On Oct. 7, 1997, during the Clinton administration, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (POMI/MEK) was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The MEK represents the main opposition group to the Iranian theocracy and has been the source of key intelligence relating to Iran’s secret underground nuclear sites. According to a senior Clinton administration official, the designation of the MEK as a terrorist organization was intended as a “goodwill gesture” to Tehran and its newly elected “moderate” President Mohammad Khatami. Such a goodwill gesture coming on the heels of the Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where we had proof of Iran’s involvement, resulting in the killing of 19 U.S. servicemen and the wounding of more than 500 was unbelievable.
Such groveling by our government to a fanatical Iranian theocracy should not have been a surprise. After all, when we had proof of its involvement in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut Oct. 23, 1983, killing 241 of our finest military personnel and injuring hundreds more, we did nothing. Contrary to a recent book citing the incident, the National Security Agency had translated and promulgated the information on a planned “spectacular” attack on the U.S. Marines on Sept. 27, almost four weeks before the bombing. Further, we have known for years that Iran has provided financing, training and weapons to the insurgents we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which continues to this day, but has been swept under the rug. Even with their involvement in assisting the Sept. 11 hijackers due to our “hands-off” policy, we have essentially signaled to the fanatical mullahs that they have nothing to fear from us regardless of the atrocities they have committed against us. It is why they had nothing to fear from their attempt to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in our nation’s capital. That Iran, which has cost thousands of American lives, both military and civilian, has been “off-limits” is a national disgrace.
Now we are faced with another moral situation in which we gave our word to protect the Iranian main opposition group, the MEK at Camp Ashraf, Iraq. In July 2004, we recognized the MEK residents at Camp Ashraf as “protected persons” under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Prior to that, the MEK disarmed in May 2003, turning over all their weapons to the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division and we signed an agreement with every individual at Camp Ashraf that we will protect them until their “final disposition.” From 2003 to 2009, U.S. forces protected Camp Ashraf from terrorist attacks from Iran and its Iraqi proxies. In 2009, the security of Camp Ashraf was turned over to Iraqi forces.
On Feb. 28, 2009, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged the visiting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to expel Iran’s main opposition group, the MEK, from Camp Ashraf. According to reports of the visit, the ayatollah stated, “We await the implementation of our agreement regarding the expulsion of the [MEK] hypocrites,” to Iran and areas in Iraq where they will disappear forever.
Using the State Department’s designation of the MEK as an FTO as an excuse, Iraqi forces in July 2009 launched a raid on Camp Ashraf’s 3,400 residents, killing 11 and wounding 300. The latest attack occurred on April 8. Iraqi forces equipped with U.S. armored personnel carriers and Humvees killed 36, including eight women, and injured 345. Most were shot and some were crushed to death. Not surprisingly, Tehran praised the attack and asked Baghdad to continue attacking Camp Ashraf until it is totally destroyed.
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called this latest attack a “massacre.” Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to ensure the safety of the residents of Camp Ashraf and to accelerate the review of removing the FTO designation of the MEK.
With Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declaring that Camp Ashraf will be shut down by Dec. 31, action to resolve the situation for the 3,400 residents, including 1000 women, must be taken now. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on July 16, 2010, that Ms. Albright erred in designating the MEK an FTO. The State Department was ordered to review this designation, strongly suggesting that it should be revoked. Why this review is proceeding at glacial speed is unconscionable, particularly since all our European allies have already removed the designation. Are we still clinging to the hope that we can negotiate with the fanatical mullahs? Such negotiations would be meaningless.
On Sept. 13, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees formally announced the recognition of the residents of Camp Ashraf as “asylum seekers” and requested the Iraqi government to extend the deadline beyond Dec. 31 to allow sufficient time for processing asylum applications and relocation to third-party countries. As of this date, Iraq has not changed its position.
To ensure that our word and honor still mean something, the MEK should be delisted as a FTO now. Furthermore, all tools available to us must be used to make Mr. Maliki understand that the Dec. 31 deadline must be extended. We did not sacrifice more than 4,400 American lives and tens of thousands injured in Iraq to create a country so that it can be another proxy for Iran.
Finally, the United Nations must place monitoring teams at Camp Ashraf to insure the safety of the residents until they can be resettled. The Obama administration has a rare opportunity to not only stand on principle but also to send a signal by delisting the MEK that we will support a “Persian Spring” regime change in Iran.
Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.