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.
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.
Standard diplomatic procedure requires the White House to assert that, in the basket of pressure tactics on Iran, military action is always an option. Both presidential candidates have echoed that line. The reality is that both the State Department and the Pentagon know that an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities would be a political catastrophe and could not guarantee eliminating some of the facilities buried deep underground. Predictably, the State Department favors diplomacy and has been trying some initiatives of a conciliatory nature. It is trailing in front of the Iranians the prospect of a US Interests Section in Tehran, a step short of an embassy and diplomatic recognition. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly has said he would welcome this.
Another gesture was the first-time dispatch of a senior US diplomat, Undersecretary of State William Burns, to join six-nation, face-to-face talks with the Iranians. Then, after Mr. Burns had suggested sports exchanges might help rebuild bridges, the Iranian national basketball team was admitted to play NBA teams in Salt Lake City and Dallas. The fate of the Mujahideen may be an unwelcome and untimely issue.
Various Iraqi officials, some allegedly tied to Iran, have since early July been demanding that the Iranian Mujahideen be "expelled" from Iraq within six months. That is an interesting time frame, coinciding as it does with the last months of the Bush administration.
The options confronting President Bush – or his successor if the saga drags out that long – are unenviable. One is to withdraw the protective US military guards from Camp Ashraf, thus turning the Mujahideen over to Iraqi forces, and probably to the hands of Iran. That would fly in the face of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ruling regarding the protection of individuals who face serious risks if returned to their country of origin.
The other option would be to transport the Mujahideen to refuge in the US. That would require another decision: abandoning their designation as terrorists. Some who favor this argue that if North Korea can be considered for delistment, why not the Iranian Mujahideen?
It is a decision that pits principle, humanitarianism, and national self-interest against one another.