Iran is a country with immense human, cultural and hydrocarbon resources, but its people continue to be severely repressed by a government headed by a clerical Supreme Leader and president, who practise state terrorism, flaunt genocidal rhetoric, and are seeking to build nuclear weapons. Iran is pivotal to regional peace and world stability.
I stress immediately that those who judge that there are only two policy options available--continued appeasement of the regime in Tehran or bombing strikes against presumed nuclear weapon development sites--are both seriously mistaken. An attack on Iran--as deeply problematic as it would be from a human standpoint--is not going to address the questions of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, or the deplorable human rights violations of the Iranian regime. A much better and peaceful choice would be for the rule of law countries to begin working with all democratic opposition groups in Iran.
Iran's mullahs support organizations that splinter governments across the Middle East. Representative democracy and the rule of law in Iran would encourage a democratic domino effect, ending support for Tehranís proxies and opening political space for legitimate solutions to many of the the region's peace and human dignity problems.
Successive governments in Washington, Europe, and Ottawa have regrettably sought to weaken and de-legitimize the People's Mujehadin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), despite it being the largest opposition movement among the Iranian people. The PMOI seeks for Iranians the rule of law, separation of religion and government, a nuclear-free Iran, equal rights for women and all religious and ethnocultural minorities, normalized relations with all governments and representative democracy for Iranians.
In June 2001, the PMOI renounced violence against the regime in Tehran, which had executed--and continues to murder-- tens of thousands of PMOI supporters and other Iranians. European courts have looked carefully at this issue, examining both classified and non-classified security evidence and found decisively in the PMOI's favour as a non-violent opposition movement.
PMOI Refugees in Ashraf
There is a specific concurrent problem. About 3500 Iranian refugees live in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. Some of them fled from terror in Tehran in 1981, and others have lived in Iraq since the mid-1980s as refugees. Among the residents of Ashraf are former political prisoners as well as leaders of the student movements.
There is a considerable support for the PMOI and Ashraf refugees among the Iraqi people, who want their country to be independent from Iran. Millions of them, including three million Shiites in June 2008, petitioned in their favour.
The current al-Maliki coalition government in Iraq, however, has been sending mixed signals about the future of the Ashraf refugees. While it officially stated last September that they would be allowed to stay in Iraq, its National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie has been quoted as indicating another intention. The French News Agency quoted al-Rubaie as saying on January 23, 2009: "Iraq will hand over members of the Iranian opposition to Iran". Reuter's news agency quoted him on the same day as saying, "Iran's security is our own security"
The ongoing designation of the PMOI as a terrorist group in the US and Canada, once the 27 EU countries removed the group from their list in January, is still being used as a pretext by officials like al-Rubaie to maintain pressure on them and justify their expulsion from Iraq back to Iran, where they would face certain execution.
Human costs of further delay
As the British journalist, Christopher Booker put it before the EU Council of Ministers decided on January 26th to respect the seven EU/UK court rulings disallowing the listing of the PMOI:
"What makes this contempt for the law truly incomprehensible is that the EU's confessed motive is to appease the one genuinely terrorist regime in the Middle East. Its agents, the Revolutionary Guards, have done more than anyone to destabilize the entire region, from Lebanon to Iraq and Afghanistan. To this murderous theocratic dictatorship, the only real hope of a democratic secular alternative is Mrs (Maryam) Rajavi's NCRI and the PMOI, the very body the EU seems prepared to stop at nothing to suppress."
Rule of law supporters in all of our countries and beyond were delighted when the EU ministers finally heeded the court rulings in their Brussels decision. Consider, however, only three of the consequences of the much-delayed decision:
1- PMOI supporters have suffered severely in many ways during their seven year legal battle for legalization. The regime in Tehran used the terrorist label as yet another ill-founded excuse to persecute PMOI supporters of all ages mercilessly inside Iran. According to its "Islamic Punishment Act" of 1997, "killing", "hanging", "amputation of the right hand and the left leg" or internal exile, are some of the punishment prescribed for PMOI members and supporters.
2-In order to untie its hands and win the seven legal battles in Europe, the PMOI diverted virtually all of its human resources, finances, and energy from its main goal of achieving the rule of law, human dignity, and representative democracy in Iran. Meanwhile, unchallenged, the Iranian regime has continued to imprison and murder its own people for their search for religious freedom and the right to voice dissent.
3-During these lost years, the EU, US, and Canada were in significant respects in effect in line with the mullahs, together inflicting enormous harm on many PMOI supporters inside and beyond Iran, including refugees in the Ashraf camp.
Canada and PMOI
In Canada, the government of Paul Martin added the PMOI to its list of proscribed entities in May 2005. The only explanation by government officials at the time was that it "met the threshold of being a listed entity". The timing was bizarre as the regime had brutally murdered Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi in Evin prison two years earlier after she attempted to photograph a student protest in Tehran.
Only last fall, a Canada-led campaign won a major victory at the United Nations. A General Assembly committee defeated Iran's call not to consider a long list of human rights indignities alleged against it. The vote on censure, which highlighted regime abuses, including flogging and amputations, then passed. Despite this, the Harper government nonetheless decided late last year to continue listing the PMOI as a terrorist organization in Canada. It is not at all clear whether the department responsible for reviewing the listing even considered the European and UK court judgments.
The time for democratic change in Iran by the Iranian people is long overdue. The long-term political and economic relations of Canadians, Americans, and Europeans are best served by standing with the Iranian people, not their totalitarian regime. Appeasing the ayatollahs and suppressing the Iranian opposition must end. The next step for both the Harper government and Obama administration should thus be to de-list the PMOI with all deliberate haste, especially now that the EU ministers and British Parliament have done so.
Observers of Iraq have noticed that the PMOI and its supporters in Ashraf have worked for peace and reconciliation in Iraq, where the Awakening Councils are reducing violence between the Shiite and Sunni communities in the country.
Such evidence points to the fact that the PMOI represents the aspirations of the Iranian people for a democratic society of peace and the rule of law. The Council of EU Ministers demonstrated their respect for the rule of law by respecting the findings of its courts and removing the ban on the PMOI.
It is time that the US and Canada follow the EU lead, pay equal respect to the findings of the EU and UK courts, de-list the PMOI as a terrorist group, and help to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe otherwise in the making for Ashraf residents.
The best legal advice available indicates that the residents of Ashraf continue to be protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention; that the United States retains its Convention obligations despite having transferred responsibility for their protection to the government of Iraq. The analysis concludes that if the government of Iraq is unwilling to abide by the treaty then the United States under the established principles of international law, including the Geneva Convention, is obliged to resume primary responsibility for the security of the residents of Ashraf City.
President Obama, who has called for a "constructive dialogue" with Tehran, knows that this cannot be productive with continuous concessions by one side only and that one has to deal with Tehran from a position of strength. Indeed, if history is the judge, carrots without disincentives don't work as has been the case in Iran over the past 30 years.
Any useful engagement with Tehran must include encouraging the development of the rule of law and the respect for human dignity. De-listing the PMOI would be a constructive step in that direction.