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Opinion

America's tough decision on Iran's dissidents

The People's Mujahideen of Iran is caught between Iraq and a hard place (Iran).

By John Hughes / September 18, 2008



Provo, Utah

In a dusty little enclave about 60 miles north of Baghdad, some 3,800 opponents of the Iranian regime present a difficult problem for the next American president.

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The Iranians, members of the People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), who once mounted military operations against the Tehran regime from sanctuary in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, have been disarmed and placed under the protection of American forces since the US invasion of Iraq. To add to the confusion, some Iraqi sources say Iraqi troops have deployed to "protect the camp, not to seize it."

But the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is now under discussion. With that withdrawal in prospect, Iran is pressing for the fighters, the military arm of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, to be returned to Iran, or at least turned over to the Iraqi government, which it believes would do Tehran's bidding. Understandably, the dissidents fear that either outcome would mean their imprisonment, torture, or death.

Whether it be President McCain or President Obama handling it, the future US relationship with Iran is perhaps the most pressing international issue he will face. The clock is ticking as Iran speeds enrichment of uranium for what it declares is a peaceful civilian nuclear program, but which the US and a substantial number of other nations allege is the pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability. The two candidates have differing views about how to deal with Iran, but both have declared their resolve that Iran should not develop nuclear weaponry.

To hand over the Mujahideen to a cruel fate at the hands of Iran would probably cause an outcry among the American public, and in the US Congress, where the former Iranian fighters have substantial support. Indeed, they are credited by US sources with having provided earlier accurate information about clandestine Iranian nuclear facilities. But not to accede to Tehran's demand to hand them over could hinder any broader negotiations for less tension in the US-Iran relationship.

Refugee status in the US might seem an obvious solution to the problem. But in another bizarre twist, the Iranian Mujahideen members, who are considered "protected persons" under the Geneva Convention by US forces in their "Camp Ashraf" north of Baghdad, are actually listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department. They allegedly supported the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

British courts and the European Court of Justice have ordered that the PMOI be removed from their respective lists of proscribed organizations.

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