The ‘Smoke’ Masking Iran’s Woes

A long established military tactic in warfare is using smoke to mask the movement/location of friendly forces from the enemy.  One of the earliest such uses was “Greek Fire” — a combination of an offensive incendiary flamethrower and defensive smoke screen.  Its use became a key factor in the Byzantine Empire’s successful defeat of the attempted 7th century conquest of Constantinople by Muslim fleets.   Ironically, today the tactic is being employed very effectively against us in the conduct of one Muslim country’s foreign policy.

Over the past several years, Iran has developed a Persian version of Greek Fire, repeatedly using a tactic to spark an incident creating “smoke” to screen what Tehran wishes us not to see.  Thus, whenever the heat from the international spotlight focusing on its nuclear program or domestic unrest gets too hot, Iran artfully employs “Persian Fire” to shift that focus elsewhere.   

We saw this happen in March 2007.  The international spotlight on Iran’s nuclear program caused Tehran to go out of its way to capture 15 British sailors in small boats after they had just inspected a merchant ship in the Persian Gulf.  Iran claimed the Brits were in Iranian waters, freely offering the coordinates where they were captured. When it was pointed out their coordinates plotted into Iraqi waters, Tehran re-submitted a new set that plotted into Iranian waters.  (Apparently, a country searching to create an international incident can freely do that.)  After lengthy negotiations, the Brits were released.  For a while, though, it served to take scrutiny off Iran’s nuclear program.

British sailors seem to be fair game for the Iranians as on December 1, five British sailors enroute to participate in a sailboat race were taken captive.  Helplessly adrift for ten hours due to a lack of wind, the boat was only 500 yards into Iranian waters when it was seized.  Rather than recognizing the law of the sea which seeks to help stranded mariners in such a situation, Iran threatens judicial action and “serious measures” if determined they had “evil intentions.”

In July, three American backpackers strayed over the border into Iran while hiking in the bordering mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.  They remain in confinement as Tehran toys with whether or not to bring espionage charges against them.  Whether Iran does so or not will be determined by whether it is useful to sacrifice these sailors to the Persian Fire game.

But the group suffering the most from Iran’s use of  Persian Fire is an Iranian opposition group known as MEK.  The group has a long bloody history with Iran’s mullahs.  Formed initially in opposition to the Shah and US influence in Iran, MEK took on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini soon after the cleric hijacked the 1979 revolution for democracy to install an extremist theocracy in Tehran.  Khomeini’s feud with MEK led to the deaths of thousands of MEK protestors in 1981, driving the group out of Iran to France.  Iranian pressure forced France to evict MEK in 1987.  Lacking a home, MEK was invited by Saddam Hussein to settle in Iraq — viewing the enemy of his enemy as his friend.  MEK established itself at Camp Ashraf, in northeastern Iraq along the Iranian border, from where it conducted periodic attacks into Iran. 

Astonishingly, despite MEK’s anti-Iranian mullah and pro-democracy stances, it was labeled a terrorist organization by the Clinton Administration in 1991 in an effort to curry favor with Iran’s mullahs, who were still committed to MEK’s destruction.  Following the US lead, the European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) also designated MEK a terrorist group.  This was done despite the fact the West was benefitting from MEK’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, which led to the discovery of Iran’s secret nuclear program. 

When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, MEK voluntarily surrendered, turning over their weapons and taking the initiative to stabilize the Iraqi population near Camp Ashraf.  As an occupying force, the US took on a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of MEK, which received “protected persons status” under the Geneva Conventions. 

The US assured MEK its protection would continue even after control of Iraq passed from Washington to Baghdad .  But earlier this year, as Iranians began demonstrating against the mullahs for stealing the presidential election from the Iranian people, Tehran resorted to its Persian Fire strategy again.  Iran’s Shi’ite government pressed Iraq’s Shi’ite government to start an international incident by closing Ashraf and expelling MEK.  In late July,  Iraqi security forces forcibly — with no prior warning or justification — took control of Camp Ashraf and several residents into custody, killing eleven in the process.  Only after many weeks of international protests were they released — still with no clear reason by Baghdad as to why they were seized in the first place.

With domestic unrest over the election in Iran recently gaining headlines again, Tehran again seeks to create a smoke screen by pressing Baghdad to cause problems for MEK.  If was for this reason Bagdad suddenly announced last week MEK would be moved to a former detention camp, Nuqrat al-Salman, in the middle of the Iraqi desert.  Strangely, no indication was given as to when this would happen — it was as if the sole purpose in making the announcement was only to stir up trouble.  A written statement by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made clear what lies ahead:  “Moving them to Nuqrat al-Salman is a step towards expelling them (from Iraq).”  Expulsion from Iraq, absent another country opening its doors to the 3500 MEK members, means but one thing — a return to Iran and certain death.

Ironically, what emboldens Iraq to act in Tehran’s interests is the US terrorist designation for MEK.  Interestingly, both the EU and UK have now de-listed MEK as a terrorist organization because it no longer meets the legal designation, having reformed itself.  The same is true of the US designation, which immediately needs to de-list it if we are to save MEK from Iranian persecution.

Meeting with Kurdish officials in Iraq recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to allay their anxiety over the eventual drawdown of US forces there.  He said, “We will preserve your security, prosperity and autonomy within a unified Iraq. We will not abandon you.”  A very similar promise by the US was made to another minority in Iraq — the MEK.  It is a promise now broken as the Persian Fire of Iran’s mullahs targets an MEK the US seems to have abandoned.


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