U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 revolution, always tumultuous, may have reached their tipping point. Over the past six months alone, Tehran has been rebuked by the U.N. nuclear watchdog for its quest to acquire nuclear weapons, linked to an assassination attempt against a foreign diplomat on U.S. soil, threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, rattled sabers in the Persian Gulf, ransomed three kidnapped American hikers and condemned an American citizen to death.
While Washington is scrambling for a plan of action, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has the opportunity to rattle Tehran's tyrants with the stroke of a pen, and it would not cost the taxpayers a single penny, nor would it endanger any American troops. The State Department should revoke the designation of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) as a terrorist organization.
The U.S. Court of Appeals told the State Department it was wrong to maintain the secular, democratic Iranian resistance group on the Foreign Terrorist List and ordered the situation fixed within six months. That was 19 months ago.
Why so long to unleash the Iranian opposition? The policy and the politics couldn't be more opportune. In a rare bipartisan initiative, some 100 members of the U.S. Congress have called upon the State Department to delist the MEK; so have dozens of the finest and most-senior national security, intelligence and diplomatic officials and military commanders of the past four administrations.
Per U.S. congressional mandate, a terrorist organization must be foreign; a threat to the United States or its citizens; and have the capability to execute attacks. The State Department refuses to admit the MEK has no intent to do harm to the United States. But its members in Camp Ashraf, Iraq, surrendered their weapons to the U.S. military in 2003. The State Department designation is in violation of the law. Ironically, the U.S. government does not designate Moqtada Sadr's Madhi Army as a foreign terrorist organization, even though it, by its own admission, has conducted thousands of attacks in Iraq and killed hundreds of American service members.
The dire consequences of the unfair listing are nowhere felt more than in Camp Ashraf, the Iraqi base for the MEK where I served as commandant. I knew the leadership and many of the rank-and-file among the 3,400 camp residents who, in return for their voluntary disarming, were individually provided written protected-person assurances by the U.S. government. They have come into harm's way by the Iraqi government of Nouri-al-Maliki, which gets orders from Tehran. The Iraqi army attacked the defenseless residents of Ashraf twice, in 2009 and 2011, killing 47 of them and wounding more than 1,000 others. The Iraqi government had vowed to close down Ashraf by the end of 2011, raising the specter for a bloodbath. In the last days of the year, the Iraqi government offered an extension of a few months.
No one despises war more than the warrior. No one hates the breaking of a surrender treaty or a cease-fire agreement more than the warrior who fought for it. It is heart-wrenching for me to witness the tragedy in Ashraf since I know the United States violated the surrender of weapons agreement with the people of Ashraf. They do not have weapons anymore, but they are at risk on the front lines for democracy in Iran.
The situation may not appear as serious as a month ago, when Camp Ashraf was to be closed imminently. In truth, the situation is getting more desperate. The last-ditch agreement called for Ashraf residents to move to Camp Liberty, the former U.S. military Camp near Baghdad, so the U.N. relief agency could interview them for relocation to third countries. But what used to be Camp Liberty will to these people be a concentration camp. Whereas Camp Ashraf is well-kept and self-sustaining, at the former Camp Liberty, the residents will be under control of Iraqis at the bidding of the Iranian regime. They will be dependent upon the Iraqis for everything and subject to even more psychological abuse than what they have already been enduring.
What is the way ahead? The first and most essential step is to get the MEK off the Foreign Terrorist List. It never should have been on the list in the first place. Second, let's protect Ashraf residents by guaranteeing their rights until they can be moved out of Iraq. The United States needs to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, when it comes to fulfilling its commitment to Ashraf residents. Rest assured Tehran is watching to measure up our steadfastness. The State Department should stop playing right into President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's and Ayatollah Khamenei's hands in allowing this erroneous and illegal terrorist listing to continue.
Wesley Martin, a former Western New Yorker, is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He served as the senior anti-terrorism/force protection officer for all coalition forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and as commandant of Camp Ashraf in 2005 and 2006.