(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Seven summers ago, in a crowded conference room of a Washington hotel, an Iranian exile leader gave the first detailed public account of Iran's until-then secret nuclear projects at the cities of Natanz and Arak. It greatly turned up the volume of a seemingly endless international controversy over Iran's nuclear intentions.
The disclosures, on August 14, 2002, did little to earn the group that made them, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), merit points from the U.S. government. A year later, the Washington office of the NCRI, the political offshoot of Iran's Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) resistance movement, was shut. The State Department placed the group on its list of terrorist organizations. (The MEK, also known as the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran, had been given that designation in 1997).
Now, another five summers later, two dozen MEK supporters are on hunger strike across from the White House to exhort the U.S. government to stick to promises to protect some 3,500 members of the organization in a camp north of Baghdad. Iraqi forces stormed Camp Ashraf in late July and the MEK says nine residents were killed in the initial assault. Two have since died of their injuries.
Hunger strikes in solidarity with the residents of Camp Ashraf were also taking place in Berlin, London, Brussels and Ottawa and at the camp itself. They draw attention to an arrangement that was both unique and bizarre - an enclave of people labeled terrorists by Washington but protected by U.S. military forces - and speak volumes about erratic U.S. policies on a group hated by Iran's theocracy.
Those at Camp Ashraf, including around 1,000 women, have become, in effect, bargaining chips in the complicated relationship between the United States, Iraq and Iran. The raid on the camp coincided with a visit to Iraq by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. What better way for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to demonstrate that the Iraqis, not the Americans, are in charge now that Iraqi troops have assumed control under the Status of Forces Agreement signed last year?
What better way, too for Maliki, once derided as an American puppet, to show Iran's hard-liners and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government wants to tighten relations with Tehran? The raid on Camp Ashraf drew applause from Iranian officials, including Ali Larijani, the hard-line speaker of parliament. "Praiseworthy," he said, "even though it is rather late."
The MEK was founded in 1965 by leftist students and intellectuals opposed to the Shah of Iran, and it played a part in the Islamic revolution that toppled his rule in 1979. But it soon fell out with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was banned in 1981, when it began a campaign of bombings and assassinations of government officials.
WARNINGS OF HUMANITARIAN DISASTER
In 1986, under an agreement with Saddam Hussein, it established bases in Iraq from where it launched cross-border raids into Iran.
Since 2003, when U.S. forces disarmed MEK guerrillas in Camp Ashraf and took over its protection, the government in Iran has repeatedly demanded that they be turned over to Iran. Their prospects there would be bleak, more so at a time when the Iranian government is staging mass trials of people who demonstrated against Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June.
In an open letter to President Barack Obama, in the form of a full-page advertisement in the Washington Times, MEK supporters this week warned of a humanitarian disaster unless U.S. forces reassumed control, at least temporarily. "The long-term solution to the problem is the presence in Ashraf of United Nations forces or at least a U.N. monitoring mission."
This is not the first time that the MEK has served as a bargaining chip in Middle Eastern politics. The group was placed on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations in 1997 at a time when the Clinton administration hoped the move would facilitate opening a dialogue with Iran and its newly elected president, Mohammad Khatami, who was seen as a moderate.
The European Union put the MEK on its terrorist blacklist five years later. Critics of the decision saw it as kowtowing to Iranian demands to avoid harming important trade relations. After years of legal wrangling, the EU took the MEK off its list of banned terrorist organizations on Jan. 26, a decision that infuriated Tehran.
Somewhat ironically for a country described as the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism" by the U.S. State Department, Iran said the EU's decision meant Europe had "distanced itself from the path of the international community in fighting terror."
The Obama administration has shown no sign of even considering taking the MEK off the terrorist list and thus further complicate its already complicated relations with Iran. Is abandoning the people at Camp Ashraf to an uncertain fate an option? (You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com) (Editing by Kieran Murray)
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