After American forces leave Iraq at the end of 2011, Tehran will try to turn its neighbor into a satrapy, i.e., a satellite state, to the great detriment of Western, moderate Arab and Israeli interests. Intense Iranian efforts are under way already, with Tehran sponsoring militias in Iraq and sending its own forces into Iraqi border areas. Baghdad responds with weakness, its chief of staff proposing a regional pact with Iran and top politicians ordering attacks on the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MeK), an Iranian dissident organization with 3,400 members residing in Camp Ashraf, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. The MeK issue reveals Iraqi subservience to Iran with special clarity. Note some recent developments:
On April 7, the MeK released intelligence exposing Iran’s growing capacity to enrich uranium, a revelation the Iranian foreign minister quickly confirmed.
On April 8, even as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Iraq, the country’s armed forces attacked Ashraf. Fox News and CNN footage shows Iraqis in U.S.-supplied armored personnel carriers, Humvees and bulldozers running down unarmed residents as sharpshooters shoot at them, killing 34 people and injuring 325. The top-secret plan-to-attack order of the Iraqi military, Iraqi Security Forces Operation Order No. 21, Year 2011, reveals how Baghdad sees the Ashraf residents as “the enemy,” suggesting collusion between Baghdad and Tehran.
This incident took place despite fresh pledges by Baghdad to treat the Iranian dissidents humanely and to protect them. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry rightly described the attack as a “massacre,” while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean called the Iraqi prime minister a “mass murderer.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “condemned” the attack, and the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) expressed “deep concern.”
On April 11, the adviser for military affairs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, according to a news report, “praised the Iraqi army for its recent attack on the strongholds of [the MeK] and asked Baghdad to continue attacking the terrorist base until its destruction.”
On April 24, despite United Nations’ insistence that “Camp Ashraf residents be protected from forcible deportation, expulsion or repatriation,” Baghdad and Tehran signed an extradition agreement, which state-controlled Iranian media interpret as a mechanism to transfer MeK members forcibly to Iran, where they anticipate a horrific fate.
Iraqi maltreatment of Iranian dissidents both raises humanitarian concerns and points to the MeK’s larger importance as a mechanism to thwart the U.S. goal of minimizing Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
That said, Washington, which granted “protected persons” status to the Ashraf residents in 2004 in exchange for their surrendering of arms – bears partial responsibility for the attacks on Ashraf. In 1997, it threw a sop to Tehran and, contrary to both fact and law, wrongly listed – and continues to list – the MeK as a foreign terrorist organization.
Baghdad exploits this terrorist tag. For example, Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, reports that “in private discussions, the Iraqi ambassador’s office has said the blood is not on the hands of the Iraqi government but is at least partially on the hands of the State Department because the MeK is listed as a terrorist group, and accordingly, Iraq doesn’t feel that it has to respect the human rights of those in the camp.” The terrorist designation also offers Baghdad a pretext to expel Ashraf’s residents and possibly extradite them to Iran.
At this time of crisis, how to achieve Mr. Kerry’s call for “all the relevant parties … to seek a peaceful and durable solution”? Some recommendations:
The U.S. government should delist the MeK as a terrorist organization, following the wishes of a large bipartisan majority in Congress, President Obama’s former national security adviser and of prominent Republicans.
The European Union should impose economic sanctions on Iraq if Baghdad continues to block an EU parliamentary delegation from visiting Ashraf. (The EU is Iraq’s second-largest trading partner.)
The United Nations should station a UNAMI Iraq delegation in Ashraf, guarded by a small U.S. force, to deter future Iraqi attacks and fulfill the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights’ demand for “a full, independent and transparent inquiry” into the Ashraf assault so that “any person found responsible for use of excessive force” can be prosecuted.
Now is the time to act urgently on Camp Ashraf – a bellwether of growing Iranian influence over Iraq – before Tehran turns Iraq into a satrapy.
By Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.