Iran, US do a 'war on terror' somersault
By Sreeram Chaulia
The fierce raid this week by Iraqi military and police units on Camp Ashraf, a
base for the militant Iranian dissident outfit - Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) or
"People's Holy Warriors" - was a game changer in Iran's quest to control the
The timing of the intense two-day siege of the camp, which left six people dead
and dozens injured, is clearly linked to the progressive transfer of security
operations from American to Iraqi troops.
Since January, Iraqi authorities had been promising that they would not allow
the MEK to use their soil for anti-Iranian activities, an affirmation of the
closeness between the post-Saddam
Hussein dispensation in Baghdad and Tehran. But even though Iraqi President
Jalal Talabani announced in March that the MEK would be expelled for its
anti-Iran behavior, no drastic measures were taken owing to the continued
"protection" that Camp Ashraf received from occupying American forces. The
attack on MEK this week could only be undertaken after the US formally handed
over security of cities to Iraqi forces.
That the Iraqis were waiting for this opportunity is evident from comments of
General Ray Odierno, the commander of the US military in the country, that he
"did not know" that a raid was on the cards. Why was the US a stumbling block
for Iraq to take strong measures against an Iranian militant group that had
been declared a terrorist organization by the US State Department in
Washington? The answer lies in the convoluted somersaults produced by the "war
on terror", wherein former enemies became best friends and vice-versa.
With an estimated 3,400 Iranian exiles in residence, Camp Ashraf is located in
Diyala governorate, just 100 kilometers from the Iranian border. From its
redoubts in Iraq, the MEK had been carrying on a nearly two decades-long war to
topple the Islamic regime in Tehran. Formed in 1965 as a Marxist guerrilla
movement to oppose the American-allied pro-capitalist Shah Reza Pahlavi, the
MEK evolved into a serious threat to the ayatollah-dominated post-1979 Islamic
Republic through a series of bombings and assassinations on establishment
Its aim of forming a "democratic and secular government" in Iran through
violent means invited harsh retaliation from the regime during and after
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's stewardship.
Driven underground and into exile, first in France and then in Saddam's Iraq,
the MEK continued its assassination and political destabilization agenda on
Iranian soil right up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Since the MEK had
tactically allied with Saddam, it was initially treated by the invading
American forces as an enemy that had to be reined in. But in April 2003, US
special forces entered into a controversial ceasefire agreement with the MEK
and took its fighters into "protection" by citing international humanitarian
That a regular flouter of international such as former US defense secretary
Donald Rumsfeld would take recourse to the Geneva Conventions to justify
befriending the MEK in 2003 was nothing but fishy. Since the neo-conservative
goal of the George W Bush administration was to use Iraq as a launch pad to
force regime change in Iran, the MEK could have been viewed by the "terror
warriors" as a handy instrument to prepare for the next front - an invasion of
The US military was "guarding" Camp Ashraf up to early 2009 with a definite
intent to benefit from the MEK's knowledge of conditions inside Iran. The MEK
must have been consulted by the Americans during Bush's second term, when
contingency plans for invading Iran from the "left flank" were being
According to some Western media reports, the MEK has "more recently supplied
the United States with information about Iran's nuclear program". Just as the
US courted dissident Iraqis living in exile to help organize the overthrow of
Saddam, the MEK would have been a vital cog if the "war on terror" had to cross
the border and enter Iran.
On one hand, American commanders in Iraq were accusing Iran of violating Iraq's
sovereignty by arming and funding the anti-US resistance, while on the other
hand, the US was harboring Iranian MEK fighters to probe and poke at Iran's
The MEK figured well in a tit-for-tat strategy game until US President Barack
Obama's ascent to power. The new American administration's determination to
scale down the US military commitment to Iraq and to seek "unclenched fist"
relations with Iran reduced the utility of the MEK for forward planning.
From the MEK's point of view, it may be feeling used and betrayed by the
Americans in a sport of shifting goals and alliances. So battered is the MEK
from the latest showdown with Iraqi enforcers at Camp Ashraf that its female
leader, Maryam Rajavi, is seeking an "international" (read American) guarantee
not to be prosecuted if her fighters are deported to Iran.
Given Iran's past track record of viciously hunting down MEK operatives, the
chances of repatriated militants being pardoned are razor-thin. The worst
nightmare for the MEK is of total American abandonment that would lead to it
being thrown like lambs before the Iranian state's hungry wolves.
The MEK's setbacks in Iraq are not the only gains for Iran of late. On its
eastern border with Pakistan, Iran faces another shadowy terrorist organization
called Jundullah, a Sunni outfit active in the province of
Sistan-o-Balochistan. Claiming to represent the rights of oppressed Sunni
Balochs in Iran, Jundullah has been blamed for sabotage, assassinations and
bombings carried out near the Pakistani-Iranian border. Jundullah is said to
have been created in 2003 and assisted by the US Central Intelligence Agency as
part of the "eastern flank"' invasion planning against Iran.
Iranian army and intelligence figures allege that Jundullah is funded by
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two American allies with a long history of promoting
Sunni fundamentalism. Although Pakistan has declared Jundullah a terrorist
organization, Iranian officials often question Islamabad's failure to take
credible action against its cadres who roam about freely in Pakistani
Balochistan. The prominent Pakistani journalist, Hamid Mir, wrote recently in
The News about the perception that Pakistan is deliberately "silent over the
role of the CIA in Balochistan which is using Jundullah against Iran".
Despite the alleged collusion among the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to
nurture Jundullah, Tehran has been steadily striking hard against this
separatist group claiming independence for the two million Sunni Balochs in
Iran. In mid-July, 14 Jundullah agents were executed publicly in the Iranian
city of Zahedan for their complicity in a series of attacks on Iranian
government personnel and civilians.
Unlike the turnaround with Iraq on the MEK, Iran still lacks solid cooperation
from Pakistan to be able to thoroughly defeat Jundullah. But the stern
punishments and round-ups in Sistan province are making it harder for Jundullah
to maintain credible striking capability against the Iranian state.
The net result of the weakening of the MEK and of Jundullah is ironic. Iran is
currently shaking from the deep internal political fracas following President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election, with even the conservative
clergy deeply divided. The suzerainty of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
has never before been so openly challenged as it is now, with critics like
defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi painting the country as a
"prison of 70 million people". Externally, however, in Iraq and on its
borderlands with Pakistan, Iran is emerging stronger.
A weak government with an improving external security environment is an oddity
that portends more internal bickering in times to come. If the hand of the
security establishment is buoyed by the gains against the MEK and Jundullah,
and if there is simultaneous downsizing of the power of the clerical class
inside the country, Iran's theocracy may be morphing into a military
dictatorship in all but name.
Sreeram Chaulia is associate professor of world politics at the Jindal
Global Law School in Sonipat, India.