Ashraf: A Litmus Test for Obama’s Commitment to Human Rights
by Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker
by Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker
American Chronicle, Codex-Politics, International Analyst Network, March 30, 2009 Intellectual Conservative, April 2, 2009
[Ashraf is the home of 3,418 members of the Iranian resistance organization, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran]
President Barack H. Obama, during his successful campaign for the presidency, and subsequent to that victory, made many declarations of his strong sense of obligation to return American policy to a deeper commitment to the maintenance of human rights, something that he implied had been missing in the policies of the prior administration. One of his first acts as President was to sign an order for the closure of the federal detention program at Guantanamo Base. The ultimate wisdom of that decision remains to be seen, but the decision has sent a powerful message to the world of his "good intentions" in the arena of human rights.
Another test awaits the Obama administration: the status of the residents of Camp Ashraf in Diyala Province in Iraq. What is Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf City, as its residents call it? Ashraf is the home of 3,418 members of the Iranian resistance organization, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) or as it is known in its native Farsi — the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
The PMOI/MEK is the largest, best-organized, and oldest group opposed to the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs in Iran. It began its history in pre-revolutionary Iran in 1965 as a student group opposed to the autocratic dictatorship of the last shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Although initially aligned with the Iranian clergy in the collective attempt to overthrow the shah, the PMOI soon broke with the Islamist clergy when the latter, under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1981 pushed for the establishment of an Islamic state, governed by sha‘riah (Islamic law). The leaders of the PMOI fled Iran for Paris in mid-1981 when their lives were threatened by the clerical regime.
In 1986, the Islamic Republic of Iran convinced the French government to expel the leaders of the PMOI, and so they returned to the Middle-East. The late Saddam Hussein — at the time engaged in the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War — invited the PMOI to Iraq as it had called for a cease-fire in 1981 and had begun armed resistance to the Iranian regime following the regime's murder of Iranian civilians in a peaceful demonstration in Tehran in June 1981. The PMOI accepted Saddam's invitation, but with the clear understanding that their single enemy was the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini (and subsequently, of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). The PMOI fought the Iranian regime in a series of skirmishes, the most famous being "Operation Eternal Light" in 1988 when units of the Iranian resistance's National Liberation Army (NLA) advanced to Kermanshah. With Khomeini's acceptance of the cease-fire in September 1988, the PMOI retreated to their bases in Iraq. Under the leadership of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, the PMOI and its umbrella political organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) reorganized, and — in reaction to the increasing fanaticism of the misogynist Islamic regime in Tehran — developed and established an egalitarian form of Islam in which women assumed over 50% of the leadership roles of the organizations.
In 2001, the PMOI and NCRI decided to forego further military operations against the Islamic Republic of Iran, relying on the popular support of the Iranian populous to effect a transition to a secular democracy in Iran. In 2003, during "Operation Iraqi Freedom", the PMOI remained non-combatants despite the retention of their considerable military hardware, obtained through purchase and victory over Iranian forces through the years. Although Ashraf and the other PMOI camps came under three days of bombardment by British and American forces starting on April 19, 2003, not a single shot was fired in retaliation as the PMOI regards only the Iranian mullah regime as its enemy. The PMOI sustained some 50 fatalities and about 200 wounded in these aerial attacks. When American ground forces surrounded Camp Ashraf on the fourth day to mount a ground assault, they were greeted with a delegation from the camp inviting them into Ashraf for breakfast! The following month — May 2003 — the PMOI voluntarily signed a disarmament agreement with the American forces, the terms being negotiated by Army Captain Vivian Gembarra, JAG.
Following their disarmament, all 3,800 Camp Ashraf residents underwent an exhaustive sixteen-month investigation by five American federal security agencies to determine whether anyone had any links to terrorism; all passed the tests — which included DNA samplings — with flying colors. Subsequently, the residents of Ashraf received "protected persons" status under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Major General Geoffrey D. Miller, Deputy Commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, sent a letter to the residents of Ashraf on July 21, 2004, extending his congratulations to them on their new status as "protected persons."1
From July 21, 2004 until the end of 2008, the residents of Ashraf remained under the protection of American units of the MNF-I.2 In the SOFA treaty3 signed in December 2008 between the United States and the government of Iraq, responsibility for Camp Ashraf was transferred to the Iraqi government with the provision that a smaller contingent of American soldiers would remain to monitor conditions.4 In January 2009, responsibility for Ashraf was indeed transferred to the Iraqis.
The safety of Ashraf's residents now is in a state of grave peril. The current Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Dr. Nouri Kamal al-Maliki from the Islamist Da‘wa Party,5 the largest faction in the ruling United Iraqi Alliance — the Shiite fundamentalist parliamentary block — which has long been aligned with the Islamic government of Iran, continues to take orders from Tehran concerning the status and welfare of Ashraf. As the Iranian regime regards the PMOI residents of Ashraf as its mortal enemies, it has repeatedly demanded of Baghdad that it close down the camp and repatriate the residents to Iran. Already last year, Dr. Muwaffak al-Rubaie, National Security Advisor to Prime Minister al-Maliki, declared that the Iraqi government wished to expel the PMOI from Iraq. Following the January transfer of Ashraf to Iraqi authority, the Iraqi government has incrementally increased pressure upon Ashraf's residents.
On Saturday, March 14th, units of the Iraqi army breached the perimeter of Ashraf and entered into hostile conflict with the residents of Ashraf, invading a women's dormitory and striking several of the Ashraf men with electric batons. The Iraqi army also prohibited any workers or supplies from entering Ashraf, including water, oil, food, and medical supplies — all of these actions being clear violations of international law. In addition, Dr. al-Rubaie falsely accused the Ashraf leadership of refusing to cooperate with an Iraqi official who wished to interview the residents concerning repatriation — a lie refuted by officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.S. Army who were present at these interviews last month. Further violence against the Ashraf residents was only prevented by the timely appearance of U.S. service personnel.
The recent visit of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Tehran to consult with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the subsequent visit of former Iranian President Ali Aqbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Baghdad only days before the Iraqi incursion into Ashraf are indicative of the pressure that the Iranian regime is exerting upon its Shiite allies in the Iraqi government. The Supreme Leader wants Ashraf obliterated,6 and al-Rubaie attempted to give Khamenei a gift for Nowruz.7 Fortunately, that did not happen as al-Rubaie had intended, but only because of the presence of American personnel.
Now, however, a fortnight after ordering the incursion into Ashraf, Dr. al-Rubaie has imposed the following restrictions upon the residents of Ashraf City:
1. Camp Ashraf remains closed to the outside world except for workers. They also face restrictions and many of them are turned away.
2. Entry of Iraqi lawyers of Ashraf residents to the Camp is banned. Entry of foreign lawyers and delegations was banned a long time ago.
3. Entry for women of any nationality is banned.
4. Entry of all vehicles except with an Iraqi license plate is banned.
5. New construction and renovation of standing buildings in Ashraf is banned.
6. Entry of construction materials is banned.
7. Wearing a uniform is banned.
8. Carrying any kind of video recorder and cameras by Ashraf residents is forbidden.8
The above mentioned restrictions have been imposed while the entrance building to Camp Ashraf, with hundreds of residents, has been cordoned off since 14 March 2009.
Today, supporters of the PMOI — the principal Iranian resistance movement opposed to the tyranny of the mullah regime of Tehran, and an organization that has won two seven-year legal battles, first in the United Kingdom and then in the European Union to clear its name from blacklisting — supporters of the PMOI are maintaining a vigil in front of the White House. They are there to remind President Obama of his promise to the American people and to the world to promote human rights and to oppose abuse of human rights wherever and whenever that occurs.
Mr. President, Iranian-Americans are knocking on your door. Muslim Americans, Christian Americans, and Jewish Americans are knocking on your door, and we are asking you to fulfill your promise to the maintenance of the human rights of the 3,418 Iranian exiles who continue a three-decade struggle to return democracy and freedom to their homeland, Iran, the cradle of religious toleration as developed by Cyrus the Great of Persia over 2,500 years ago. Ashraf is like a candle flickering in the darkness — the darkness of intolerance and fanaticism that engulfs present-day Iran; its light inspires hope in the hearts of millions of Iranians and non-fundamentalist Iraqis alike.
Mr. President: You have the power to keep the flame — the light — of freedom alive. Or you can turn your back on Ashraf, on your promise to the American people and to the world — you can turn your back on the American people and all who cherish freedom — and you can allow that light to go out. But if you do turn your back on those who cherish freedom, you will cease to be the spiritual child of Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, and indeed, we will have descended into the darkest regions of Hell.
Mr. President: Please tell the world that you believe in human dignity and freedom, freedom of choice, freedom of conscience. Mr. President, tell Ashraf and the world: Nur azadi mi-áyad — the light of freedom is coming! Nur azadi mi-áyad — the light of freedom is coming! Tell the world that the light from Ashraf will continue to shine until it brings freedom to the people of Iran.
1. Letter of General Geoffrey D. Miller to the People of Ashraf, cited as Appendix A in DLA Piper, Iran: Foreign Policy Challenges and Choices, November 2006, p.102.
2. Specifically this meant 400 American soldiers secured the perimeters of Ashraf.
3. SOFA=Separation of Forces Agreement.
4. This contingent is supposed to be staffed with 125 personnel.
5. The Da’wa is an Iraqi Islamist political party formed in 1968 by the late Baqr al-Sadr out of the Islamist movement that he had helped to found in 1957. According to Rodger Shanahan, The Islamic Da’wa Party: Past Development and Future Prospects, IDC Herzliya, June 2, 2004, http://www.rubincenter.org/2004/06/shanahan-2004-06-02/, quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_Dawa_Party, the Islamic political ideology of al-Da’wa is heavily influenced by the work done by Baqr al-Sadr who laid out four mandatory principles of governance in his 1975 text, Islamic Political System.
6. See: “Iraqi forces attack Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf, cut food, water”, Iran Human Rights, March 15, 2009, http://iran-human-rights.blogspot.com/2009/03/iraqi-forces-attack-iranian-dissidents.html, See also Point #5 of the letter of the “International Committee of Jurists in Defense of Ashraf” to Prime Minister Dr. Nouri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, dated March 26, 2009. and “Iran’s Khamenei urges Iraqis to reject U.S. permanent presence plan”, World Bulletin, March 1, 2009.
7. Nowruz is the Iranian national New Year, which fell this year on March 20, 2009.
8. NCRI, “New suppressive restrictions imposed on Ashraf residents”, Foreign Affairs Committee of the NCRI, March 29, 2009, http://www.david-kilgour.com/2009/Apr_08_2009_04.php.