The Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iraq; A policy Conundrum (21)

Option 3: Repatriating the MeK to Iran

Because the majority of MeK members are Iranian nationals (though many are effectively stateless because they no longer have documentation or valid Iranian passports), the discussion of repatriation begins and ends with Iran.13

Aside from the general desirability of restoring individuals to their rightful homeland, the principal and most compelling reason to pursue repatriation to Iran is that, for more than five years, Iran has offered and honored a grant of amnesty to rank-and-file MeK members.

Amnesty was first suggested in early May 2003, when the IRI proposed, among other things, to exchange Al Qaeda members detained in Iran, including Saif al-Adel and a son of Osama bin Laden, for the MeK in Iraq.14

To address U.S. concerns about the dangers of such an arrangement (i.e., that the human rights of former MeK members would be violated),15 Iran offered amnesty to all but 50 named leaders of the group.16

In addition, the IRI stated that it would invite the ICRC’s facilitation of the MeK’s repatriation as well as its oversight of trials of the MeK leadership.17 The United States initially refused the Iranian offer, not only out of distrust of the IRI’s intentions and a desire to avoid encouraging the IRI to take hostages,18 but also because of an interest in preserving the MeK organization for its own possible future use—for example, providing coalition forces with intelligence on Iran—and to avoid giving Iran “a gift” (particularly if the IRI improved its human rights record by treating MeK members humanely).19

The United States also rejected a follow-up request to exchange the names of MeK detainees in Iraq and Al Qaeda detainees in Iran.20 General Odierno’s May 10 cease-fire negotiations with the MeK occurred shortly after these negotiations.

In 2004, the U.S. approach changed to a limited extent. With Saddam’s assistance, the MeK had increased its numbers by using the promise of repatriation to attract Iranian prisoners from the Iran-Iraq War out of Iraqi prison camps and into MeK camps. Many of the first individuals to ask the JIATF to help them leave the MeK were these former POWs, several hundred of whom were moved to the TIPF.

They reported that the ICRC had visited MeK camps prior to OIF, but the MeK leadership had frustrated the ICRC’s efforts to facilitate their repatriation and reestablish family links. Early in 2004, the JIATF contacted the ICRC to follow up on the repatriation offer. However, the ICRC could not facilitate repatriation until coalition forces resolved the legal status of the MeK.

After the group’s members were designated as protected persons, the ICRC conducted individual interviews and coordinated repatriation to Iran in late 2004 and again in early 2005.

By this means, approximately 250 former MeK members were voluntarily repatriated to Iran, where they were reportedly treated well by the IRI.21 Indeed, to gain public relations benefits, Iran hosted events to welcome the ex-MeK members home and then conducted individual two-week debriefings. To date, the ICRC is not aware of any ill treatment of these repatriates, even during the two-week debriefing period.22

In May 2004, the DOS group that conducted interviews at Camp Ashraf recommended repatriation for all MeK members, but no action was taken.23 Repatriation to Iran has been the only successful long-term disposition option. Despite the broad-based expectation that the IRI would persecute all former MeK members, that has not proven to be the case.

Indeed, it has been in the IRI’s interest to abide by its grant of amnesty in order to improve its international standing while at the same time pursuing its primary goal of dismantling the MeK. The GOI can also achieve its goal of ejecting the bulk of the MeK population while similarly improving its international standing by supporting repatriation through the ICRC.

Several senior DOS officials continue to maintain that repatriation is the only plausible option.24 It is essential that the ICRC be involved in any repatriation effort because the principle of nonrefoulement must be respected. This requires treating each member’s case individually.

The ICRC conducts interviews with individual candidates for repatriation to assess the nature of their fear of persecution. If an individual’s fears are not objectively and subjectively sound, he or she can be forcibly repatriated. For those MeK members whose fears would indeed prohibit their repatriation, which would likely include the named leaders who are not protected by Iran’s amnesty, nonrefoulement will bar their repatriation.


13 A small number of current and former MeK members have citizenship or valid rights of residence in countries other than Iran where they would not face persecution, though they often lacked the required documentation to reenter those countries. For former members who sought repatriation, the JIATF worked with DOS to secure their return.

14 Porter, 2006.

15 These concerns were not without foundation, given the IRI’s history of persecuting the MeK. DOS has repeatedly identified the IRI as a leading sponsor of torture.

16 In 2003, an IRI spokesman emphasized that the amnesty would exclude MeK “ringleaders who have directly been involved in terrorist operations and crimes against the Iranian people” (“Iranian Press Reports MKO Members Among Those Arrested in Recent Arrest,” 2003). In 2007, only about five of the named MeK leaders resided at Camp Ashraf, according to the JIATF.

17 Interview with a former member of the White House staff, January 2008.

18 See Tanter and Clawson, 2003.

19 Interviews with National Security Council, DoD, and DOS staff, October 2007 and January–February 2008.

20 Porter, 2006.

21 ICRC, 2008.

22 Steele, 2009.

23 Interview with a senior CPA official, February 2008.

24 Interviews conducted in October 2007 and February 2008.

The Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iraq; A policy Conundrum (20)