A Shift in U.S. Sympathies Regarding the Mujahedeen e-Khalq?

Secretary of State John Kerry made a statement on September 12, 2016, when he said a “significant American diplomatic initiative…has assured the safety of more than 3,000 MEK members whose lives have been under threat.”  His words reflect a shift away from the Iranian regime, and toward the Mujahedeen e-Khalq, or MEK.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came over to the side of Iranian dissidents, as well. The efforts of UN envoys, American diplomats, and former officials gave meaning to the UN doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect.”

Tanter and Martin write, “Although States are obligated for the safety of civilians on its territory, the international community has responsibility to assist States. Consider prior activities of main players in the drama of refugee resettlement.”  They go on to explain, “Baghdad held Iranian dissidents in prison-like custody in camps Ashraf and Liberty, although they committed no crimes. Iranian dissidents have been attacked by Iraqi forces in 2009, 2011, and 2013, forces that held them under “protective” custody,” and then they raise the question: “Who will guard the guardians?”

Tanter and Martin talk about the history and reasoning for the ‘responsibility to protect’:

• First, during 2004, Washington provided each dissident with an ID card stating the U.S. military would protect them based on Article 27 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians caught up in a war zone.

• Second, upon start of withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2009, Washington turned over to Baghdad responsibility to protect the dissidents. Because of Iraq’s prior violation of its duties, Washington continued to share responsibility to protect, e.g., using diplomatic means to induce Iraq to meet its obligations.

• Third, United Nations shared responsibilities with the United States and Iraq for the humane treatment of the Iranian refugees in Iraq.

They say that the State Department encouraged the refugees to accept the UNHCR’s plan, under which residents who survived of the assaults of 2009 and 2011 at Camp Ashraf were to be safely transported to Camp Liberty. It was meant to be a stopping point for the residents, who were to be relocated to Europe.  However, little was done until 2016. The UNHCR finally facilitated flights to exit Iraq for Albania. 

According to Tanter and Martin, “Because Iraq had either participated or given prior green lights for Iranian proxies to attack, it was a remarkable flip-flop by Baghdad, largely as a result of pressure from the U.S. Congress. And the State Department spoke kindly about the MEK as ‘people who are in need of international protection,’ after it played a positive role in the resettlement process.”

Singled out by Kerry, State Department Special Envoy, Jonathan Winer, is called an unsung hero by Tanter and Martin.  He fought to turn around years of hostility against the residents. Former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, as well as many other former American officials, worked with Winer to help him overcome tremendous challenges.

Tanter and Martin also give credit to, “A bevy in Congress played a major role on Capitol Hill, including Senate Armed Services Committee chair, John McCain (R-AZ), as well as senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Roy Blunt (R-MO), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair, Ed Royce (R-CA), and the committee’s ranking member Eliot Engel (D-NY).”

John McCain’s press release of September 9 stated, “Given the history of the Iranian regime’s brutal crackdown on these residents and the subsequent violence directed against them during their stay in Iraq, I believe it is imperative that the residents continue to be recognized as people of concern and entitled to international protections underscored in the 1951 Geneva Convention.” He added,“The safe resettlement of these Iranian dissidents is a vital step in countering the Iranian regime’s malign influence in the region, and it serves as an important reminder to our allies and adversaries that the United States stands by its commitments.”

The joint release of September 9 by Royce and Engel stated, “The safety and security of the residents has always been our primary concern, and they have now been effectively placed beyond the immediate reach of Iran and its terrorist proxies operating in Iraq. While the completion of this resettlement is good news, we know that attacks on Camp Liberty as well as Camp Ashraf cost far too many lives.”

Thirty-six former U.S. national security officials sent an open letter to President Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, on August 19, warning that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Ministry of Intelligence “will attack” Iranian dissidents in the near term. 

On August 2 the MOIS stated on its website, that it opposed the residents of Camp Liberty being allowed to leave Iraq.  

Senator McCain led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to unanimously approve S. CON. RES. 42, on July 14, 2016. It states, in part, that the United States would work with the Government of Iraq…  “to ensure that all residents of Camp Liberty are safely and expeditiously resettled in Albania.”

Tanter and Martin say that, “Because of such pressure, Baghdad had no choice but to permit the last groups of dissidents to depart. And the remaining residents departed Sep. 9, 2016. The good news: They are safe; the bad news: Although the tide has turned, resettlement requires resources to make up for hundreds of millions of dollars of their material assets denied to them when departing Iraq.”