Is Iran serious in threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz or is this simply saber-rattling? Whatever the motives, inaction is not an option – not any more.
Fearful of the impact of expanded U.S. sanctions, Iran’s first vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi told the official news agency IRNA on Dec. 27, “If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz.” This could spell disaster for the whole region as skyrocketing oil prices would wreak havoc on the global economy.
In any contingency planning, it is imperative to establish who our allies are and who our foes are. My firsthand experience tells me that the best-organized, formidable opponents of Tehran, a group known as Mujahedin-e-Khalq, could be quite helpful. Yet our attitude toward the group has been misguided.
During my first tour in Iraq in 2003, I first learned of the existence of a group of Iranians seeking democracy in Iran. I researched the group; interestingly, women played a vital role and held a majority of the senior leadership positions. I deployed my military police brigade to Iraq during Christmas 2003 and assumed responsibility for many missions: the rebuilding of the Iraqi police and protecting that very group of Iranians I had read about, a group the State Department had listed as a foreign terrorist organization.
I was there when they consolidated at Camp Ashraf, their home in Iraq, when all 3,400 members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, male and female, were biometrically identified, thoroughly investigated and personally interviewed by a Joint Interagency Task Force and a board of officers adjudicating each case. Did we find terrorists, criminals, undesirables among the several thousand men and women living at Camp Ashraf? No. Not one was identified as having links to any criminal acts.
Following the conclusion of the investigation into the background of the residents of Camp Ashraf, I was given the mission to inform Mujahedin-e-Khalq leadership that they were now classified as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention and that my unit was charged with their safety and security – a mission which, to this day I take very seriously and still feel morally responsible for.
I really had to step back and wonder why are they identified as terrorists. What have they done? My soldiers repeatedly asked the same question. I tried very hard to find some credible evidence, a substantiated allegation, some overt or covert criminal act, anything as to why this group was designated as a foreign terrorist organization. I could not, nor could my staff. The group espouses democracy, freedom and especially equal rights for women. And this wasn’t just their propaganda or rhetoric. I witnessed it firsthand, spending a significant amount of time living and working at Camp Ashraf from 2003 until early 2005 and again in 2007 and 2008.
I brought other senior leaders of the coalition forces to Camp Ashraf in order to raise the issue. Each was stunned by what they discovered. They didn’t find a terrorist camp, but instead a small self-sustaining city.
After we handed over the security of Camp Ashraf to the Iraq government, the miseries of the residents began. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, at the behest of Iran, violently attacked the camp twice in 2009 and 2011, killing 47 defenseless residents and wounding more than 1,000.
Pressured by Iran, the Iraqi government vowed to close Camp Ashraf by year’s end and disperse the residents to other camps in Iraq. That was tantamount to their immediate or phased massacre. As the deadline loomed last week, under extensive international pressure, Mr. Maliki finally relented. He publicly announced the extension of the deadline for six months, although his forces still hold the residents at gunpoint.
Maryam Rajavi, the charismatic leader of the Iranian resistance, campaigned tirelessly for a peaceful solution to the Camp Ashraf crisis. I personally witnessed her determined efforts to save the lives of residents, one of whom is her very own daughter. Her active intervention persuaded the residents to agree in principle to relocate to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near Baghdad International Airport. They would remain there until the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees could resettle them outside of Iraq.
Having received the assurances from the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Iraq, Martin Kobler, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mrs. Rajavi announced Dec. 28 that as a gesture of goodwill, 400 residents are prepared to go to Camp Liberty with their moveable property and vehicles at the first opportunity. The relocation is a test of the Iraqi government’s attitude toward the commitments it has given to the United Nations and the United States.
Yet, the threat is still very real. Camp Ashraf has come under repeated rocket attacks in the past few days by forces thought to be affiliated with the Iranian regime. The U.N. has mentioned the attacks to the Iraqi authorities, who confirmed that these attacks did indeed take place.
In order to prevent another violent attack by undisciplined Iraqi troops or terrorists against the unarmed residents of Camp Ashraf, minimum guarantees for safety and protection are necessary.
First, they should be able to move to Camp Liberty with their own vehicles and moveable properties, the falsified and forged arrest warrants against the residents should be annulled, and antagonists should be separated by barring the presence of Iraqi police inside the residential areas of Camp Liberty, specifically the ones for women and girls.
The 3,400 residents of Camp Ashraf were given a promise of protection. We must stand by that commitment. We must stress the requirement for these minimum guarantees in fulfillment of our promise.
Abandoning the residents of Camp Ashraf to the horrific whims of the current theocratic Iranian regime, after our promise to protect them, is counter to all of our values. And from the geopolitical perspective, in facing Iran’s rising threat, it is time to see the Mujahedin-e-Khalq and residents of Ashraf for what they are: a trustworthy ally.
By Brig. Gen. David Phillips, the former commandant of the Army Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and former commander of all police operations in Iraq, which included the protection of Camp Ashraf.