In his 21 May 2009 HUMAN EVENTS article, “Why Not Bomb Iran?” Rowan Scarborough offers a detailed assessment of intelligence challenges for bombing Iranian nuclear sites. He points out that the United States is “not certain on the location of all of Iran’s dispersed nuclear research programs; and it does not know the engineering at some known sites.” Given the high risks inherent in military strikes on Iran, including the possibility of losing pilots and Iran’s ability to retaliate in the Gulf and Israel, the costs of strikes may outweigh the potential benefits, rendering the military option undesirable as a first choice.
Scarborough hints at an Iranian solution to the crisis when he refers to Iranian opposition revelations about the Natanz enrichment facility (made in 2002, not 2006), which unveiled for the first time Iran’s clandestine nuclear program. Natanz houses gas centrifuges Iran is using to enrich uranium, the process former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called “the long pole in the tent” of any nuclear program, i.e., the core problem that needs to be resolved.
The Iranian dissident group that revealed information about Natanz is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), parliament in exile of the main Iranian opposition groups, the most prominent of which is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI, aka the Mujahedeen-e Khalq or MEK). Its revelations proved to be vital in bringing American foreign policy to a more up-to-date assessment and formulation about the Iranian threat, thus contributing to American security in the long term.
The NCRI has made subsequent revelations about Bushehr, Isfahan, Arak, and other nuclear sites, including Lavizan-Shian, Lavizan II, and Khojir, where the Iranian regime worked on nuclear warhead design. In this respect, consider a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate:
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.
The NCRI revealed in November 2004 that while the Lavizan-Shian weaponization site had been closed in 2003 and examined by the International Atomic Energy Agency, a new site, Lavizan II, was opened to continue weaponization work. Rather than accepting such information at face value, however, it can be used as perhaps the most crucial input to assess progress Tehran is making toward achieving nuclear weapons status because the NCRI has often demonstrated that it is ahead of the international intelligence pack.
Receiving such valuable intelligence depends on the survival of the most crucial member organization of the NCRI coalition, the PMOI, which is headquartered in Ashraf, Iraq, and has a vast clandestine network of supporters inside Iran; among other things, that network helped these Iranian dissidents expose Iran’s nuclear program. Understandably, Tehran has launched an extensive campaign, complete with a sophisticated propaganda machine and supplied with billions of dollars in state funds, aimed at destroying or, at least, expelling the group from Iraq. Some officials within the Iraqi government have bent to Tehran’s will.
According to a 28 March 2009 Washington Post article, then Iraqi National Security Advisor, Dr. Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, said the Government of Iraq plans to move PMOI members from Ashraf, where they are currently based, to a location farther from Iran’s borders presumably to tilt the strategic balance of power in the favor Tehran. The Post quotes Rubaie as stating that Ashraf residents “should understand that their days in Iraq are numbered” and that “the party is over for them.”
Rubaie announced the intention of the Government of Iraq to move Ashraf residents, presumably against their will, to “remote areas” of Iraq. Rubaie said, “The residents should understand … we will not use force…unless the residents use force against the Iraqi Security Forces. This whole process will be pain-free if they cooperate.”
A 20 April Amnesty International report refers to a letter to the Iraqi government concerning such threats:
In its letter, Amnesty International urged the Iraqi Prime Minister to ensure that no action is taken by the Iraqi authorities that violates the human rights of the Camp Ashraf residents and to clarify the government’s intentions towards them in the light of Dr al-Rubaie’s reported threat to make their lives “intolerable.” Amnesty International has previously called on the Iraqi government to ensure that none of the Camp Ashraf residents or other Iranian dissidents is forcibly returned to Iran in view of fears that they would be at risk of torture or other serious human rights violations there.
And according to Al- Babelyia Iraqi TV of 31 May, Iraqi police forces tightened a siege of Camp Ashraf, perhaps in anticipation of moving against the people of Ashraf in what could become a human rights disaster. The United States has a moral obligation to avert such a human rights catastrophe, given the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And displacement of PMOI members in Iraq would hamper the efforts of one of the most prominent and effective sources of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program.
In accordance with its international obligations and 2004 status of “protected persons” it granted to the PMOI in Ashraf, Washington has been working against any displacement of Ashraf residents. At issue is whether the U.S. Government has demanded the Iraqi government to ensure protection of the PMOI consistent with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The United States also could remove the PMOI from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Doing so would be both consistent with the facts that the organization does not meet the criteria for listing; but it would also diminish the public rationale some in Baghdad continue to use for displacement of Ashraf residents, which is a ruse to mask the fact that they are acquiescing to the wishes of Tehran.
Delisting the PMOI would bring the United States in line with the United Kingdom and the European Union, which took the organization off similar lists in June 2008 and January 2009, respectively. As the organization is opposed to the clerical regime in Tehran, delisting would have the added benefit of providing the United States with significant leverage over the Iranian regime during negotiations in the remaining months of 2009.
Set aside, for the moment, the issue of resolving the Iranian regime’s sponsorship of terrorism and threat to the region, if not the world. The supervening issue is whether and how the United States will assure the safety and freedom of the PMOI members now in Camp Ashraf.
Let’s be blunt: We disarmed them, confined them, and then declared them “protected persons” under the Geneva Conventions. It would be illegal and immoral for America to allow them to be turned over to unelected clerics in Tehran or their proxies in Iraq for what will certainly result in their torture, imprisonment, and probably murder.