By KASRA NEJAT
In the aftermath of U.S. departure from Iraq, dozens of members of Congress, former U.S. officials, including senior diplomats, former national security advisers and chiefs of staff, have repeatedly said the United States still bears the responsibility to protect the lives of more than 3,000 Iranian opposition members in Camp Liberty, Iraq.
The thrust of the argument has been the agreement signed between U.S. officials and the main Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK). According to that agreement, the MEK agreed to give up its means of self-defense, and in return the American government promised to protect the residents who were then consolidated in Camp Ashraf. There is no doubt that the United States bears both moral and legal responsibility to protect these Iranian dissidents. But it also has clear political interests in protecting their lives. It can do so by temporarily resettling them within the United States.
Since a few years ago, especially after the eruption of the crisis in Syria, U.S. Middle East policy has been perceived as crippled by indecisiveness and passivity. America’s regional allies see the U.S. policy’s obsessive aversion of providing leadership in regional conflicts as deeply troubling and even dangerous. It is in America’s interest to allay such fears and to show its presence and influence in a measured and rational way. The net result of a temporary settlement of MEK members in the United States is that it shows peaceful resolve and determination in the face of the Iranian regime’s belligerence.
In the midst of the nuclear talks with Iran, the United States needs, as its regional allies have repeatedly said, to reassure them that Washington is serious about preserving regional peace and stability. U.S. foreign policy still needs to turn on limiting the ambitions of the Iranian regime, which is the main threat to regional security and American interests. Protecting and resettling MEK members has the advantage of being a clear road sign of the U.S. regional policy that avoids the strategic costs of other potential alternatives that demand a direct U.S. role in the region.
Since the start of the new round of nuclear talks with Iran, critics have argued that the deal lacks material or substantial force. Resettlement of MEK members can give the United States considerable leverage to impose pressure on the Iranian regime during the talks. Supporting Iran’s democratic opposition serves U.S. foreign policy goals through a purely humanitarian act, an opportunity that has long been missed by the U.S. foreign policymakers. The Iranian regime will sense for the first time that Washington is serious about arresting the regime’s nuclear advance while checking its regional ambitions. It will therefore develop a greater sense of urgency to change course.
Some of Washington’s current foreign policy consequences have been: a) an unnecessarily prolonged massacre in Syria; b) expansion of the mullahs’ influence over Iraq where the current Iraqi government acts like a proxy; c) Iran’s regional allies (such as Hezbollah) have been more belligerent; d) and finally, the crisis in Ukraine. Inaction and procrastination in Washington has emboldened enemies, encouraged rivals to expand their influence and discouraged regional allies. However, taking a more-active military role in the region contains enormous risks and costs. In contrast, temporary settlement of a group of Iranian opposition members on U.S. soil would not provoke Russia or even the Iranian regime. It will motivate a desire in the Iranian regime to change its behavior while reassuring regional friends that Washington will not falter from cultivating stability and democracy in the Middle East.
Unlike the anti-Western and undemocratic mullahs’ regime, Iranians have expected to see the United States on their side in their struggle against the dictatorship. Instead, after invading Iraq in 2003, the United States disarmed the most potent opposition against the mullahs, the MEK, and protected them for six years, but in 2009, it left them at the mercy of the mullahs’ murderous proxies in Iraq. Since then, several attacks by Iraq on the defenseless dissidents have left more than 100 dead and 1,300 injured. This unjustifiable lapse in judgment raised concern among U.S. lawmakers. In a subcommittee hearing in March, Sen. Roy Blunt pressed Secretary of State John Kerry on this issue: “What plans we might have for the disposition of the roughly 3,000 Iranian dissidents at Camp Liberty in Iraq and whether our allies, and others in the world, are willing to take some of these people,” he asked.
For its part, Washington needs to recognize and support this movement, which has neither asked for money nor required boots on the ground in Iran.
The first step would be to save the lives of the defenseless MEK members residing in Camp Liberty by resettling a universe of them in the United States. This would not only constitute a measure of America’s moral and legal obligation; it also would be a policy that makes sense when it comes to America’s broader interests in the Middle East. Inaction and passivity are not the favorite modus operandi for America’s rivals and enemies. So why has it continued to define U.S. foreign policy for so long?
Kasra Nejat is president of the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri.