A question for Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic frontrunner (an absolute shoe-in, in fact) in the race to capture the seat in the U.S. Senate currently occupied by the Republican Peter Fitzgerald (the other held by the Democrat Richard Durbin): Under what circumstances would, say, the Government of Iran ever be justified in launching surgical strikes against U.S. territory?
Would it be on condition that the U.S. Government threatened to attack Iranian territory? Or would the U.S actually have to launch an attack on Iranian territory first, before the Iranians were justified in attacking the United States? But what if the U.S. Government imposed economic sanctions on Iran? Or supported a foreign state that threatened to attack Iranian territory, even supplying this foreign state with the weapons it required to launch such an attack? What if the U.S. militarily invaded and occupied a sovereign country that shared an international border with Iran? Would this give the Iranians the right under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to come to the aid of the people resisting the American invaders, even by opening a new theater in the war on American soil? Or what if, somewhere near the Iranian border, the U.S. maintained a terrorist organization the expressed goal of which was to destabilize life within Iran and, ultimately, to bring about a change of regime in Tehran?
Would one of these circumstances justify an Iranian attack on U.S. territory? At least two of them combined? Three?
How about all of them taken together?
These are not just academic questions, I’m afraid. Were the State of Illinois’ election for the U.S. Senate to be held this Sunday in late September, so convincing is Barack Obama’s lead in the polls that somewhere between six- and seven-in-ten registered Illinois Republicans would vote for Obama over their own party’s candidate, the unspeakable Alan Keyes. (John Chase, “State GOP wrestling for identity. Polls show far right failing to connect,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 26.)
(Between ourselves: I remain utterly mystified as to why this State’s Republican leadership bothered to invite this turkey, a resident of Maryland, of all places, to come to Illinois and replace its original candidate for the U.S. Senate, Jack Ryan. The same report in the Trib also tells us that the “survey showed that 94 percent of the voters who identified themselves as Republican are white, and only 2 percent are Hispanic, and another 2 percent are black. The rest declined to identify their race.”—Alan Keyes?)
Nor do these questions for Obama come out of nowhere, either: Their point of departure was a face-to-face meeting that the Chicago Tribune‘s editorial board sponsored with Obama on this past Friday, the 24th.
Here’s how the Trib set the scene (David Mendell, “Obama would consider missile strikes on Iran,” Sept. 25):
Iran announced on Tuesday [Sept. 21] that it has begun converting tons of uranium into gas, a crucial step in making fuel for a nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb. The International Atomic Energy Agency has called for Iran to suspend all such activities.
Obama said the United States must first address Iran’s attempt to gain nuclear capabilities by going before the United Nations Security Council and lobbying the international community to apply more pressure on Iran to cease nuclear activities. That pressure should come in the form of economic sanctions, he said.
But if those measures fall short, the United States should not rule out military strikes to destroy nuclear production sites in Iran, Obama said.
“The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?”
Given the continuing war in Iraq, the United States is not in a position to invade Iran, but missile strikes might be a viable option, he said. Obama conceded that such strikes might further strain relations between the U.S. and the Arab world.
“In light of the fact that we’re now in Iraq, with all the problems in terms of perceptions about America that have been created, us launching some missile strikes into Iran is not the optimal position for us to be in,” he said.
“On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse. So I guess my instinct would be to err on not having those weapons in the possession of the ruling clerics of Iran. … And I hope it doesn’t get to that point. But realistically, as I watch how this thing has evolved, I’d be surprised if Iran blinked at this point.”
Obama also expressed some thoughts on Pakistan. “Obama said that if President Pervez Musharraf were to lose power in a coup,” the Trib reported, “the United States similarly might have to consider military action in that country to destroy nuclear weapons it already possesses. Musharraf’s troops are battling hundreds of well-armed foreign militants and Pakistani tribesmen in increasingly violent confrontations.”
And Obama had an intriguing (to say the least) take on the nature of the wars the Americans have been fighting:
Obama said that violent Islamic extremists are a vastly different brand of foe than was the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and they must be treated differently.
“With the Soviet Union, you did get the sense that they were operating on a model that we could comprehend in terms of, they don’t want to be blown up, we don’t want to be blown up, so you do game theory and calculate ways to contain,” Obama said. “I think there are certain elements within the Islamic world right now that don’t make those same calculations.
“… I think there are elements within Pakistan right now–if Musharraf is overthrown and they took over, I think we would have to consider going in and taking those bombs out, because I don’t think we can make the same assumptions about how they calculate risks.”
Now. I can’t tell you exactly where in all of this Barack Obama’s own voice fades out (except for the actual quotes, that is), and where the Chicago Tribune‘s rendition of Obama’s voice fades in. The Trib‘s opening paragraph about Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency—that the IAEA “has called for Iran to suspend” its uranium enrichment activities—is accurate on its face but worthless as history. It tells us nothing about which state drives the IAEA’s agenda with respect to Iran. Much less why. Nor what the actual findings of numerous IAEA investigations of Iranian facilities have been. Nor how other states, both regional and global (i.e., Israel and the United States), conduct their affairs towards Iran.
But working from the presumption that the Chicago Tribune faithfully reported Barack Obama’s views on these issues, what we find in the next U.S. Senator from the State of Illinois is a man who is very much a creature of American Power; who regards America’s threat or use of violence not to be inherently menacing or problematic, but rather potentially good and just and necessary for the advancement of God-only-knows what kind of world order; and for whom the rights of other peoples and states are dissoluble according to the dictates of American Power. Indeed. For whom other peoples and states are looked down upon as evidence of their cultural or civilizational inferiority, and obstacles to the kind of world the Americans want. A world which, judging by Obama’s session with the Trib, is governed not by the rule of law but by the force of American arms.
For creatures of American Power, the only question that ever arises is, When is it okay for the Americans to do something violent and murderous to others? While other, perfectly reasonable questions—such as, When is someone else justified in doing something violent and murderous to the Americans?—never arise. Remain off-limits. Are strictly unaskable.
From my point of view, someone who takes the positions that Barack Obama expressed to the Chicago Tribune during last Friday’s meeting with its editorial board is unfit to serve in any high office of a state as powerful, as dangerous, and as menacing to the rest of the world as the United States is today.
Come the first Tuesday in November, Obama will win one of Illinois’ two seats in the U.S. Senate by a landslide.
God help the world.
“Barack Obama’s Speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations,” July 12, 2004
“Obama would consider missile strikes on Iran,” David Mendell, Chicago Tribune, September 25
“State GOP wrestling for identity: Poll shows far right failing to connect,” John Chase, Chicago Tribune, September 26
“Future of Iran opposition group held in Iraq hangs in balance,” Mohsen Asgara and Gareth Smyth, Financial Times, July 14, 2004
“Dissident Iranian group given special status by U.S.,” Joanne Laucius, Ottawa Citizen, July 27, 2004
“Iranian Exiles, On U.S. Terror List, Now Seeking Refuge from Iraq,” Farah Stockman, Boston Globe, July 28, 2004
“Why the US granted ‘protected’ status to Iranian terrorists,” Scott Peterson, Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 2004
“U.S. decision to protect exiled Iranian terrorists fuels speculation Pentagon is planning a new war,” Bruce Garvey, Ottawa Citizen, August 3, 2004
“Board Rules 4 Iranians Not a Threat,” H.G. Reza, Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2004
“Eying Iran Reactors, Israel Seeks U.S. Bunker Bombs,” Reuters, September 21, 2004
Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran (GOV/2004/60), IAEA, September 1, 2004
Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran (Resolution GOV/2004/79), IAEA Board of Governors, September 18, 2004
The “FTO List” and Congress: Sanctioning Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (RL32120), Audrey Kurth Cronin, Congressional Research Service, October 21, 2003
FYA (“For your archives”): Sometimes weblinks work. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they start out good but fail later on. Sometimes, the web-provider compels one to register—password and all—before a link will work. Sometimes money gets in the way. And so on. Anyway. Because it’s always a risk that some of the links I could provide won’t work for you, I’m depositing here five important articles from mainstream U.S., U.K., and Canadian newspapers on the U.S. Government’s maintenance of the anti-Tehran Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization, allegedly at a military encampment near Baghdad called Camp Ashraf, but also, apparently, in regions near the Iraqi border with Iran. According to numerous U.S. Government reports, the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization is an officially designated Foreign Terrorist Organization—one of the 37 to turn up in the pages of the State Department’s most recent Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003 report. (See Appendix B, “Background Information on Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” pp. 128-129.) So why is the U.S. Government maintaining a professed anti-Tehran—and, indeed, former ally of the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein—organization in occupied Iraqi territory, given the fact that the U.S. Government has in the past officially designated it a Foreign Terrorist Organization?
Financial Times (London, England)
July 14, 2004 Wednesday
London Edition 1
SECTION: MIDDLE EAST; Pg. 9
HEADLINE: Future of Iran opposition group held in Iraq hangs in balance
BYLINE: By MOHSEN ASGARI and GARETH SMYTH
A leading Iraqi politician reassured Iran this week that some 4,000 members of an Iranian opposition group detained by US forces in Iraq as prisoners of war had been recategorised by the new Iraqi government as refugees.
The reclassification could facilitate their repatriation to Iran, where they face an uncertain fate. The return of the Iranian opponents is being sought by Tehran but might be resisted by parts of the US administration.
Abdulaziz Hakim, leader of one of Iraq’s leading Shia Muslim parties, said he expected the new Iraqi government to expel the members of the group, known as the Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK).
However, US treatment of the group, which is listed as a “foreign terrorist organisation” by the State Department, has been shrouded in secrecy.
Iran’s leadership wants to try the MEK’s leaders for attacks that have killed hundreds of Iranian officials and badly wounded Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then president and now supreme leader, in a 1981 bombing.
When US forces overran the MEK’s three camps inside Iraq last year, they impounded the group’s Iraqi-supplied heavy weapons – including tanks – and gathered 4,000 members in camp Ashraf, the group’s headquarters 100km north of Baghdad.
But US forces allowed MEK to maintain its own discipline and organisation – in stark contrast to conditions at detention centres such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay – sparking speculation that the Pentagon wanted to use the group as a weapon against Iran, or as a bargaining chip to secure al-Qaeda figures held by Tehran.
Iraq’s Governing Council voted last year to expel the MEK but was overruled by Paul Bremer, then the chief US administrator.
US authorities in Baghdad recently made no response to repeated Financial Times inquiries about the MEK.
A US official in Washington denied there had ever been plans in the Pentagon to “utilise MEK members in any capacity, especially as a future opposition organisation in Iran”.
But a European diplomat told the FT that the Pentagon had “long toyed with the idea of using the MEK in some way against the regime in Iran”.
And an adviser to a former Governing Council member suggested that those in Iraq’s new government who wanted to expel the MEK had yet to win the battle.
Last year Tehran gave the US names of the senior MEK members, including its leader, Masoud Rajavi, it wants handed over, but it has also encouraged ordinary MEK members to return in peace.
Officials with the MEK in Europe have protested loudly at attempts to return any of the detained to Iran. They insist they would face torture or execution.
Rafat Yazdan-Parast of Nejat, a group established in Tehran by relatives of MEK members in Ashraf, denied this.
She said that 20 people who had returned to Iran after escaping from Ashraf had been debriefed over 24 hours by security officers at a Tehran hotel and then allowed to rejoin their families.
Kamand Ali Azizi, a man of 34 and a former MEK fighter, said he escaped from Ashraf in March: “There were towers with armed MEK guards, and an American military car doing the rounds outside the fence. We climbed the wire and then dropped, and eventually got home via Baghdad.”
Mr Azizi said that 1000 of the 4000 in Ashraf were held separately by the MEK because they had expressed a wish to return to Iran.
He said the US troops at Ashraf had no name tags on their uniforms – suggesting they were special forces.
July 27, 2004 Tuesday Final Edition
SECTION: News; Pg. A6
HEADLINE: Dissident Iranian group given special status by U.S.: Still considered terrorists, but Canadian members free to return home
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen; with files from Bloomberg
BYLINE: Joanne Laucius
The 3,800 members of an Iranian group that has been been battling Iran’s theocratic government from Iraq have been granted protected-person status by the United States under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, have been detained in Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad since May 2003 under “protective custody,” after giving themselves up to U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq.
The MEK also surrendered its weapons, which included almost 800 tanks, artillery pieces and armoured personnel carriers.
The decision to grant protected-person status affects 13 Canadian citizens now in Camp Ashraf, as well as 25 others who are permanent residents of Canada and 81 people who have links to Canada, says an Ottawa lawyer who represents the families of MEK members in Canada.
“It’s a huge development. It’s fantastic news,” said Warren Creates, who has been working for seven months on the case along with other lawyers from around the world.
“There has been a huge effort to get to this point,” he said. “It’s a pretty historic step.”
Families in Canada feared that MEK members would be used as a bargaining chip for the U.S. to trade for al-Qaeda members in Iran. Once in Iran, MEK members would face criminal charges and possibly torture and execution, the families argued.
Protected-persons recognition means MEK members can’t be removed from Iraq without their consent, said Mr. Creates.
It also means that restrictions on the members’ movement will be lifted, he said. Up until now, MEK members had limited rights to leave Ashraf, a town that covers an area of about 50 square kilometres.
As well, those who want to return to Canada will receive updated passports, said Mr. Creates.
Maj.-Gen. Geoffrey Miller, deputy commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq, sent a letter to MEK members in Camp Ashraf, congratulating them on being recognized as protected persons and commending them for “your patience and co-operation during this lengthy process.”
Ahmad Hassani of Ottawa, the father of 22-year-old MEK member Ali Hassani, said the protected-persons designation sends a message to the world.
“Finally, the world has understood what we have been saying all along about their motive and their behaviour,” he said yesterday. “They’re fighting for freedom and individual rights.”
Ali Hassani was born in Iran, but came to Canada with his family when he was four. He became involved with MEK in Iraq about four years ago at 18.
“He decided he wanted to go there and see first-hand,” said Mr. Hassani.
In June 2003, Ali Hassani’s sister, Meda Hassani, then 26, died after setting herself on fire outside the French embassy in London while protesting the arrest in France of Maryam Rajavi, the MEK’s co-leader.
While in Iraq, Ali Hassani has studied law and produced a television music program. He has decided to remain in the country, said his father.
The U.S. considers the MEK to be a terrorist group — which Canada does not.
U.S. sources said yesterday that the decision does not change the MEK’s status as a designated terrorist organization.
The MEK has been fighting the Iranian government for 39 years. The U.S. State Department, in classifying the MEK as a terrorist group, cites a series of attacks against the Iranian government dating to the 1970s, when the U.S. backed the regime of Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran.
The Boston Globe
July 28, 2004, Wednesday THIRD EDITION
SECTION: NATIONAL/FOREIGN; Pg. A9
HEADLINE: IRANIAN EXILES, ON US TERROR LIST, NOW SEEKING REFUGE FROM IRAQ
BYLINE: By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON US officials have asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help resettle members of an Iranian rebel group living in exile in Iraq, even though the United States classifies the group as a terrorist organization.
Members of the Mujahedin-E-Khalq organization, who live in a US-protected encampment north of Baghdad, fear persecution in Iran, but find themselves increasingly unwelcome in Iraq.
One option is to try to resettle them voluntarily in a third country. Another is application for residency or asylum in Iraq but Iraqi leaders have long been hoping to expel them. A third is to repatriate them to Iran, with written assurances from Tehran that they will not be persecuted, said a US official based in Washington.
The US government’s treatment of the 3,800-member group, which fled to Iraq after advocating the violent overthrow of Iran’s regime, has often been contradictory over the years mirroring deep divisions in Washington over US policy towards Iran itself.
In 1997, the State Department put Mujahedin-E-Khalq on its list of terrorist groups for attacks it committed in the 1970s against US and Iranian officials. Some saw that move as a US gesture to improve long-frayed ties with Iran. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979, when a revolution led to the overthrow of Iran’s pro-US leader, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and revolutionaries took US diplomats hostage.
But the terrorist designation of the group did not warm relations between the United States and Iran. Mujahedin-E-Khalq, meanwhile, intensely lobbied Congress to oppose the designation and gained widespread support as freedom fighters against clerical rule. The group’s political arm, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, received statements of support at a rally in 2000 from hundreds of members of Congress, including John Ashcroft, then a senator from Missouri.
In 2003, the group provided previously undisclosed details of Iran’s secret nuclear program to the world. But the State Department forced it to close its offices in Washington because of the terror designation.
The inconsistent approach to the group reflects a debate in Washington about how to deal with Iran, which has built up unprecedented influence in the region in the last three years. US officials contend that Iran harbors nuclear ambitions and supports alleged terror groups in the region, including the Lebanon- based Hezbollah movement.
Pressure has mounted in recent weeks to decide how to handle Iran, after the 9/11 Commission reported that hijackers passed through Iran without their passports being stamped.
Conservatives in the administration advocate a hard line. They support Iranian opposition groups; some even advocate arming the Mujahedin-E-Khalq to fight the Tehran regime. And the hawks want to pressure the international community to bring Iran to the Security Council for possible international sanctions due to Iran’s secrecy about its nuclear program and noncompliance with international agreements.
But another camp in Washington including some at the State Department contends that the US should explore ways to engage Iran and convince Tehran to make nuclear concessions.
Specialists say the debate has left US policy on Iran at a stalemate. “I think the administration has come to a crossroads in its Iran policy and doesn’t really know what to do, because threats and intimidation and name-calling has brought it nowhere,” said Daniel Brumberg, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a liberal think tank.
“We have no Iran policy,” said Michael Ladeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Meanwhile, the fate of the Mujahedin-E-Khalq remains in limbo.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said members of the group have been determined to be “protected persons” or noncombatants under the Geneva Conventions, but that the group itself is still classified as a terrorist organization.
Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a public affairs officer for the US military in Iraq, said in an email to the Globe, “The UNHCR has been asked to consider the status of the people there.” Johnson also said the International Committee of the Red Cross had also been asked “to determine the status and desires” of the members of the group, who voluntarily surrendered their heavy weapons when the US invaded Iraq.
Peter Kessler, spokesman for the UN refugee agency in Geneva, said he had not yet heard about a US request for involvement in the case. But Kessler said that if such a request were made, the International Committee of the Red Cross would first have to determine if the group fell under its jurisdiction as former combatants.
Those who were not deemed “former combatants” would be considered, on a case-by-case basis, for refugee status by the UN refugee agency, Kessler said.
“If we determined that one or some or however many might be refugees, perhaps the government of Iraq might want to keep them in refugee camps,” Kessler said. “If for some other reason that’s not possible, other countries might be sought to resettle them.”
Which country would freely accept members of a group that remains on the State Department’s terrorism list remains to be seen.
“They have a well-founded fear of persecution in Iran. Iraq doesn’t want them,” said one Washington-based US official. “It’s a conundrum.”
Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)
July 29, 2004, Thursday
SECTION: WORLD; Pg. 07
HEADLINE: Why the US granted ‘protected’ status to Iranian terrorists
BYLINE: By Scott Peterson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The US State Department officially considers a group of 3,800 Marxist Iranian rebels – who once killed several Americans and was supported by Saddam Hussein – “terrorists.”
But the same group, under American guard in an Iraqi camp, was just accorded a new status by the Pentagon: “protected persons” under the Geneva Convention.
This strange twist, analysts say, underscores the divisions in Washington over US strategy in the Middle East and the war against terrorism. It’s also a function of the swiftly deteriorating US-Iran dynamic, and a victory for US hawks who favor using the Mujahideen-e Khalq Organization (MKO) or “People’s Holy Warriors,” as a tool against Iran’s clerical regime.
“How is it that [the MKO] get the Geneva Convention, and the people in Guantanamo Bay don’t get it? It’s a huge contradiction,” says Ali Ansari, a British expert on Iran. “This will be interpreted in Iran as another link in the chain of the US determination to move onto Iran next” in the US war on terror.
For months, Tehran has quietly signaled that it would turn over high-ranking Al Qaeda members in exchange for MKO members now in Iraq. The MKO’s new status likely puts an end to any such deal.
The shift also comes as momentum builds in Washington to take some action against the Islamic republic. Wednesday, it was reported that Tehran has broken United Nations inventory seals and may resume work on constructing centrifuges – the machines used for enriching uranium.
Senior European diplomats – who brokered a private deal with Iran last October that included halting suspected nuclear weapons programs, in exchange for Western nuclear power expertise – are expected to secretly meet Iranian counterparts Thursday in London or Paris to see what can be salvaged of their agreement.
“US-Iran relations are drifting into very dangerous waters at the moment,” says Mr. Ansari.
Indeed, the Pentagon decision comes amid a string of critical reports about Iran that are causing some US lawmakers to wonder whether the Bush administration’s action against Iraq should have been aimed instead at Iran.
But some analysts see the change as related to the US presidential election. “This whole dynamic is tied up with [US] domestic politics…and not about the MKO itself, which is not really a major threat to Iran anymore,” says Mohamed Hadi Semati, a political scientist from Tehran University now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“The neocons were losing ground, and this new Iran bashing is seen by them as an opportunity to drum up the theme of terror and the possibility of a collision with Iran – therefore, you need a very decisive leader in the White House,” says Mr. Semati. “At the same time, Iran is giving a lot of ammunition to [Bush administration hawks on Iran].”
The Mujahideen is a cultish Marxist group that was ordered to leave Iraq last December by the US-appointed Iraqi leadership, which decried the “black history of this terrorist organization.” The expulsion was never carried out.
A website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran – the MKO’s political wing – on Sunday quoted its exiled leader Maryam Rajavi as saying the US decision was a “triumph for the Iranian Resistance and the Iranian people.”
The MKO, which would like to topple the Islamic regime in Tehran, says they would establish a more democratic, secular government.
The MKO is not known to have conducted any anti-US attacks, according to the US State Department, since assassinating several Americans in the 1970s.
While hosted by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, MKO militants stood shoulder to shoulder with their hosts during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s – a choice that permanently damaged their standing among most Iranians.
In Iraq itself, the MKO played important roles in the violent suppression of Kurdish and Shiite uprisings in 1991 and 1999 – actions that still grate with Iraq’s new leadership.
US forces bombed MKO camps during the Iraq invasion, then made a cease-fire deal. Last August, the US forced the MKO to close its offices in Washington.
The State Department says it does not plan take the MKO off its terrorism list. But a July 21 memo from Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the US deputy commander in Iraq, told the MKO the decision “sends a strong signal and is a powerful first step on the road to your final individual disposition,” according to a copy quoted by The New York Times.
Militants in the camp signed a statement renouncing violence and terrorism. In the memo, General Miller said he was “writing to congratulate each individual living in Camp Ashraf” of their status.
Tehran, which has demanded either the prosecution of MKO members or their handover to Iran, responded angrily.
“We already knew that America was not serious in fighting terrorism,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on Tuesday, adding that the US had now created a new category of “good terrorists.” “The American resort to the Geneva Conventions to support the terrorist hypocrites [MKO] is naieve and unacceptable.”
The changing status of the MKO is little surprise to some experts.
“The [terrorism] designation process is often hijacked for political purposes, and may shift with the wind,” says Magnus Ranstorp, head of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
“Your enemy’s enemy is your friend,” says Mr. Ranstorp. “And certainly since the Iraq conflict, the MKO has gravitated toward a more serious category, because of political expediency.”
That expediency appears to be part of a growing cascade of anti-Iran sentiment in the US that some say could eventually lead to military action. Among the signals: The Sept. 11 Commission report found that perhaps half of the 9/11 hijackers passed through Iran without having their passports stamped, though they may have crossed without official knowledge.
Some US and Iraqi officials – facing continued bloodshed and chaos in Iraq – accuse Iran of intervening to undermine the US occupation and the new “sovereign” Iraqi leadership.
Questions remain about the true intentions of Iran’s nuclear power effort, which the US accuses of being a front for a weapons program. Several senior Al Qaeda members remain – in custody, according to Iranian officials – in Iran.
And Europeans – once supportive of constructive engagement with Iran – have been taken aback by Iranian waffling on nuclear inspections, the rejection of thousands of candidates from elections last February, and the spectacle of British sailors arrested last month.
In Washington earlier this month, Republican senators introduced the “Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004,” a $ 10 million measure to support pro-democracy groups and broadcasting. Tehran responded that “those who draft such plans lag behind the times, they live in their daydreams.”
In a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, several Iran experts have called for a limited re-engagement with Iran. They say that lack of any official contact with Iran for 25 years has harmed US interests.
But British historian Ansari says, “At the moment, I would lay more blame on the Iranians, because they are in a position of strength…and should now seize the initiative and make bold and constructive suggestions.” He adds, “they’re not doing anything… they are miscalculating.”
Meanwhile, the MKO may have its own model to follow, and use its “protected” status as a springboard. “They are trying desperately to set themselves up as Iran’s equivalent of the Iraqi National Congress,” says Ansari, referring to the Iraqi opposition group led by former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi. “The Iranians will be aware that the Americans are trying to keep them as a potential INC.”
August 3, 2004 Tuesday Final Edition
SECTION: News; Pg. A1
HEADLINE: U.S. decision to protect exiled Iranian terrorists fuels speculation Pentagon is planning a new war
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
BYLINE: Bruce Garvey
A Pentagon decision last week to place an exiled group of captive Iranian “terrorists” in Iraq under the protection of the Geneva Convention is fuelling intense speculation that Iran is moving to dead-centre as a future American military target in the Middle East.
The surprise Pentagon move comes as pressure is beginning to build — in the U.S. and Europe — for some kind of action against Iran as evidence mounts that the Islamic republic is determined to build a nuclear weapon and may be only months away from doing so.
Currently, the 3,800-strong exiled group in question — which includes a handful of Canadian citizens and residents — is under American guard in a camp in Ashraf, north of Baghdad.
Many observers are interpreting the decision to afford the group “protected-person status” under the Geneva Convention, as a sign that Middle East “hawks” in the Bush administration regard the Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK) as potentially playing the role of front-line insurgents in any future action against Iran.
Such a role would be similar to that filled by Northern Alliance fighters in the Afghanistan war against the Taliban.
And they warn that such a plan could turn out to be “a huge mistake … a deal with the devil.”
Says John Thompson, president of the Toronto-based McKenzie Institute: “The regime in Iran deserves to be toppled and it is going to have to go. If we ever do get a suitcase from Allah via Hezbollah or Hamas, it will have been Iran who supplied the bomb. “But making a deal with the MEK is stupid — it’s the CIA screwing up again.”
Calling the Pentagon decision a “strange twist,” the Christian Science Monitor last week termed it a product of “the swiftly deteriorating U.S.-Iran dynamic,” which underscored “divisions in strategy” in Washington over the war on terror.
And the newspaper quoted Ali Ansari, a British expert on Iran: “How is it that the MEK get the Geneva Convention and the people in Guantanamo Bay don’t get it? It’s a huge contradiction. This will be interpreted in Iran as another link in the chain of U.S. determination to move onto Iran next. U.S.-Iran relations are drifting into very dangerous waters at the moment.”
The Pentagon decision came just days before Iran admitted on Saturday that it has broken United Nations inspectors’ inventory seals on nuclear research equipment and is resuming work on constructing centrifuges. Such machines can be used to produce the enriched uranium needed to build a bomb.
The news, which had been rumoured earlier in the week, sent European diplomats scrambling to meet with officials from Tehran in London or Paris in an attempt to save a deal under which the Iranians agreed to halt suspected weapons research in exchange for western nuclear power expertise.
The MEK faction in Iraq is a cultish Islamic-Marxist hybrid that lost out in the battle for power in Tehran following the exile of the Shah and subsequently the death of the Ayatollah Khomeni. Bitterly opposed to the current Islamic regime, the group fled into Iraq and was welcomed by Saddam Hussein.
The MEK supported Mr. Saddam in the bloody Iraq-Iran war and has campaigned for a more democratic and secular government to replace the religious hardliners in Tehran ever since.
It actively supported Mr. Saddam’s harsh repression of rebellions by Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites and is regarded with contempt by the new American-imposed Iraqi government.
When the U.S. invaded Iraq, it bombed MEK camps before signing a ceasefire deal with its leadership and placing its rank and file in the Ashraf camp under protective custody. The MEK surrendered its arsenal of 800 tanks, artillery pieces, and armoured personnel carriers.
The current Iraqi government has ordered the MEK to leave Iraq but has never moved to enforce the expulsion. At the same time, the regime in Tehran had been pursuing a deal to exchange MEK leaders for al-Qaeda suspects it claims it is holding under arrest in Iran. The Pentagon decision to afford Geneva Convention protection to the group would effectively remove either of these options and this week was enthusiastically greeted by the MEK’s political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its leader Maryam Rajavi, who was quoted as calling it a “triumph for the Iranian resistance and the Iranian people.”
Currently there are 13 Canadian citizens, 25 permanent Canadian residents, and 81 others with links to Canada, in the Ashraf camp. News of the Geneva Convention status was a “fantastic and historic step,” according to Warren Creates a lawyer representing their families here.
The families had feared that their MEK relatives would be traded for al-Qaeda members held in Tehran, where they would be subject to criminal trials, torture, and even execution.
Their new status means they cannot be shipped out of Iraq without their consent. Currently plans are under way to issue new passports to any Canadian citizens who wish to return here.
While the U.S. State Department considers MEK a terrorist group, Canada does not. MEK has recruited and held fundraising events in Canada for years. “We don’t regard them as a terrorist organization so it would be legal,” said Mr. Thompson.
“I know they’ve held fundraising events in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal –relatively unsophisticated activity, passing out pamphlets and passing the tin cup. That kind of thing.”
One young Iranian-Canadian recruited in Ottawa, Ali Hassani, is the brother of Meda Hassani, who attracted worldwide attention last year when she died by setting herself on fire in London protesting the arrest of MEK leader Maryam Rajavi.
Their father Ahmad Hassani welcomed the news of Geneva Convention protection and told the Citizen: “Finally the world has understood what we have been saying all along about their (MEK) motives and their behaviour. They’re fighting for freedom and individual rights.”
Many international observers, however, see the Geneva Convention decision as politically inspired.
“This whole dynamic is tied up with domestic politics and not about the MEK itself, which is not really a major threat to Iran anymore,” Mohamed Hadi Semati told the Christian Science Monitor.
Mr. Semati, a political scientist from Tehran University, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, added: “The neo-cons were losing ground and this new Iran-bashing is seen by them as an opportunity to drum up the theme of terror and the possibility of a collision with Iran — therefore you need a very decisive leader in the White House. At the same time Iran is giving a lot of ammunition to the hawks.”
Magnus Ranstorp, head of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew’s University, Scotland, told the Christian Science Monitor: “The terrorist designation process is often hijacked for political purposes and may shift with the wind. … Your enemy’s enemy is your friend. And certainly since the Iraq conflict the MEK has gravitated towards a more serious category, because of political expediency.”
The revelation this week by the 9/11 commission that several of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackers travelled through Iran without having their passports stamped, only added to the rising tide of anti-Iranian sentiment in Washington, D.C., where many lawmakers are suggesting that Tehran might well have been a more appropriate target for regime change than Baghdad.
Not surprisingly, the Tehran government denounced MEK’s new status.
“We already knew that America was not serious in fighting terrorism,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Rea Asefi, claiming that the U.S. had in effect created a new political entity — “good terrorists.”
“The American resort to the Geneva Conventions to support the terrorist hypocrites is naive and unacceptable.”
While holding out the possibility that the decision could merely be a device to permit an MEK surrender “without packing them off to prison,” Mr. Thompson in Toronto scorned any American dealings with the group.
“These are the bad guys, a group you really don’t want to deal with,” he said, “They’re a combination of Islam and Marxism that’s a rough equivalent of a merger of Nazism and Communism. They’ve been out of touch with Iran for 25 years, since the days of the Shah and Ayatollah, and the type of government they would produce is not one that anyone would want to live under or would appeal to many Iranians.”
Los Angeles Times
August 25, 2004 Wednesday
SECTION: CALIFORNIA; Metro; Metro Desk; Part B; Pg. 5
HEADLINE: Region & State;
Board Rules 4 Iranians Not a Threat;
Immigration appeals panel calls evidence of brothers’ terrorism ties inconclusive. The men, held since 2001, may be sent to another country.
BYLINE: H.G. Reza, Times Staff Writer
Four brothers jailed for almost three years for allegedly supporting terrorists are not a danger to national security and cannot be deported to Iran, an immigration appeals board has ruled.
But it was a bittersweet victory for the Mirmehdis — Mohammed, Mostafa, Mohsen and Mojtaba — who were arrested Oct. 2, 2001, and are also challenging Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft’s decision to hold them without bail. The brothers had worked in real estate in the San Fernando Valley before their arrests.
Evidence tying the Mirmehdis to terrorism was inconclusive, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled. Federal prosecutors had argued that the brothers’ support of the Moujahedeen Khalq — or MEK, an Iranian opposition group that was on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations — made them a national security threat.
“Collectively, 12 years of their lives have been wasted because they’ve been locked up,” said their attorney, Stacy Tolchin. “Their lives have been ruined over nothing. This shows that the government’s war on terrorism has been transformed into a war against civil liberties and free speech.”
In the decision, the board upheld the decisions of two immigration judges who said the Mirmehdis would be persecuted if returned to Iran, but at the same time the panel agreed with the government that they did not qualify for political asylum, because they lied on their applications for asylum in 1999.
“We are still in limbo,” said Mohsen Mirmehdi.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether the Mirmehdis should be released on bail while their immigration case is being argued.
The case stems from the brothers’ support of the MEK, which was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. In the 1990s, the MEK had a lobbying office in Washington, and the group’s members were called freedom fighters and supported by dozens of lawmakers, including then-Sen. Ashcroft (R-Mo.). Before he became U.S. attorney general, Ashcroft continued supporting the group even after the State Department declared it a terrorist organization.
The Mirmehdis attended MEK political rallies before it was identified as a terrorist group. The government has been trying to deport them since 1999, when they falsely stated they had entered the country legally. But immigration judges blocked their deportations on grounds that they would be tortured if forced to return to Iran.
Tolchin said the brothers were “dispirited by the [appeals board] decision because they want full vindication.” But she said the Mirmehdis also won a partial victory because the government’s failure to tie them to terrorism “means they aren’t a danger to national security.”
In a decision filed Friday but made public Tuesday, board member Lauri S. Filppu wrote “we can find no evidence in the record, despite the seemingly extensive government investigation, that directly connects” Mohsen Mirmehdi to terrorism. The panel concluded that the government also failed to tie the other brothers to terrorists.
Tolchin said the ruling means the Mirmehdis could legally be freed from custody within 90 days. She said she will attempt to negotiate an agreement with Homeland Security Department officials for their release.
However, Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, said the agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, will instead try to find a third country that will accept the Mirmehdis.
“The ruling doesn’t mean that they will be released; only that we cannot return them to Iran. We have a 90-day removal period to find an alternate country that will accept them,” Van Pelt said.
Tolchin said U.S. officials continue to treat the Mirmehdis as terrorists, despite their “constant denials that they are not terrorists and the government’s failure to prove that they are.”
Immigration judges ruled two years ago that the brothers’ participation in MEK rallies was protected by the constitutional right of free speech.
The panel found that U.S. prosecutors failed to show that the Mirmehdis had engaged in terrorist activities.
“First, the immigration board says we are a national security risk, then they say we are not terrorists. But nothing has changed for us,” said Mohsen Mirmehdi, in a telephone interview from the immigration detention center in San Pedro. “The new ruling means we have been [in custody] for no reason. We could’ve been released two years ago while our immigration cases continued.”
Mostafa, 44, arrived in the U.S. in 1978. Mojtaba, 41, and Mohsen, 36, arrived together in 1992. Mohammed, 31, got here in 1993. After their 1999 arrests, Mohsen, Mostafa and Mojtaba were each released on $50,000 bail in August 1999 while their deportation case continued. Mohammed was released on $75,000 bail in September 2000.
They were arrested again in October 2001, after authorities determined there were “changed circumstances” in their case. The brothers tried to again secure release on bail, but were denied by an immigration judge who cited Ashcroft’s claim that they were national security risks.
The Mirmehdis’ case has been heard by several immigration law judges, a U.S. magistrate judge and a U.S. district court judge. They have hired at least four sets of attorneys in an effort to obtain release on bond.
“The board’s decision was right and just,” Tolchin said. “But the Mirmehdis are still locked up and their disappointment continues.”