK from the State Department's Foreign Terrorist List. The resolution also calls for a more vigorous U.S. approach to promoting freedom and democracy in Iran.

As several members of Congress recognized, the United States is morally if not legally obligated to ensure that the government of Iraq provide immediate ironclad assurances that it will not repeat its deadly entry into Camp Ashraf in July 2009 resulting in eleven deaths and many scores injured. Moreover, the United States must take steps to ensure that Iraq take seriously its responsibility to neither forcibly repatriate nor relocate the residents of Camp Ashraf until a solution can be found which guarantees the safety of the Camp Ashraf residents, preferably under UN or other international auspices.

Along these lines, Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) demanded that the residents of Camp Ashraf "not be kidnapped and tortured, and that they not be taken to other remote places in Iraq or other countries and hidden out, because the world must protect the dignity, the sanctity, and the safety of the people in Camp Ashraf." Similarly, Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) declared that "we have to make sure we protect the people in Camp Ashraf and that we ensure, even with the U.S. leaving, that those residents are protected. They are people who have stood up for what is right and we must make sure that their security is protected."

Addressing the geopolitical consequences of not providing backing to the Camp Ashraf residents at this point, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said it best, "What's relevant is not the differences that we might have with different groups that are fighting the mullahs. What's the overwriting imperative now is for all of us to stand together united and not let the people of Ashraf or the people of Iran stand alone at anytime against these mullah dictators who threaten not only the freedom of their own people but the peace and stability of the region."

Yes, what is at stake at Camp Ashraf is not only the fate of its residents but the U.S. word in protecting those who side with us against those who would do them harm.

*Allan Gerson is Chairman of AG International Law, a Washington, D.C. law firm. He served as Senior Counsel to the U.S. Delegation to the United Nations during the Reagan Administration, and is the author of "Israel, the West Bank, and International Law" (1978).