Iran sees less threat in exiled MKO militants
Some 100 members of the Iranian antiregime group have left a holding camp in Iraq in recent weeks. Iran says amnesty offer holds.
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So he came back to the Islamic Republic, which imprisoned him for five years in the 1980s for participating in a group labeled "terrorist" by both Washington and Tehran. Yet some American officials view the MKO – disarmed but still intact – as a possible tool of regime change against Iran. And the MKO's continued presence in Iraq aggravates US-Iran tensions.
What Sadeghi found was a soft-touch amnesty that he had never been told of in the MKO camp. His case could resonate with the 100 or so other Iranian militants who have been allowed to leave the camp in recent weeks, afraid to return to Iran and running into trouble in Kurdish northern Iraq and upon entering Turkey.
"Because I had been in prison, I expected to go back to prison, torture, and execution," says Sadeghi, who was detained for a week and then let go. "They said [the MKO] is not a threat. [They said,] 'We know you were a victim yourself, who thought you were doing something good for your country but were deceived by a cult.' "
The MKO (or MEK) in 2002 tipped off the world to Iran's secret uranium-enrichment program – with the help of Israel, many analysts have concluded. It now says the recent findings of a US National Intelligence Estimate were wrong and that Iran restarted a nuclear-weapons program in 2004. UN inspectors, however, say that much of the information the UN has received from the group in recent years has a political purpose and has been wrong.
No nation has taken the militants who left Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, some of them carrying US military letters for travel to Turkey. Documents of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees show that at one point in their saga nearly two weeks ago, 19 were turned back to Iraq by Turkey, dozens were picked up in Kurdish northern Iraq and some forced to return to the dangers of central Iraq, and 26 were missing.
The situation highlights the sensitivity of Camp Ashraf, which has been virtually off-limits to journalists since the fall of Saddam Hussein. According to some of the 340 former MKO members who have returned to Iran with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the MKO controls all aspects of life in the camp. Numbers have dropped: Only 12 returned to Iran in all of 2007, and three more in mid-January.
"We don't have the impression that these people are harassed or bothered, ... mainly because the families and the [Iranian] authorities want them to come back," says Andreas Schweizer, until recently the ICRC protection officer in Tehran. "We haven't heard of any problems so far."
Indeed, in 2005, when the Monitor followed up privately on the story of one returnee, his mother complained about the lack official reintegration help. There had been no government interference either, she said.
The MKO's checkered and violent history has kept it on the US and European terrorist list. The MKO killed several American military advisers and civilians in Iran in the 1970s, played a key role in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and supported the US Embassy seizure before breaking away and launching attacks that have killed scores of senior Iranian officials.