After American forces leave Iraq at the end of 2011, Tehran will try to turn its neighbor into a satrapy (i.e., a province, a satellite state), to the great detriment of Western, moderate-Arab, and Israeli interests.
Intense Iranian efforts are already underway, with Tehran sponsoring militias in Iraq and sending its own forces into Iraqi border areas. Baghdad responds with weakness — with its chief of staff proposing a regional pact with Iran and top politicians ordering attacks on the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian dissident organization with 3,400 members resident in Camp Ashraf, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad. The MEK issue reveals Iraqi subservience to Iran with special clarity. Note some recent developments:
On April 8, even as U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates was visiting Iraq, the country’s armed forces attacked Ashraf. Fox News and CNN footage shows Iraqis in U.S.-supplied armored personnel carriers, Humvees, and bulldozers running down unarmed residents as sharpshooters shot at them, killing 34 people and injuring 325. The top-secret plan-to-attack order of the Iraqi military, “Iraqi Security Forces Operation Order No. 21, Year 2011,” reveals that Baghdad sees the Ashraf residents as “the enemy,” suggesting collusion between Baghdad and Tehran.
This incident took place despite fresh pledges by Baghdad to treat the Iranian dissidents humanely and to protect them. John Kerry, chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rightly described the attack as a “massacre,” while former governor of Vermont Howard Dean called the Iraqi prime minister a “mass murderer.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights “condemned” the attack, and the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) expressed “deep concern.”
On April 11, the adviser for military affairs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei “praised the Iraqi Army for its recent attack on the strongholds of [the MEK] and asked Baghdad to continue attacking the terrorist base until its destruction,” according to a news report.
On April 24, despite the United Nations’ insistence that “Camp Ashraf residents be protected from forcible deportation, expulsion or repatriation,” Baghdad and Tehran signed an extradition agreement that the state-controlled Iranian media interpret as a mechanism to transfer MEK members forcibly to Iran, where they anticipate a horrific fate.
Iraqi maltreatment of Iranian dissidents both raises humanitarian concerns and points to the MEK’s larger importance as a mechanism to thwart the U.S. goal of minimizing Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
That said, Washington — which granted “protected persons” status to the Ashraf residents in 2004 in exchange for their surrendering arms — bears partial responsibility for the attacks on Ashraf; in 1997, it threw a sop to Tehran and, contrary to both fact and law, wrongly listed (and continues to list) the MEK as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization.”
Baghdad exploits this terrorist tag. For example, Rep. Brad Sherman (D., Calif.) reports that “in private discussions the Iraqi ambassador’s office has said the blood is not on the hands of the Iraqi government but is at least partially on the hands of the State Department because the MEK is listed as a terrorist group and, accordingly, Iraq doesn’t feel that it has to respect the human rights of those in the camp.” The terrorist designation also offers Baghdad a pretext to expel Ashraf’s residents and possibly extradite them to Iran.
At this time of crisis, how to respond to Senator Kerry’s call for “all the relevant parties . . . to seek a peaceful and durable solution”? Some recommendations:
U.S. Government: Remove the MEK from the list of terrorist organizations, following the wishes of a large bipartisan majority in Congress, of Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, and of prominent Republicans.
United Nations: Station a UNAMI delegation in Ashraf, guarded by a small U.S. force, to deter future Iraqi attacks and to fulfill the demand of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights for “a full, independent, and transparent inquiry” into the Ashraf assault so that “any person found responsible for use of excessive force” will be prosecuted.
Now is the time to act urgently on Camp Ashraf, a bellwether of growing Iranian influence over Iraq, before Tehran turns Iraq into a satrapy.
— Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. © 2011 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.