Today, the Iranian people live under one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world. The clerical regime in Iran not only kills, tortures and suppresses its own population, it is also the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, which is now getting closer to building a nuclear bomb. It has thus become the biggest foreign policy threat to the United States.
The regime realizes that its own existence is threatened by the Iranian people’s yearning for freedom and democracy. It is this yearning that has brought thousands of Iranian exiles together in neighboring Iraq to struggle for a secular, democratic and non-nuclear Iran.
The 3,400 Iranian refugees currently residing in a prison-like Camp Liberty in Iraq are regarded as “protected persons” under international law and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has described them as “asylum seekers.” Brutally pursued by the Iranian regime and its puppet government in Iraq since the 2003 Iraq War, these Iranian refugees are now looking to get to safety outside of Iraq.
Before going to Liberty, these Iranian exiles, supporters of the main opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), lived in Camp Ashraf, a sprawling city they had built themselves for 25 years. In September 2011, the UN High Commission for Refugees declared the residents asylum-seekers and “persons of concern,” who are entitled to international protections.
On December 25, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement announcing her full support for an agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq. The so called “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) outlines some of the steps relevant to the temporary relocation and eventual resettlement of the residents of Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty in Iraq.
The United States position has been that “the exercise of a sovereign right [by Iraq] does not obviate the need for care and restraint.” The Department of State has stated for that record that it “will continue to work closely with the UN, its Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), and the UNHCR to prepare the way for a humanitarian resolution.” Furthermore, an amendment included in H.R. 2583 (Foreign Relations Authorization Act, fiscal year 2012) which passed the U.S. Congress in 2012, “makes it the United States policy to take all necessary and appropriate steps in accordance with international agreements to support the commitments of the United States to ensure the physical security and protection of Camp Ashraf residents.” Similarly, Senator Carl Levin and other prominent present and former policy makers have pressured both the U.S. and Iraq to meet their respective obligations to the residents of Camp Liberty/Camp Ashraf.
The United States has consistently welcomed and acknowledged the cooperation of Ashraf residents throughout the gradual relocation process. Despite UN involvement, however, substantial limitations exist for residents in Liberty which functions more like a prison and detention center.
Even the most conservative estimates suggest that resettlement of individuals from Liberty to countries outside Iraq will take a minimum of two to three years. Camp Liberty, therefore, can no longer be considered a Temporary Transit Location (TTL). To allow for successful implementation of the MoU, the United States must do all that is necessary to initiate and facilitate a UNHCR effort to declare Camp Liberty a refugee camp. Accordingly, on August 31st, 2012, some 17 prominent former U.S. Government officials wrote to Secretary Clinton asking her to take steps to improve the humanitarian situation in Camp Liberty.
The history of the political activism of the brave residents of Camp Liberty is the history of modern Iran and the uncompromising quest of its people to establish a secular and democratic government that separates religion and state, respects human rights, women rights and the rights of minorities.
The 1979 Revolution
In February 1979, after years of struggle and protests, the Iranian people finally succeeded in overthrowing the dictatorship of the Shah. But, the cleric Khomeini usurped the revolution and monopolized power by creating a “velayat-e faqih” (a system of absolute clerical rule). He either annihilated or sidelined major opposition forces to pave the way for the creation of his totalitarian regime. Among the most important of these opposition groups was the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
The PMOI, inspired by the democratic struggles that preceded its creation in 1965, was founded by three university graduates in Tehran. Following the revolution, the popularity of the PMOI increased and it soon became one of the largest political parties in Iran’s history. By late 1980, the circulation of its main publication surpassed 600,000, more than any other newspaper in Iran at the time.
In the early 1980s, the PMOI adhered to peaceful means and democratic processes to obtain their objectives for a free and democratic Iran. But Khomeini’s forces, bent on creating another dictatorship, could not tolerate any semblance of opposition to their agenda. In June, 1981, more than half a million people marched on the streets of Tehran alone to protest the regime’s actions. On Khomeini’s orders announced on the radio, the regime’s forces opened fire and killed dozens. Soon, tens of thousands were summarily executed, imprisoned, tortured, or otherwise forced into exile. Most of the casualties belonged to the PMOI. Persecuted at home, many chose exile to continue their struggle for freedom.
Since 1986, Camp Ashraf in Iraq had been home to some 3,400 members, relatives, and sympathizers of the PMOI. For many, Camp Ashraf still represents the bastion of freedom, a place that nurtures the century-old aspiration of Iranians for democracy.
Camp Ashraf rests in Iraq’s Diyala Province, 60 miles northeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and about 44 miles from Iran’s western border. The PMOI resettled its leadership, rank and file in a 14 square-mile barren land that we know as Camp Ashraf, where only a handful of deserted buildings existed. The residents converted the barren desert into the a sprawling city, often referred to by stunned visitors as an “oasis in the desert called Ashraf.”
For over 25 years, these Iranian exiles lived in the camp, building through their own toil and resources an oasis, a fully equipped city with beautiful architecture, spectacular flower gardens, hospitals, schools, pools, a university, libraries and museums, a mosque, and recreation centers. Since 1965, the PMOI has strived for freedom and human rights, first against the despotic reign of the Shah, and now the theocratic tyranny of the ayatollahs.
The PMOI is an anti-fundamentalist Muslim organization which believes in a democratic, progressive, and tolerant interpretation of Islam, according to which elections and universal suffrage are the sole indicators of political legitimacy. Because of these beliefs, since the 1980s, tens of thousands of its PMOI members and sympathizers (by some estimates over 120,000) have been killed by the clerical fundamentalist regime in Iran. In 1988 alone, the regime killed thousands of political prisoners affiliated with the PMOI in the span of a few months. International human rights organizations refer to it as a “massacre,” and prominent legal experts have said that the episode is more shocking in magnitude than events like the Srebrenica massacre.
The organization and its members at Ashraf have endeavored for liberty with great personal sacrifice. Many have left behind lucrative careers and said goodbye to loved ones in the U.S. and European countries to move to Ashraf in order to serve as a counterbalance to the Iranian regime’s fundamentalist influence in the region.
About a third of these dissidents are former political prisoners who have endured unspeakable torture while incarcerated in the Iranian regime’s prisons and torture chambers. As such, these dissidents have become an inspiration to the millions of young Iranians and women who strive for democracy in their country.
Nearly 1,000 are women who have courageously defied the heart of the Iranian regime’s ideology: misogyny. Many of the residents who were educated in western institutions of higher education left comfortable lives of comfort in Europe and the United States to go to the front line of a battle struggle to free their homeland from the tyranny of a ruthless theocracy. Among them are hundreds of Western-educated doctors, nurses, engineers, mathematicians, artists, poets, and the like.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, United States military forces took control of Camp Ashraf. In July, 2004, following a 16-month review, the United States Government on behalf of the Multi-National Forces-Iraq, granted residents of Camp Ashraf “Protected Persons” status under the Fourth Geneva Convention. All residents of Ashraf signed an agreement which included rejection of terrorism and violence. Awarding of the Protected Persons status was based on their status as non-combatants in the midst of a conflict.
International organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have made clear that residents of Camp Ashraf must not be deported, expelled, repatriated or displaced inside Iraq in violation of the relevant provisions of International Humanitarian Law. On March 20, 2007, ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reminded the relevant authorities of “their obligation to act in accordance with the principle of non-refoulement.” ICRC has made clear that residents of Camp Ashraf must not be deported, expelled, repatriated or displaced inside Iraq in violation of the relevant provisions of International Humanitarian Law.
With the termination of the UN mandate authorizing Coalition Forces to operate in Iraq and after the signing of the SOFA agreement, American protection of these unarmed opponents of the Iranian regime also came to an end in early 2009. After the ascent of an Iraqi government ready to act sympathetic to the Iranian regime’s agenda, the defenseless residents of Camp Ashraf came under increasing harassment, psychological torture and even deadly attacks.
In July, 2009, with pressure from neighboring Iran, Iraqi forces launched an attack on the camp and its unarmed residents, killing 11 and wounding hundreds. A prolonged siege of the camp ensued during which medical care and supplies, food, fuel, and other basic necessities of life were often denied its to the residents. In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 32 members of Congress condemned the violence and urged both the U.S. and Iraq to take immediate steps to ensure the safety and well-being of the camp’s residents. Majority members of Congress also co-sponsored House Resolution 704, condemning the Iraqi government’s action and asking the President to “take all necessary and appropriate steps to support the commitments of the United States under international law and treaty obligations to ensure the physical security and protection of Camp Ashraf residents against inhumane treatment and involuntary deportation by Iraqi security forces.”
On April 08, 2011, Iraqi armed forces undertook a much larger and more deadly attack on Ashraf. Some 34 residents were killed and hundreds more were severely injured. Hundreds of residents were severely injured, with some permanently losing the use of their limbs. Others were shot point blank or run over by military vehicles. One of those killed was Mrs. Asieh Rakhshani.
Asieh, 30, was a journalist with IranNTV.com and a resident of Ashraf who was shot to death by Iraqi security forces on April 8, 2011 as she filmed the carnage being inflicted on Ashraf and its defenseless residents. Asieh grew up in northern California with her some relatives who acted as her guardians. She returned to Ashraf after graduating from high school. With a keen interest in journalism, she became a camera person. She took up a camera and was on the scene of the attack on April 8th, where she actively documented the Iraqi forces during their attack on April 8th. She filmed her own last moments before being shot. Seven other women were also killed on that day, among them was Saba Haftbaradaran.
According to her father, who was at the scene, Saba’s treatment was deliberately hampered by Iraqi officers sent by the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Office, leading to severe bullet-induced blood loss and ultimately, to her unnecessary death.
Others were severely wounded by shrapnel from Iraqi hand grenades or machine gun fire. On Thursday, July 7, 2011, a hearing, entitled “Massacre at Camp Ashraf: Implications for U.S. Policy,” was held by the Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Among those who provided testimony in at the hearing was Ms. Neda Zanjanpour, a survivor of the massacre at Camp Ashraf. Other witnesses included Michael Mukasey, former Attorney General of the United States and Colonel Gary Morsch, M.D., the chief medical liaison between Camp Ashraf and the U.S. military. A Canadian citizen who studied at York University, Ms. Zanjanpour, went to Ashraf in 1999 at the age of 20. She testified that she had been wounded “when an Iraqi soldier threw a grenade at me, which exploded between my legs.”
In a statement, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), condemned the April 2011 attack on Camp Ashraf and called it a “massacre.” He urged the U.S. and Iraq to ensure protection of Ashraf and to facilitate a solution acceptable to Ashraf residents.
Similarly, the Chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a joint statement to condemn the attack.
In 2012, the residents were all moved to Camp Liberty at the insistence of the Iraqi government to close down Camp Ashraf as the main threat to the Iranian regimes existence. On December 25, 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement announcing her full support for an agreement between the United Nations and the Government of Iraq. The so called “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) outlines some of the steps relevant to the temporary relocation and eventual resettlement of the residents of Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty in Iraq. The signing of this Memorandum of Understanding, she said, “represents significant progress on this issue and outlines steps necessary to achieve a peaceful and viable solution for the residents of Ashraf, including their temporary relocation to Camp Liberty, a former U.S. military base near the Baghdad International Airport. Currently, UNHCR is reviewing their refugee status at Camp Liberty so that they can be resettled into safety in third countries willing to accept them. At this new location, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been conducting refugee status determinations for the residents of Ashraf — a necessary first step toward resettlement to third countries.”
Even the most conservative estimates suggest that resettlement of individuals from Liberty to countries outside Iraq will take a minimum of two to three years. Camp Liberty, therefore, can no longer be considered a Temporary Transit Location (TTL). To allow for successful implementation of the MoU, the United States must do all that is necessary to initiate and facilitate a UNHCR effort to declare Camp Liberty a refugee camp.
The protection of Camp Liberty residents, who represent the Iranian people’s only hope for a democratic, free, secular and non-nuclear republic, follows a long history that goes back to more than a century ago. It is an extraordinary tale of heroic struggles and bitter defeats brought about by unforgiving dictators. But, throughout this arduous process, the Iranian people have shown an equally extraordinary resolve to establish a democratic government in their homeland.
The 1906 Constitutional Revolution
In 1906, Iran witnessed its first large upheaval in the form of the Constitutional Revolution. It is true that the Constitutional Revolution culminated in 1906 with the acceptance of the monarch to limit his vast authorities and submit to the establishment of a parliament for the people. Still, what predated this momentous achievement was a long struggle. In addition to the continuing street protests, newspapers, poems and writings proliferated that helped stir the imagination of young Iranians and facilitate open dialogue and debate. In an ancient land known for its commerce, the free market of ideas was just beginning to form.
The result of the revolution was the establishment of arguably the first modern parliament (referred to as the “House of Justice”) in the Middle East, where elected representatives debated the issues of concern to ordinary Iranians. Some observers and historians at the time were amazed at how well Iranians – experiencing a parliamentary setting for the very first time – carried out tolerant debate. Still, this nascent democratic institution was bombed by a defiant monarch before it could carve out its rightful place in Iranian politics.
Even though the joy of the 1906 revolution was soon replaced by a period of suppression and tyranny, the Iranian people’s desire for democracy and justice never wavered.
The Mossadeq Era
On April 28, 1951, the Majlis (Parliament of Iran) named Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq as new prime minister by a vote of 79–12.
Mossadeq introduced a wide range of social reforms: Unemployment compensation was introduced, factory owners were ordered to pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and peasants were freed from forced labor in their landlords’ estates. Twenty percent of the money landlords received in rent was placed in a fund to pay for development projects such as public baths, rural housing, and pest control.
On May 1, 1951, Mossadeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which had controlled all of Iran’s oil exploration, refining and distribution since 1913, cancelling its oil concession due to expire in 1993 and expropriating its assets.
Furious over Dr. Mossadeq’s actions and after failing to return control of Iranian oil to the British, Sir Winston Churchill convinced the Eisenhower administration to collaborate in overthrowing the most revered politician in the history of modern Iran. The Central Intelligence Agency and the British MI6 engineered a coup in August, 1953, which resulted in the overthrow of Dr. Mossadeq and the restoration of the Shah to the throne after he had been forced to flee the country earlier that year.
The coup led to the continuation of the Shah’s survival until 1979, when the anti-monarchical revolution took place but was sadly usurped by Khomeini and his clerical supporters. They instituted a clerical dictatorship that is more brutal and repressive than the Shah’s. But, the struggle of the Iranian people continues, and the residents of Camp Liberty fight on for a free Iran.