|Trapped by Politics|
|Friday, 24 December 2010 09:14|
by Colonel (Retired) Wes Martin, U.S. Army
If there is any expectation that the current U.S. administration is going to do the harder right instead of the easier wrong, it is very doubtful to happen in the case of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran. The PMOI or Mojahedin, as they are more frequently referred to, has become more of a cultural, political, and ideological threat to the Islamic fundamentalist Iranian government than the military opposition force of years past. Located in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, 50 miles northeast of Baghdad, the PMOI surrendered their enormous inventory of weapons to the American military following the fall of Saddam Hussein. The largest component of the European-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the PMOI no longer possesses offensive military capability.
Formed in September 1965 as a Muslim group opposed to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the PMOI grew quickly in numbers and influence. Had not the Central Intelligence Agency twelve years earlier caused the collapse the popular Iranian government of Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq, the PMOI would have likely never come to exist. The June 5th, 1963 brutal suppression that ended the demonstrations resulting from the rift between the Shah and the clerics set in motion many actions that still have major impact on Iran, the Middle-East, and the world.
In 1966 the PMOI adopted a set of philosophies that would put them at odds with both the ruling government and rising Islamic fundamentalists. They came to embrace equality between those in power and those not, between men and women, and among various religions and races. Going even further, they believed the clergy should not have total control over interpretation of the Quran, nor should the clerics have total control over their congregations. These philosophies would cast them into fighting successive enemies.
Failed attempts at attacking the Shah and disrupting the government ended up with arrests of sixty-nine members of the PMOI in August of 1971. The core of the PMOI leadership was off the streets, and most ended up on the gallows, including the three founding members. As the remaining members of PMOI leadership survived in the Shah’s prisons, a Marxist element emerged within the organization. The two elements spent as much time fighting each other as they did engaging the Shah‘s regime.
Meanwhile, one imprisoned member who was not executed by the government enforcers, but rather remained captive until the final days of the Shah’s rule, was a young Massoud Rajavi. Inside prison he built an organizational structure and a large membership anchored on original PMOI concepts and independent of Marxist influence. In January of 1979, ten days before Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in Paris, Rajavi was released from prison. As he worked to rebuild the PMOI, most of the subordinate leadership he selected also came from Qasr Prison. Soon the Marxist element abandoned any claim to the PMOI name and renamed themselves “Paykar” (Struggle). Today, any action conducted by either the PMOI or the Marxist PMOI is viewed as a PMOI action with no discrepancy to which organization did it. ?
On November 3, 1979 Khomeini addressed the university students, resulting in 400 of them storming and taking over the American embassy in Tehran. This act caught the rest of Iran and the world by surprise. Khomeini was able to seize upon this event to take the world stage and raise the fever all across Iran. Khomeini used that excitement to bring his wrath on adversaries, real and perceived, within Iran. Anyone who did not share his fundamentalist beliefs was an adversary. Top on the list was the PMOI.
By 1981, Rajavi had moved the organizational structure to Paris. In 1986 another major relocation took place that takes us directly to the situation currently trying to be resolved. In the Middle-East, the belief is very real that, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Iran’s mortal enemy was Saddam Hussein. Saddam saw a purpose for the Mojahedin. Having a major military force in his country dedicated to the overthrow of his principle enemy and replacing that enemy with a friendly government was very much in his interest. For the PMOI, Saddam offered a series of bases where they could monitor the Iranian government, work their operatives inside Iran, have a military staging area, operate a radio communications network, and be a beacon of hope to the people in Iran hoping to survive until a better government could take control. For the next seventeen years, the Mojahedin operated several bases in Iraq and did conduct military operations against the Iranian government. The Mojahedin grew in size and capability. It was during this period that the majority of the people now living at Ashraf joined the PMOI.
An interesting development occurred in October of 1997. While attempting to create positive relations with the newly elected President Mohammad Khatami, who was then making overtures of becoming more moderate, the Clinton administration placed the Mojahedin on the State Department list of terrorist organizations. As time would prove, there never was an intent by the fundamentalist Islamic leaders of Iran to become more moderate. This perception was nothing more than a successful psychological operation that achieved many desired goals, which once achieved revealed Iran’s true intent - complete with an active nuclear weapons research program.
In 2003, as the United States developed its plans to invade Iraq, the Iranian government set to work on how to quietly take over as much of Iraq as possible. Also, as the Coalition prepared to invade, Mojahedin leadership made the decision that their fight was not with the Coalition and elected not to rise up in support of Saddam. Their fight was with the Iranian government. Even when their camps were bombed, resulting in deaths within the organization, the Mojahedin did not return fire. When the Coalition forces arrived on the ground, rather than resistance, it became a relationship of cooperation. The Mojahedin accepted consolidation of their ranks into the one camp of Ashraf. Of the 10,000 members, little over one-third of organization accepted the move, with the remainder leaving the organization.
From the very beginning, the United States had a difficult time figuring out what to do with the PMOI. This was a first in the history of the world: an invading force inherits control of a military organization within the defeated country, yet that organization is an adversary of another country. That country, being Iran, is the same one that President Bush declared to be a nation sponsor of terrorism. In 2004, following the PMOI’s formal renouncement of terrorism, members of the Mojahedin were awarded Protected Person status under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
I first became aware of the PMOI while serving as the Antiterrorism/Force Protection Officer during the first and second years of Operation Iraq Freedom. Two years later, the Mojahedin dilemma would play a bigger role in my life when I became the Operations Officer for Task Force 134, Detention Operations. In June of 2006 the PMOI became my main focus when I became the first colonel to serve as base commander of Camp Ashraf.
One thing that always impressed me in 2006 about Camp Ashraf was how out of the desert an oasis was built. Outside of the perimeter fences was barren land. Supported by water pumped from two rivers and purified within the compound was a well irrigated community. The Mojahedin had also set up outlets along the pipeline to allow local farmers to draw water for their use. Electricity was provided to all camp facilities; a hospital and clinics served not only the Mojahedin but anyone who showed up at the gates requesting treatment. Each compound had its own bakery and dining facility. Each of these had a special food or item that championed over the other facilities. They produced their own ice and made their own soft drinks. The uniforms they wore were always well-serviced and clean at the beginning of the work day.
I found Camp Ashraf’s mosque a testimonial to the organization’s founding principles of tolerance of other religions and races as well as the clergy not possessing total control over interpretation of the Quran or the congregations. Constructed with the two towers of a Shia religious center, it was open to all. Sunni residents of the local area were welcome to come and worship. Americans and all other nationalities of any faith were welcome to come inside the mosque. Unknown to the outside world, one of the biggest celebrations of the year at Ashraf is Christmas. This may seem strange to outsiders, but any resident of Ashraf is always ready to point out that Christ is the second prophet.
As base commander, I moved out to develop a professional relationship and gain a thorough understanding of this organization. What I found is the vast bulk of proclaimed knowledge among the Americans concerning the Mojahedin was basically rumors. No one had attempted to study the history of the organization. It was almost like Greek mythology. The unknown was explained with stories passed on from one to another. Worst violators of this behavior was our own State Department representatives working out of Baghdad.
By western standards, life within the PMOI is strange (if not bizarre), but that doesn‘t make them bad people. They do live a Spartan life and have a closed society. Men and women live separate of each other. ?Makeup is not worn. At the time of my presence, all of the membership wore uniforms. Women have the key leadership roles of running the organization. They do have a strong allegiance to Massoud Rajavi and his current wife, Maryam. Often their understanding of western attitudes and perceptions is as weak as our understanding of what they think and feel. It is easier for westerners who don’t understand them to simplify the situation by proclaiming the Mojahedin to be a cult. I have had many detailed conversations and debates with them. They have even asked me about the cult label and how they could improve the outside perception of themselves. Often the advice I gave was very hard and direct. To their credit, they accepted the advice and frequently exercised the guidance I provided.
The Mojahedin is an intelligence source that we haven’t learn to fully use, even though they were willing to share information. This is the organization that made the world aware that the Iranian government was conducting nuclear research operations. Their relationships in the local area were bringing in continual reports of Al Qaeda, Badr Corps, and Mahdi Army activities throughout the region. Not until the arrival of the Marine Corps Human Exploitation Team were we able to get that information into the intelligence network. Even then, the intelligence specialists in Baghdad seldom knew what to do with the information. I was always amazed at the amount of information they were able to extract out of Iran.
Upon my return to the Pentagon, I began working with State Department representatives in Washington, D.C. to properly address the PMOI issue. What I found were the two primary people at Foggy Bottom responsible for the Mojahedin had almost no working knowledge of the organization. The first two meetings I had with them, and several other people in attendance, concerned presenting a time-line history of the organization from its earliest days and going over about sixty photographs I had taken concerning all aspects of Camp Ashraf and its residents. The State Department representatives had no idea what the membership looked like, the uniforms they wore, the layout of the compound, the existence of an industrial compound where trailer homes were being manufactured, the fact they ran their water through a treatment plant before consumption, had medical facilities, and ate their meals in dining facilities. They did know a lot of the rumors, but almost none of the facts.
Finally we got to the issues concerning the Mojahedin. The biggest one was the accepted-as-fact rumor that in years past the Mojahedin had attacked the Kurds. I produced a letter from Hoshyer Zebari, head of Kurdistan Democratic Party International Relations, clearly stating this did not occur. This was checked out by having their counterparts in Baghdad talk to Mr. Zebari. I was later assured by my Foggy Bottom counterparts that Mr. Zebari confirmed my information to be true. Yet, several months later when the annual report on terrorism was released by the State Department, the accusation for attacking the Kurds was not removed. I questioned the same people I had been dealing with and was informed that they don’t communicate with the people who put out the annual report.
The leadership of the Mojahedin have expressed their willingness to leave Iraq and go elsewhere. The problem is they have no place to go. As long as the United States leaves them on this list, no other country is willing to accept them. The only actions that have come out of the State Department were to pull the “protected person” status and turn oversight of Camp Ashraf over to the Iraqi government. Against this backdrop, we now have a U.S. administration who believes the war is basically over for America and we can start pulling out.
As Americans, we haven’t learned from our mistakes. We continually experience corruption within the Iraqi government, to include civilians being arrested without reason and held for ransom, illegal detention facilities to include on Ministry of Interior grounds, and an entire Sunni village ordered to leave their homes within an hour so Shia families could move in and take over their possessions. Meanwhile, this is the government that has been making continued promises to the Americans that the Mojahedin will be protected. Yet on a continuing basis, Camp Ashraf has been placed under siege. Attacks have left members of the Mojahedin dead or maimed. Critical medical supplies, petroleum products, and food have been denied delivery to Ashraf. Loudspeakers have been continually used to conduct psychological operations against the PMOI.
Ruled by fear enforced by brutality, the Iranian fundamentalist government remains in place. Each year we watch the spectacle of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad giving his annual speech to the United Nations. Representatives of the free world get up and leave as Ahmadinejad speaks. He doesn’t care. For his rants are not to positively influence the outside world, but to be shown inside Iran how their President is standing up to the West. Even though in his last ramblings he called for an investigation into the American government‘s orchestrating the 9-11 attacks, Ahmadinejad’s attention is never far away from the annihilation of Israel. Khomeini often stated, “The road to Jerusalem is through Karbala.”
The real benefactor to the fall of the Mojahedin will be Ahmadinejad and the ruling religious fundamentalists. The Mojahedin has represented resistance to the fundamentalist government for more than a generation. Should they Iraqi government turn the PMOI over to Iran, mass public executions will be conducted to show the Iranian people what happens to people who oppose the fundamentalist government. The public executions will also be used to further break the spirit of anyone considering resistance and to show the world what happens to those trust their lives to the United States.
To appease the Iranian government, the State Department recently placed Jundallah, a Sunni-Balochi Islamic group, on the terrorist list. To this, it needs to be accepted that this group in fact is conducting terrorist activities inside Iran. That stated, the timing speaks for itself as the State Department is trying to figure a way to work with the Iranian government and is making an appeasement gesture. There is little chance the same State Department is going to make a negative gesture by removing the PMOI despite calls from the American Legislative and Judicial Branches of government, as well as the European Union, to professionally revisit this issue. That would be the harder right. History is repeating itself back to when the current Secretary of State’s husband was the President and the Mojahedin was placed on the list.
Meanwhile, the State Department claims to have access to classified information about the activities of the PMOI. It is doubtful to be more accurate than the intelligence reports about Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction and those State Department intelligence reports that frequently sent me out looking for activities that were not happening. To date the State Department has yet to share this classified information with either the United States military or members of Congress who do have the clearances, need to know, and ability to validate or debunk the information. This steadfast refusal leaves us to conclude State Department officials have realized this “classified information” cannot withstand the test of scrutiny.
That takes us back to the already discussed real and present danger of the PMOI. Will the United States allow the easier wrong and permit the Iraqi government to turn the PMOI over to Iran? No matter how the United States government will attempt to cleanse itself of this matter, one fact will always stand out above all others: the Peoples’ Mojahedin Organization of Iran surrendered to the United States military. They trusted their safety to the United States. They renounced terrorism at the request of the United States and through the effort lead by the United States, they accepted the status of protected persons. As a nation, we made a serious mistake in the First Gulf War when Kurds and Shia were encouraged to rise up against Saddam. After one hundred hours of fighting, we shut down and left them to their fate. Thirteen years later we invaded Iraq, setting off a whole new series of mistakes. There is still time to correct this problem, but not at the pace and in the direction the State Department is moving.
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