The clock is ticking, louder with every day that goes by, on the lives of more than 1,000 Iranian dissidents exiled in Iraq.
These are the men and women who fled the Iranian regime to make their home near Baghdad more than a quarter of a century ago and who, in 2003, were given protection by U.S. armed forces under the Geneva Conventions.
But now it appears they are being held ransom by the State Department, their human rights ignored because of politics and the desire to preserve favor with the Iraqi government, whose violent intent in removing them from Camp Ashraf in Iraq was tragically demonstrated in a deadly attack last year.
In the past six months, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) willingly began a process of relocating from Ashraf to a former U.S. military base, called Liberty, based on a Memorandum of Understanding brokered by the United Nations and the United States with the Iraqi government.
But the conditions that greeted five waves of dissidents who made the journey, 2,000 people in total, were an affront to the name Liberty. They found conditions more like a prison and living standards that did not come close to reaching the basic needs for living.
Understandably, the process has stalled. The MEK have demanded that minimum human rights be met and that Iraqi forces in charge of the relocation stop reneging on the terms of the agreement before the final transfer of 1,200 people is completed.
But instead of the United States standing up for the MEK, officials announced on July 6 that unless the remaining dissidents complete the move to Liberty before July 20 - when the Iraqis have decided the deadline for the closure of Ashraf will be imposed - they can expect Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to refuse to delist them as a terrorist organization.
In a State Department briefing with two senior officials, it was asserted that the MEK was to blame for the “impasse” and “the patience of the Iraqi government is wearing thin.” The officials repeatedly made reference to the idea that unless the dissidents cooperated during the next two weeks, their long-fought battle to have the terrorist label removed will be lost.
But what is the priority here - politics or the lives of 1,200 defenseless and vulnerable people?
State Department officials admitted the July 20 deadline imposed by the Iraqis places the residents in a “precarious” position, and yet their reaction - sympathizing with the Iraqis - sets the stage for further attacks by Iraqi forces. Does the State Department not realize that if this happens, it will have blood on its hands?
Why aren’t officials focused on the right solution to the situation - to protect life and respect the human rights of the MEK members by forcing the Iraqis to uphold the memorandum they signed?
In fact, the MEK made exactly the same requests before and after the very first wave of dissidents made the move to Liberty seven months ago. You can judge for yourself whether it is extravagant or reasonable to request that some of the equipment they possessed in Ashraf for meeting basic needs be made available at Liberty.
With temperatures reaching 133 degrees and Ramadan approaching, the MEK has asked for 300 air conditioners to be transferred from Ashraf to the new camp. They have asked for proper water and power supplies to replace the failing systems in place. They want trucks to be able to bring their personal belongings to Liberty, rather than having to carry them through the streets on their back as though they were still living in medieval times. They want vehicles, trailers and special facilities adapted for the disabled. For the 1,000 men and women injured when Ashraf came under attack by Iraqi forces in 2009 and 2011, the MEK want 50 cars to help move around the wounded and disabled residents. This is only one car for every 40 dissidents.
Are any of these requests too much to ask? Is it unfair to ask the Iraqis, the U.N. and the United States to stick to the international laws agreed when the memorandum was signed?
The MEK have said - rightly and properly - they will not move the last 1,200 residents until these conditions, 10 in total, are met. The response so far has been disappointing, unreasonable and not constructive.
The choice for the dissidents remaining at Ashraf appears to be this: Stay and face the consequences - a likely massacre and the refusal of the U.S. to delist the MEK - or move to Liberty, live in a prisonlike camp and face conditions akin to suffering a slow death.
There is no honor in either option. The answer must be for the U.S. and U.N. to stop failing the people they have promised to protect and give them a viable humanitarian solution - by focusing on the simple needs of the dissidents and making Liberty habitable. Only then will all parties start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Lord David Alton is an independent member of the House of Lords and leading member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom.