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Outside View: Time for scholars to examine Iranian opposition

By IVAN SASCHA SHEEHAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Oct. 18, 2013 at 12:05 AM
BALTIMORE, Oct. 18 (UPI) -- The P5+1 nuclear negotiations in Geneva this week have the world asking whether there isn't a better way to address the Iranian nuclear problem.

Tehran's negotiating style, which relies on the cyclical use of threat and accommodation, has frustrated the West and served the regime's ultimate interest -- buying time for nuclear armament.

In recent weeks, I've been discussing these matters in the academic community.

The purpose of my talks has been threefold:

1) To discuss the recent violence directed at the primary opposition to clerical rule in Iran, the People's Mujahedin of Iran, as well as the increasing recognition among analysts that the de facto Parliament-in-Exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, is the best hope of fostering democratic change from within;

2) To identify misconceptions about the Iranian opposition that have been used to promote a policy of engagement that has constrained policy considerations; and

3) To set students and faculty on a path of inquiry to study these matters in the academic community.

Such discussions are necessary to ensure that academics aren't left in the dark when global powers neglect their commitments and abdicate their responsibilities on matters with human consequences.

Continued attention to these matters in scholarly circles is also needed to ensure that the false dichotomy of prolonged negotiations and tactical military strikes is rejected and other tools for averting an Iranian nuclear crisis considered.

In recent weeks, the world was riveted with the terrible events in Kenya when 15 masked gunmen entered a mall in Nairobi and cold-bloodedly killed 67 innocent people, injuring many more.

By contrast, the world's media gave little play to an event that took place just three weeks earlier, on Sept. 1, when more than 100 heavily armed commandos, reportedly under the command of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, brazenly entered a refugee camp called Camp Ashraf in northeastern Iraq and killed 52 of the 100 residents living there, taking another seven hostage.

The United Nations confirms that many of victims of the attack were killed execution style, some while receiving medical care.

The masked forces also blew up several buildings and dozens of cars that belonged to the residents.

On college campuses few know anything of this violence.

Videos taken by survivors of the massacre confirm that it would be impossible for the gunmen to have entered the heavily guarded complex, surrounded by two layers of chain-linked fence, to carry out the attack unless assisted by Iraqi military forces guarding the compound.

Former senior U.S. military commanders who served at Ashraf, including retired U.S. Army Col. Wesley Martin and retired Army Col. Thomas Cantwell, appeared at a congressional briefing last week to identify clear signs of Iraqi complicity.

The targets of the attack in Iraq were a group of Iranian dissidents who opposed the shah in the lead up to the 1979 Revolution but ultimately fell out with the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Unhappy with the turn to authoritarianism, they were persecuted by the Iranian supreme leader and subsequently fled to Paris and later into Iraq.

They became a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime in the early 1980s when they carried out opposition activities to dislodge theocratic rule. The group renounced violence in favor of political solutions in 2001 and disarmed entirely after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As a result, individuals at the camp had no means of defending themselves when assault forces entered their compound on Sept. 1. The violence against the Iranian dissidents was a clear violation of the quadripartite agreement signed by the Iraqi government and ratified by the United States and the United Nations on Aug. 17, 2012.

So why was the attack on Ashraf given so little attention vis-a-vis the violence in Kenya?

Is it because the Kenya attack was conducted by members of the terrorist group Al-Shabbab from Somalia and the United States is at war with sub-state terrorism? Is it because we feel this violence could be imported to the United States -- whereas the violence in Iraq was directed at Iranians, carried out by a state that receives U.S. backing and was directed at a group that has become "inconvenient" for the West as it tries to placate Tehran?

The slaughter of Iranian dissidents comes at a challenging time for the Obama White House. Condemning the act of Iraqi aggression, carried out on behalf of Iran, could jeopardize sensitive backroom negotiations on the nuclear issue and the policy of appeasement that the administration seems inclined to pursue. It also raises questions as to the legality of providing military assistance to Iraqi forces in view of the Leahy law and Arms Export Control Act.

Shortly after the assault, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps issued a statement welcoming the attack, calling it "historical revenge" and praising its perpetrators. But many Western media outlets and senior officials looked the other way to focus on "talks" with the same government that encouraged the violence.

Policymakers and citizens should denounce these crimes against humanity and demand that the White House hold Iraq accountable for its failure to protect these defenseless individuals. They should also insist that the Obama administration use its leverage to pressure the Iraqi government to release the seven hostages currently held under threat of extradition to Iran.

Finally, they should demand the designation of the dissidents as political refugees and relocate them to the United States promptly and without preconditions.

But students and scholars have a role to play, too. Academics can bear witness to the atrocities committed, ask difficult questions, hold leaders to task, chronicle human rights violations and challenge the selective attention of media outlets.

Camp Liberty, where some 3,000 residents now reside, is even more vulnerable than Ashraf. Assailants acting on behalf of the Iranian regime routinely attack the dissidents -- all of whom are recognized as asylum-seekers and "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Students and scholars must proceed with a continued examination of these matters before more innocent lives are taken.

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(Ivan Sascha Sheehan is director of the graduates programs in Negotiation and Conflict Management and Global Affairs and Human Security in the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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