The November 15 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear program indicates that Tehran is still violating existing United Nations Security Council resolutions by continuing the construction of a heavy reactor and installing a total of 2,952 centrifuges needed for uranium enrichment.
International pressure on the Iranian government to cease such work is likely to increase in the following months. The present stalemate on the nuclear negotiations coincides with a tougher
US strategy toward Iran, which includes designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and implementing a new round of unilateral sanctions.
While military action is still not seen as a viable option by the Department of Defense, there are certainly many within and without the White House who are growing increasingly restless about the seeming futility of sanctions. The most vocal advocate and perpetrator of violent regime change in Iran is the Mujahideen-e-Khalq organization (MEK), an Iranian opposition group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States (Executive Order 13224, Department of State, 2003) and the European Union.
A 2007 German intelligence report from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution called the MEK a”repressive, sect-like and Stalinist authoritarian organization which centers around the personality cult of Maryam and Mas’ud Rajavi”.
During the initial phase of the Iranian Revolution, the MEK was significantly influenced by Marxist theories and concepts of exploitation and class struggle, and particular emphasis was placed on Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara and their ideas of guerrilla warfare. Besides these foreign Marxist influences, the MEK’s ideology was also heavily informed by Islamist/Marxist scholar Ali Shariati (1933-1977), who wrote many treatises on the idea of suffering and eternal struggle in Shi’ite doctrine, combining it with socialist ideas of class emancipation vis-a-vis secular tyranny.
When the Peoples’ Mujahideen were excluded from power sharing after 1979 and thousands of its members were executed under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s orders, their struggle turned against what was to become the Islamic Republic. To date, the MEK’s structure is heavily dominated by a socialist outlook coupled with an Islamist veneer, highlighting the concepts of justice in reference to Shi’ite doctrines. The latter serves to legitimize the MEK in the eyes of Iranians at home and helps foster full commitment to the cause.
In October, the 4,000 residents of the MEK’s”Camp Ashraf”in Iraq staged a spectacular large-scale festival that included extensive military style parades, martial arts performances and a display of unarmed combat units. Video excerpts of the festivities were posted on YouTube. The festival was as much a display of military strength and the MEK’s ongoing commitment to fight the regime in Iran as it was a homage to the two leaders of the MEK.
One of the lingering questions surrounding the group’s continued existence is why it has not been disbanded.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the group was disarmed and many of its members were questioned by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Soon after, US Major General John D Gardner confirmed the status of the residents of Camp Ashraf as”protected persons”under the 4th Geneva Convention, stating that”the coalition remains deeply committed to the security and rights of the protected people of Ashraf”.
Evidently, one of Iran’s key demands to the US government is the closure of Camp Ashraf and the subsequent expulsion of all MEK members. Despite demands by the International Committee of the Red Cross that residents of Camp Ashraf”must not be deported, expelled or repatriated”, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in April that the Iraqi government intended to resettle MEK members in European countries and set a deadline of six months for the move. The resettlement is unlikely to materialize given the EU’s tough stance toward the group and its umbrella organization, the National Resistance Council for Iran, but it still indicates that the MEK’s host country is becoming increasingly restless over its presence.
By and large it seems that the Iranian government is following a two-track strategy with regards to the MEK base in Iraq. Iranian diplomats in Iraq are putting increasing pressure on Baghdad to expel the group from Iraqi territory and to actively prosecute leading MEK operatives. At the same time, Iranian authorities continue to offer amnesties for members who cut their ties with the group and return to Iran. The MEK still creates serious security problems for Iran; according to a recent speech by Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, the group has killed over 16,000 people in and outside Iran, including one president, one prime minister, four ministers and dozens of members of parliament.
Most recently, Iranian authorities arrested a group of MEK operatives for the assassination of Sheikh Hashem Samiri, a Friday prayer leader in the city of Ahwaz. The crime was linked to the earlier September shooting of Sheikh Samir Durak, Friday prayer leader in the Koy-e Alavi district.
Following numerous consultations with Iraqi authorities, Tehran’s lobbying efforts seem to be paying off. Citing evidence of MEK involvement in the current insurgency as well as atrocities committed against Iraqi citizens, Ja’afar al-Musawi, chief prosecutor of the Supreme Iraqi Criminal Tribunal, issued arrest warrants for 150 MEK members, including the group’s leaders Maryam and Mas’ud Rajavi. Though insisting that all of them would be tried under the criminal jurisdiction of Iraq and not be handed over to Iran, Musawi indicated that extradition agreements with Iran will be concluded in the near future.
At the same time, authorities in Iran are wooing residents of Camp Ashraf to come back by offering amnesty and re-socialization programs. Since 2003, over 500 MEK members have returned to Iran, been officially pardoned by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and extensively debriefed by Iranian intelligence. Iran’s judiciary officials continue to emphasize that defectors from Camp Ashraf will not be prosecuted on their return to Iran.
Though such amnesty initiatives prove to be useful incentives for disaffected members and their families, they fall short of genuinely addressing Iranian security concerns over the group’s ongoing activities in Iraq. The most urgent issue for Tehran is what Mohammad Jafari of the Iranian National Security Council described as intelligence cooperation between US forces in Iraq and MEK operatives sent across the border to spy in Iranian territory.
Though such accusations are difficult to verify, demands by the Iraqi government to dismantle Camp Ashraf and prosecute those charged with crimes have not yet been met. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, claims these efforts are actively prevented by the United States. The recent propaganda festival staged in Camp Ashraf has only fueled Iranian suspicions that the MEK is still considered by the United States as an effective ally against Iran.
there is no evidence that the MEK enjoy any high-profile support in the State Department or Pentagon, there are certainly some on Capitol Hill who consider any enemies of Iran as friends of the United States. Most notably, congressmen Michael McCaul, Nick Lampson and Brad Sherman have repeatedly asked the US government to remove the MEK from the terrorist list.
Echoing such demands, the White Paper published by the US pressure group Iran Policy Committee in 2007 perceives the MEK in Iraq as”very useful for providing intelligence for border controls and operations”and, because of their”extensive network within Iran”and their”excellent record of revealing key intelligence about the IRGC proxies’ infiltration routes into Iraq”, the MEK is seen as a viable”interlocutor”between Washington and Sunni groups to quell Iraqi sectarian violence.
Given Camp Ashraf residents’ legal limbo under the 4th Geneva Convention, the United States is faced with the highly complex decision of whether to hand over MEK militants to Iraq or Iran, or arrange asylum in a third country. Each choice carries consequences for US-Iranian relations. Although denied by US authorities, keeping the MEK in Iraq may still be seen by some policymakers as providing an effective bargaining chip in the nuclear weapons negotiations.
Dr Bernd Kaussler holds a MA and PhD from the University of St. Andrews and is currently assistant professor in political science at James Madison University. As associate fellow at the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews, he is involved in various research projects on contemporary Iranian politics and foreign policy.
By Bernd Kaussler,