Mojahedin-e Khalq rewarded for cooperation against Iran?
The State Department has again decided to keep the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MKO) with all its aliases on the US terrorism list. There are a growing number of people who are calling for the US to have done with the group once and for all. Commentators on several blogs and articles suggest the leaders be ‘tried in internationally approved courts and let the membership go home.’ But this ignores the heavy price that has been paid for the group both politically (Iran has constantly accused the US and Europe of double standards on terrorism for their palpable support for the MKO) and financially (one of the key indicators of the actual irrelevance of adding the MKO to western terrorism lists is the tens of millions of dollars, euros and pounds the group has been able to spend on legal challenges and propaganda to keep itself alive – money which must come from somewhere).
With MKO personnel permanently camped-out in most of Europe’s parliaments for the past two years it should come as no surprise that the group will be removed from Europe’s terrorism list when it is announced on January 15. In July 2008, the EU announced that there were “no grounds” to amend the list of terrorist organisations, which includes 48 groups, and EU officials insisted that the decision to keep the MEK on the list of the terrorist groups is not related to the Western efforts to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment program.
What is behind this peculiar change which will redefine the group as non-terrorist in Europe?
As with removal from the UK terrorism list in June 2008, no material difference will accrue to the MKO. In his book on the Mojahedin Dr. Ronen A. Cohen says the MKO “does not have the characteristics of a classic terror organization as it does not initiate terror against innocents” – although the indiscriminate nature of many of its attacks mean 12,000 civilians have been killed in MKO operations inside Iran over two decades.
The most pertinent explanation for why removal from the lists is irrelevant is because the MKO even at the height of its military prowess in 1988 and with the full backing of Saddam Hussein and the west was unable to fulfil its aim of replacing the Islamic Republic with its own rule. Massoud Raajvi’s long term premise that such change would come about as a result of a popular uprising has been pragmatically replaced in the past five years with the conviction that regime change would be imposed on Iran from external powers – the USA, Israel – and that the MKO could reap the benefit of being there as a viable alternative when that happened.
Of these two, perhaps the latter version is currently more possible and perhaps probable even with a new US Administration in place.
So, what use do the MKO’s backers envisage for the group?
The protection of a uniformed anti-Iran mercenary group in Camp Ashraf in Diyali province for five years has been intentional. The price paid has been too great to allow jettisoning the group now, both politically and financially. However, it is important to note that even if it is removed from the UK, EU and perhaps US terrorism lists, the MKO does not enjoy governmental recognition or legitimacy anywhere in the world. Nor does any country need to give the group legitimacy in order to make use of it.
Essentially the use of the MKO is, as Rajavi himself has used them, as perpetrators and victims of violence. The MKO’s talent is that they are trained to kill and be killed according to Rajavi’s order. That they will do this to fulfil a western agenda without needing western approval is the group’s unique selling point and is enough to justify not continuing to label them as terrorists.
There is no doubt that for many observers the removal of the MKO from the European list will clarify the European position toward terrorism. Public opinion in the Middle East has never regarded western terrorism lists as about terrorism per se but as lists of enemies of western interests.
Inclusion of the violently anti-Iranian MKO along with groups which are genuinely anti-western has been a major discrepancy of all the western terrorism lists, a glaring error of political judgement. The MKO may have begun life as an anti-imperialist group with armed struggle its core value, and continued this path under the patronage of Saddam Hussein. But, since its forced disarmament at the hands of the US army, the group has been able to beguile western powers, including Israel, into believing it shares common cause against Iran and is a friend and ally of at least some in the west.
After spending hundreds of millions of dollars on propaganda and legal fees to keep the MKO alive, these backers are now obliged to use this blunted tool in any way they can, perhaps to justify the expenditure, perhaps because they really believe the MKO can be an effective tool against Iran.
Anne Singleton, an expert on the MKO and author of ‘Saddam’s Private Army’ explains, “With a new Administration in the White House a pre-emptive strike on Iran looks unlikely. Instead the MKO’s backers have put together a coalition of small irritant groups, the known minority and separatist groups, along with the MKO. These groups will be garrisoned around the border with Iran and their task is to launch terrorist attacks into Iran over the next few years to keep the fire hot.
“The role of the MKO is to train and manage these groups using the expertise they acquired from Saddam’s Republican Guard. The price the MKO has had to pay is to accept their removal from their main base Camp Ashraf and relocate to other bases not their own. The inducement will be to remove the group from the terrorism list in Europe.”
Once the MKO has been declared in Europe as ‘no longer terrorists’, the group’s overt backers, Lord Corbett, Struan Stevenson MEP, Paulo Casaca MEP, and others who see the world, and in particular Iran, through neoconservative/Zionist tinted glasses will move to promote this coalition in their various circles.
Although it is tempting to cast this move into the sphere of betting both ways on the new Obama Administration’s Iran policy, the key trigger for this move has been the Iraqi government’s insistence on the removal of the MKO from Iraq and the handover of Camp Ashraf to Iraqi sovereignty. This has not been an unreasonable request of US forces over a five year period. However, it is only since the agreed handover of control of Camp Ashraf on January 1 that this became an inevitable outcome. For over a year, MKO backers in western parliaments have lobbied for the MKO to remain in Camp Ashraf on the grounds that the group would be massacred by vengeful Iraqis or forced back to Iran to face certain torture and execution. The falsity of this position has become exposed as the Iraqi government has continued to protect the group and has given repeated assurances that no one will be forced home against their will. Beyond this, the Iranian government’s own position on prosecuting leading members has made it impossible to send anyone back that Iran does not want.
The reason for the insistence on maintaining the MKO in Camp Ashraf – and now in new border based garrisons alongside other armed groups – has been because the only use for the group is to act as an irritant against Iran. If a full scale military attack could not be manufactured which would involve them, then small scale terrorist attacks are the next best alternative.
What all this overlooks, of course, is the human aspect of this group. For years former members of the MKO have warned of severe human rights violations perpetrated against the members. Human Rights Watch conducted its own investigation into the group’s recent history in 2005 and published a damning report titled No Exit. But more recently, those who escaped the camp since its capture by American forces in 2003 and who have managed to reach Europe, are alleging continued cruelties including unnecessary hysterectomies imposed on women to rob them of any hope of having children.
For five years the American army has effectively prevented any independent investigation into these allegations. The primary task of the Iraqi military now in charge of the camp must be to allow humanitarian agencies to access the camp’s residents and individually assess their mental, physical and emotional status. Anything less than this is to condemn 3,250 people to being part of an illegal paramilitary group without their active consent.
This still leaves the fundamental question of what the west will get from its investment in the MKO. It is looking likely that the US will cherry-pick whoever it wants from the MKO to perform in its new coalition strategy. The old, sick, disabled and disturbed will be left for the Iraqi government to deal with.
In view of western patronage of this group, albeit largely covert in nature since it does not acknowledge that it is the group’s willingness to die that is its main use, then it is western countries which ultimately have a responsibility, if not an outright duty, to rescue the group from Iraq. If the group’s membership is indeed moved to other bases in Iraq to continue involvement in acts of violence, then any blood shed will be on western hands not those who are defending their country’s security.