America's Obligations to Protect the Iranian Opposition

During the 2003 Iraq invasion, U.S. forces bombed and then disarmed members of the MEK — Mujahedeen-e Khalq — an Iranian opposition group that had been given refuge in Iraq. Now under U.S. protection in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, MEK members face a bleak future if U.S. forces hand over control of the base to the Iraqi government or withdraw precipitously from Iraq. The U.S. government has obligations under the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law refugees cannot be dispersed to a country where they would face persecution — to protect the MEK.

The U.S. military provided protection but is under pressure by the Iranian regime and its allies in Iraq to allow the Government of Iraq to provide security for the MEK or the PMOI — People’s Mojahedin of Iran. But Baghdad is beholden to Tehran: Rather than protect the Iranian oppositionists, Iraqi security forces may choose to assassinate, slaughter, or kidnap them for transfer to Iran where public hangings await them.

An Iraqi government spokesman, Abbas Bayati told the Az-Zaman daily on July 8 that “The presence of the Mojahedin Organization in Iraq is illegal. We will ask the US to put Camp Ashraf, the PMOI’s bastion at the control of the Iraqi government.” The reporter asked, “But the US Embassy spokesman in Baghdad has said that they are internationally protected persons,” Bayati replied, “It is us who determine this, not the American Embassy, because we are a sovereign country…”

Focusing on activities of the MEK with Iraqi moderates against radical Shiites and Sunnis, a news service for the Iranian regime — the Mehr News Agency — on 9 July 2008 accused “the terrorist Monafeqin grouplet’s [of] interference in Iraq’s internal affairs,” and stated that the Iraqi Foreign Minister reported the group would be expelled.

Research by the Iran Policy Committee (IPC) shows that the legal status of Iranian citizens at Camp Ashraf, Iraq under the Fourth Geneva Convention, precludes their involuntary transfer or dispersal. The Convention provides protections against the forcible transfer of protected persons and deems violations of the forcible transfer provisions to be “grave breaches,” i.e., war crimes.

The people of Ashraf City have Protected Persons status under Article 4 of Geneva IV. Consider a 21 July 2004 letter from Major General Geoffrey Miller, Deputy Commanding General of the Multi-National Force–Iraq, to People of Ashraf:

I am writing to congratulate each individual living in Camp Ashraf on their recognition as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Even after a permanent Iraqi government was elected in January 2005, Multi-National Force-Iraq reiterated that provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention continue to apply to residents of Ashraf. On 16 February 2006, Major General John D. Gardner, then-MNFI’s Deputy Commanding General wrote:

The Multi-National Force-Iraq appreciates our responsibilities with regard to the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Civilian Persons (GCIV), 1949… The Coalition remains deeply committed to the security and rights of the protected people of Ashraf and the principle of non-refoulement [refugees cannot be dispersed to a country where they would face persecution].

And as recently as March 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross reminded the relevant authorities involved “of their obligations to act in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement, when transferring persons to another State or authority.” The same year, United Nations High Commission for Refugees reiterated that “bodies of international law, particularly international humanitarian law and human rights law have positive relevance to the Ashraf situation and could confer protections on individuals who fear serious risks if returned to their country of origin.” As such, UNHCR cautioned competent Iraqi authorities and MNF-I “to refrain from any action that could endanger the life or the security of these individuals, such as their forcible deportation from Iraq or their forced displacement inside Iraq.”  

The Iraqi government cannot credibly give undertakings in observing rights of the residents of Ashraf, in view of hostile remarks and actions by its officials and government agencies, including the suspension of vital food, medicine, and fuel rations to the residents of Ashraf. Any attempt to transfer the protection of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi authorities, considering Iran’s influence on that government, would be a recipe for disaster.

The United States is trying to negotiate with the Government of Iraq on a Status of Forces Agreement to provide an Iraqi legal authority for U.S. forces after the mandate under UN Security Council Resolution 1546 runs out at year’s end. Whatever the status of these forces may become, the obligation of Washington to continue the protection of Camp Ashraf remains as long as U.S. forces are in Iraq, and arguably even after that. The status of Camp Ashraf and its residents is a direct result of the 2003 invasion of that country by the American-led coalition.

In addition to legal obligations of the United States toward the MEK, continued protection of Camp Ashraf by Washington would be consistent with American moral commitments in that it ensures the security of unarmed residents of Camp Ashraf, who might otherwise face serious and imminent risks. It also would be politically prudent for Washington to continue providing protection, considering that the MEK is the principal opposition to the regime in Tehran and has played a significant role in thwarting the regime’s influence in Iraq by encouraging Sunni and Shiite Iraqis to advance the political process in a country ravaged by sectarian conflict.

Far from being the perfect society of Plato’s Republic, post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is a perfect storm of Tehran-friendly armed militias, including those associated with the Government of Iraq, which cannot be entrusted to protect the main opposition to the Iranian regime. The prospective protectors are unable and unwilling to guard themselves against themselves. Hence, the U.S. military must retain its role as protector.