Iran Nuclear Weapons Talks Could Set Off a Dangerous Chain Reaction in Tehran

In the past month, the media and airwaves in the U.S. have been overflowing with euphoria about the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. Such expectations have been reinforced by the tantalizing rhetoric offered by Tehran's officials, including President Hassan Rouhani and his media charm offensive, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who urged "heroic flexibility" before Rouhani’s trip to New York.

This leads to an unsettling question: If a nuclear accord proves to be a plausible outcome, what concessions are the Iranian regime seeking to obtain from the U.S.?

One answer is a promise to lift sanctions, which have been economically painful. The other possible concession has to do with internal politics in Iran, and a popular uprising — similar to the one in 2009 — led by an organized opposition. This explains why Tehran has been singularly focused on the country's largest organized opposition group, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), ever since the group was removed from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in late 2012. A recent, brutal massacre of dozens of Iranian democratic opposition members at Camp Ashraf is crucial to understanding Tehran's abrupt change in tone.

On September 1, Iraqi forces stormed Camp Ashraf, where 101 MEK members resided, murdering 52 and taking seven hostages. Those who miraculously survived were later transferred to Camp Liberty, where nearly 3,000 other MEK members currently reside. 

The MEK, which calls for a democratic, secular, and non-nuclear Iran, has long been viewed by Tehran as an existential threat, which explains why the regime has constantly demanded its extradition. In recent years, the MEK has scored major political victories and international support, and its standing in European parliaments and Congress has been on the rise, further alarming Tehran.

Why would Tehran go this far to use its Iraqi ally, Nouri al-Maliki, to try to eliminate its unarmed opposition? A weakened regime, bruised with economic sanctions and facing the prospect of a debilitating and protracted cycle of infighting, needs to reshape power relationships, strengthen the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and eliminate a force with remarkable organizational ability and wherewithal to lead the street in any upheaval.

Back in 1988, when Khamenei's predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, intended to set the stage for a ceasefire with Iraq, he sought Revolutionary Guard support and carried out an unprecedented genocide of over 30,000 political prisoners, mostly MEK supporters.

Khamenei is following the same script. A day after the Ashraf massacre, the Revolutionary Guard issued an official statement praising it as "divine vengeance." Its deputy commander-in-chief said the attack has "strategic repercussions for the entire region." And the commander of the Qods Force briefed the Assembly of Experts on the "operation," describing it as more important than the regime's most significant military offensives over the past 35 years.   

The fact that the Rouhani, as well as his foreign and intelligence ministers, praised Iraq for its actions against Iran’s main opposition group is also significant.

The timing of the attack was also deliberate. On the eve of Rouhani’s trip to New York and the subsequent charm offensive, Tehran was hoping that it could get away with the barbarous murder. Tehran’s strategy worked — for a while. A relatively weak statement of condemnation was issued by a deputy spokesperson of the State Department, rather than the U.S. Secretary of State himself.

The assault compelled even UN officials, including the secretary general, to call for a full investigation. A UN team that later visited the camp said some victims had been shot execution style with their hands tied behind their backs. Many were shot in the head and upper body. Some had been shot while awaiting medical attention for their wounds. 

The crime also drew ire in Congress and inspired a slew of very strong statements from senior members, who asked the president and Secretary Kerry to do their job and end the violence against the Iranian dissidents. Though the State Department was reluctantly calling for the release of the seven hostages, 34 members of Congress called for U.S. aid and weapons sales to Iraq to be cut off until Maliki corrects his behavior and treats the dissidents humanely.

This sentiment was echoed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who was joined by his colleague John McCain (R-Ariz.) in chastising the administration for its failure to stand by its commitment to protect the residents of the camps and hold Iraq accountable for its attacks on the Iranian dissidents.   

In a hearing on October 3, the two senior senators warned Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman that it would be unlikely for the committee “to approve any future weapons sales to Iraq, should the residents suffer more attacks.” 

The United States needs to set the record straight by immediately initiating a UN probe into the massacre at Ashraf, securing the release of the hostages held by Baghdad, and taking practical steps to station UN blue helmets at Camp Liberty, where the residents are facing threats of another massacre. The U.S. is legally responsible for the protection of the residents. Why it failed to fulfill its obligation remains a mystery. Time will tell.