WASHINGTON — Near Baghdad, former U.S. military installations Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf have become home to Iranian refugees, who have been increasingly subject to attack by both Iran and Iraqi forces in recent months.
Members of Mujahadin-e-Khalq (MEK), which advocates the overthrow of Iran’s clerical leaders, fought alongside enemy Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. But under the Shiite-led Iraqi government established after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, they are no longer welcome to stay.
Last September, exiles at Ashraf were the victims of an unprovoked massacre by Iraqi forces that left 52 dead and seven in captivity, according to the organization, MEK. In December, a Shiite militia in Iraq that claims funding from the Iranian government launched rockets and mortars at Liberty, killing three and wounding 71.
And nine days into the implementation of the “Joint Plan of Action” agreement to limit Iran’s disputed nuclear program, Iraq’s 3,000 Iranian refugees remain in limbo.
“We ought to sign no agreement until those 3,000 people are safe — they ought to be out of Iraq,” said former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who spoke out against the lack of human rights considerations in Iranian nuclear deal talks at a Capitol Hill briefing Wednesday. The event was sponsored by the Iranian-American Community of Arkansas whose members trekked to Washington to advocate for their countrymen.
U.S. assistance toward Iranian resettlement is a promise long overdue, according to former ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, who also spoke. Ginsberg cited a 2011 written agreement by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which organized partial relocation to Camp Liberty as a first step toward U.S-led refugee resettlement to third countries.
Ginsberg also disputed allegations that the refugees might be poor candidates for specialized U.S. attention due to anti-American ties. Owing to attacks carried out in the 1970s that led to American deaths, MEK was designated as a terrorist group from 1997 until 2012 — but, according to Ginsberg, the refugee group actually assisted the U.S. in the Iraq war.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to support Syria’s Assad regime and supplies weapons to known terrorist groups, he added.
“These are not terrorists, these are citizens who deserve a better chance to live in freedom,” said General James Jones, former national security advisor to Barack Obama.
While the Iranian-American group presses the U.S. to move on the refugee resettlement issue , other countries, including Germany and Albania, have begun accepting Iranian refugees. The result of that is a blow to U.S. credibility, according to former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert G. Joseph.
“The best opportunity for a diplomatic outcome will have been lost,” Joseph said. “A bad agreement [in the nuclear negotiations] is perhaps the worst of the outcomes.”
U.S. diplomats have remained wary about speaking out directly to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani about the refugee situation, out of fear of damaging a “delicate” nuclear program deal.
“You do not sell out 3,000 people because they become inconvenient,” said Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “What I expect in these negotiations is for us to stand up for human rights.”
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, Barack Obama said that American diplomacy had already played a part in halting the progress of Iran’s nuclear program.
“These negotiations will be difficult,” Obama acknowledged. “They may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and the mistrust between our nations cannot be wished away.”