Iran Focus: London, Aug. 31 - Mr. Mehdi Baraie is a senior official of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI) in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. He signed a ceasefire and mutual understanding agreement with US forces in April 2003. Mr. Baraie was a political prisoner under the Shah’s regime for six years. Iran Focus conducted an interview with him by email on the latest developments related to Camp Ashraf.
London, Aug. 31 - Mr. Mehdi Baraie is a senior official of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK) in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. According to the New York Times, he signed a ceasefire and mutual understanding agreement with United States forces on 15 April 2003. Mr. Baraie was a political prisoner under the Shah’s regime for six years. Iran Focus conducted an interview with him by email on the latest developments related to Camp Ashraf.
Question: Mr. Baraie, there are a lot of reports these days about restrictions and pressures by the Iraqi government and its forces against Ashraf residents. Senior spokespersons of the PMOI, or Ashraf residents, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have repeatedly stated that U.S. forces must reassume responsibility for protection of Ashraf residents because of their earlier written commitments to the residents. Can you elaborate on this?
Mehdi Baraie: The truth is that in 2003 after the arrival of U.S. forces, Ashraf residents voluntarily handed over all their weaponry, including personal, light and heavy weapons to U.S. forces, who in return assumed the protection of Ashraf residents until their final disposition. This commitment by the U.S. forces took the form of a bilateral agreement in 2004 which U.S. forces signed with each and every Ashraf resident. It places a series of binding legal requirements on the U.S. government. The US, however, did not abide by those commitments when it handed over protection of Ashraf to Iraqi forces in early 2009.
According to the agreement, all the residents voluntary rejected terrorism and violence and pledged not to take up arms unlawfully. All Ashraf residents and we as a responsible organisation have honoured our commitments since that which we signed was consistent with our principles. When you look at the history of the PMOI, you will see that we have never been willing to trample on our principles over short-term interests, and of course we have paid a heavy price for this position. Right now there are obvious threats against Ashraf. We have also experienced the events of July 2009. Therefore, we expect and hope that the United States lives up to its commitments to Ashraf residents and will continue to persist on this matter.
Of course, even if this agreement did not exist, the United States because of its international treaty obligations would be obliged to protect Ashraf residents and guarantee their security. There is a substantial body of legal opinion by renowned international humanitarian law experts that the Ashraf residents must continue to be protected under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Considering that the current status of Ashraf residents and the threats they face is due to the conditions of the war, the United States cannot abdicate its responsibility to protect them. Even after the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq, in accordance with article 45 of the 4th Geneva Convention, the responsibility to protect continues to exist and against the repeated violations of the provisions of this Convention, the U.S. is still responsible and must reassume protection from the Iraqis.
In its April 2009 report, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) reiterated that Ashraf residents must be protected and its fundamental rights respected according to the Fourth Geneva Convention. In July 2010, Iraq’s Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi reiterated that the residents of Ashraf are dear guests of Iraq and protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Q: Will the judgment by the U.S. Federal Appeals Courts in Washington, DC, on the PMOI’s terrorist label have an impact on the situation in Ashraf?
MB: If the U.S. government wants to abide by the rule of law and the courts, now that this court has handed down its judgment, the US must immediately remove the PMOI from the list of foreign terrorist organisations. This would prevent the Iraqi government from suppressing Ashraf residents. Furthermore, it would not allow the religious fascism ruling Iran to execute political prisoners under the guise of combating terrorism. As you know, Iraqi officials from the National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and many others have tried to justify their criminal actions against Ashraf residents by invoking the PMOI’s inclusion on the list. The Court ruling makes very plain that the Secretary of State had violated the PMOI’s right to defence and due process and that her evidence against the PMOI was questionable. As the Washington Post wrote on 17 July 2010, the Court strongly suggested that the PMOI should be removed from the list. This is a litmus test of whether the U.S. State Department respects the rule of law.
Q: Recently, state media in Iran and some in Iraq have repeatedly claimed that despite the court ruling the U.S. State Department list has again included the PMOI on the list of terrorist organisations. What do you say to this?
MB: The U.S. federal appeals court ruling alarmed the regime in Iran. The authorities officially announced that they would resort to any action and will use all their diplomatic muscle to prevent the PMOI’s delisting. The publication of the U.S. State Department annual report on terrorism which relates to 2009 has nothing to do with the court verdict and as usual is a rehash of a series of baseless accusations against the PMOI. The regime very much welcomed this report to justify the execution of its opponents, particularly PMOI supporters.
Q: It has recently been claimed in the Iranian state media and some Arab-language media that the U.S. State Department has evidence that the PMOI has trained women in Ashraf to carry out suicide attacks. Specifically, Habilian, a website affiliated to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, wrote on 15 August 2010: “The revelation by the Habilian Association regarding confidential documents by the U.S. State Department on the training of girls in Camp Ashraf for terrorist operations by the Hypocrites (PMOI), who had recently been declassified, has had widespread coverage in the press and led to more and more people worldwide becoming aware of the evil nature and terrorist crimes of this terrorist grouplet”. What is your opinion on this?
MB: During the Court proceedings, the U.S. State Department declassified some parts of several documents. The unanimous judgment, however, cast doubt on those documents: "Some of the reports included in the Secretary’s analysis on their face express reservations about the accuracy of the information contained therein." It added that in one such document "the ultimate sources of the information was [sic] unknown and as such, their access, veracity, and motivations were unknown.”
It is, nevertheless, very interesting to look at the example cited by this Intelligence Ministry-run website. The charge that the PMOI in Ashraf trained women for suicide attacks or had taken part in suicide attacks in Karbala, has been repeated often for the past few years in the clerical regime’s media. For example, the state-run Mehr news agency on 12 September 2007 claimed that a woman affiliated to the PMOI was arrested in Karbala. Subsequently, other Iranian state media published the same report. In 2008, the al-Forat television, affiliated to the regime, quotes an Iraqi agent of the regime as saying: "25 female suicide bombers are in Camp Ashraf, affiliated to the PMOI, in the Hamrayn Mountains."
The mullahs’ regime provides these same false reports to its agents in Iraq, some of whom have infiltrated Iraqi government organs. They in turn pass these bogus reports as classified intelligence to various agencies including those belonging to the U.S. It is interesting that the U.S. State Department has included these as confidential documents in its files without at all scrutinising them. And now the regime’s state media accuse the PMOI of terrorism by referring to their own false intelligence that the U.S. State Department report has carbon copied.
In its coverage of this report, the Habilian website published an article entitled "Global coverage of revelations that the PMOI train suicide attackers in Iraq,” writing that its “revelations” in this regard had received coverage in "more than one hundred newspapers and news agencies" in the first day alone. Therefore, one can see that this is a closed cycle which begins with the clerical regime and ends with the clerical regime. This case exposes the nature of the State Department's so-called classified intelligence.
Q: U.S. forces protected Ashraf since 2003. Did they ever ask you about these allegations and specifically about the charges that were included in documents that were de-classified? Did they ever investigate these reports? Did you discuss such cases?
MB: As far as these specific cases are concerned, at no time since 2003 until a few months ago when the Americans were present at Ashraf did they bring them up. This shows that even they themselves did not consider these reports credible. Otherwise, they would undoubtedly have raised these issues with us. There were in fact other cases where the Iranian regime would provide the Americans with false intelligence against the PMOI in Ashraf through its agents after circulating such reports through several layers to hide the source. The Americans investigated and mentioned them to us. It was very quickly established that they were lies. Sometimes, using its agents, the mullahs’ regime would provide the US with misinformation through other countries, and the State Department would transfer this information to relevant U.S. officials in Iraq.
Given the misinformation campaign by the regime and its agents in the Iraqi government, we in Ashraf on behalf of the PMOI always wanted U.S. forces to discuss any rumours or issues with us so that we could answer the charges and an impartial investigation could take place. This has been our long-time position in the face of the vast misinformation by the clerical regime. Our position has always been and continues to be very clear.
Q: In the past year, numerous, Iranian state media have attributed many cases of explosions or bombings in various parts of Iran, including in the south-eastern province of Zahedan, to the PMOI. What is the PMOI’s position on this?
MB: The PMOI and the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which includes the PMOI, has on numerous occasions categorically denied such lies by the regime. Since 2001, the PMOI voluntarily decided to halt military operations, and it has carried out no military operations since then. This fact was proven during the court proceedings in the UK and the European Court of Justice, which examined the issue.
Moreover, it is common knowledge that all of the PMOI’s military operations until 2001 only targeted the regime’s military and suppressive forces, and civilians and civilian centres were never targeted.
Q: Why do you think the Iranian regime fears the PMOI and in particular Ashraf even though the PMOI ceased military operations in 2001 and handed its weapons to U.S. forces in 2003? Why does it sentence people to prison or execution for visiting Ashraf or paying homage to PMOI members who were executed?
MB: You may remember that when the PMOI handed over its weapons, people in Iran wrote the slogan on the walls ‘Mojahedin without arms, our hearts are your weapons’. The reality is that the regime’s fear of the PMOI is before anything else because of the PMOI’s popularity and social base as well as its principled policies. The PMOI’s widespread social and political campaign inside and outside the country, Ashraf’s perseverance, which turned it into a model and symbol for the youths and the PMOI’s successful legal campaigns in the UK and EU, alarmed the regime about the role of the PMOI as an existential threat. As such, it reached the conclusion that the unarmed PMOI today is more dangerous for the regime than before.
The regime’s growing conspiracies and fear of the PMOI and Ashraf exactly proves the fact that the PMOI without arms are more dangerous for the regime. What the PMOI has throughout its history of resistance relied on has been its people and nothing else.
The mullahs fear the PMOI’s ideals and the organisation because it embodies a school of thought. You recall that when the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners began in 1988, Khomeini’s then designated successor Ayatollah Montazeri wrote to him saying that the Mojahedin were an ideology and a form of logic that could not be destroyed by killings. For this reason, the perseverance of Ashraf over the past seven years is one of the brightest eras of the PMOI’s history.
Let me give you a hypothetical example. Tens of thousands of PMOI members have been executed and massacred in Iran. There are thousands of PMOI members in Ashraf and tens of thousands of active supporters around the world. The families of the martyrs, political prisoners, Ashraf residents and activists who are in exile are the largest social organisation in Iran. If the regime allows this group of people to gather and freely go to the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery or Khavaran (site of mass burials of political prisoners), they will quickly transform into a major social force which the regime could in no way counter. If the regime only allowed the relatives of the martyrs to freely gather in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, within a few weeks they would turn into a group of several hundred thousand people and would then be unstoppable.
Q: Mr Baraie, as a veteran member of the PMOI who was incarcerated in the 1970s, you have been familiar with this organisation and its ideals and goals since the first years. What is your opinion on this issue, which also sometimes appears in the U.S. State Department reports, that the PMOI blends Marxism and Islam, and is an Islamic-Marxist group?
MB: Anyone in the least bit familiar with the PMOI knows that the description of its ideology as Islamic-Marxist is inaccurate and politically-biased. Given their fundamental differences in the various fields of philosophy, society, politics and economy, Marxism and Islam can never be integrated. Specifically in the field of philosophy, which is the basis of any ideology, they contradict each other. I remember when I was arrested in 1973, authorities would levy such charges against us in the Shah's prisons. Since the PMOI had gained a lot of popularity because of their belief in Islam, the Shah's regime thought that it could discredit them by coining the term Islamic-Marxist. Khomeini later borrowed this label from the Shah and used it against the PMOI.
In an interview with Time Magazine on 14 September 1981, Massoud Rajavi [then the PMOI’s secretary-general] said: "Every high school student knows that believing in God, Jesus Christ and Muhammad is incompatible with the philosophy of Marxism. … But for dictators like Khomeini, ‘Islamic Marxist’ is a very profitable phrase to use against any opposition. If Jesus Christ and Muhammad were alive and protesting against Khomeini, he would call them Marxists, too."
Moreover, Mr. Rajavi held a series of classes in 1980 in Sharif Industrial University in Tehran, entitled “Interpretation of the Universe”, in which he elaborated about the differences between Islam and Marxism.
Another yardstick which renders this allegation hollow is the PMOI’s 40-year practical record. The merger of two contradictory phenomena may be practical for a short time but it cannot last for decades, especially in the midst of a hard struggle like ours. Today the PMOI are seen as an antithesis of fundamentalism not only in Iran but in Iraq and even in the entire region. This is precisely because the PMOI espouses and advocates a democratic and tolerant Islam.
But more importantly, this allegation has not only been repudiated by the PMOI but also by many impartial investigators. Thus, it is clear that the U.S. State Department turned a deaf ear to what experts have had to say on this matter.