Tough Khalqulations

How do we use our new terrorist pawns?


Is the U.S. armistice with the anti-Iran terrorist group Mujahideen-e-Khalq as cynical, mercenary and hypocritical as America's detractors claim? We can only hope so.

The details of the U.S.-Khalq deal, which was signed on April 15 but not announced until late last week, are clear: U.S. forces (which attacked Khalq camps early in the Iraq campaign) have agreed not to attack the 10,000-member group or damage any of its vehicles and equipment. In exhchange, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq ("People's Mujahideen") agrees not attack U.S. forces or destroy any government or private property, and to place its artillery in neutral positions.

The Mujahideen-e-Khalq began its career as a revolutionary force in Iran, but subsequently turned against the Khomeini regime when it (like many of the revolution's early fellow travelers) found itself locked out of power by the theocracy. The group was accused of killing Americans in pre-revolutionary Iran, and later participated in the taking of the U.S. embassy and the two-year hostage crisis that followed. For the past 18 years, the Khalq, exiled by the Iranian regime, has operated out of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, terrorizing the Iranian population through assaults across the Shatt-al-Arab. Despite its partially successful lobbying efforts with the U.S. Congress, the group remains on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.

It's possible that there is less sordidness in this deal than advertised. "The U.S. government does not negotiate with terrorists," Cofer Black, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator, said after the deal was made public. "The MEK's opposition to the Iranian government does not change the fact that they are a terrorist organization. We understand the agreement on the ground, in the field, is a prelude to the group's surrender. Commanders make tactical decisions in conflict with enemy combatants." (Grain of salt: While Black was making this statement, unnamed U.S. government officials were bragging to The New York Times that the group could be a valuable source of intelligence about Iranian government activities Iraq and Iran.)

It's also understandable that the U.S. would want to neutralize all potential enemies at the height of the effort to unseat Saddam. Armies put together ceasefire agreements all the time with characters they consider unsavory. Critics who miss no opportunity to point out American hypocrisy fondly say that this move gives the lie to the notion that the U.S. is fighting a general war against terrorism, but this is disingenuous. Nobody seriously believed the U.S. would be taking the war to the Irish Republican Army or the Basque ETA (though the Khalq's history of anti-American violence somewhat complicates my facile analogy). You can disagree with the way the United States is selecting and prioritizing its targets (I certainly do); but that doesn't mean there's an existential contradiction in its policy.

But the non-aggression pact with the Khalq has an element that American policymakers had better be aware of. Whether intentionally or not, the United States is now harboring an anti-Iranian client in Iraq. The U.S. may choose to let this group loose in order to antagonize the Iranian regime; it may rein them in as part of an "engagement" package with Iran. It may choose not to use this group at all. But the reality is that the Khalq is now a card the U.S. holds—and nobody in the area is unaware of this.

Such cards are commonplace in the Middle East. A defining characteristic of war in the region is that when somebody kicks ass, it rarely stays kicked for long; this is no accident. The late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad was a master of this particular game, picking up and dropping various Christian militias in Lebanon in order to further long-term goals, and more famously following up a devastating attack on Hezbullah in 1987 with a long-range client relationship with that group, which he used to great effect against the Israelis. And while the claim that Israel created Hamas may be overstated, the complex history of that organization shows the Israelis are not amateurs in this field.

The United States, of course, has its own history of such proxy competitions. You might prefer that an open-ended war against terror be fought with clean hands and uncomplicated principles; this is to wish for the impossible. The trick isn't for the U.S. to keep its clean nose in this business, but to understand the situation it's in. This is particularly crucial where Iran is concerned. Consider this: The modern history of political Islam has produced precisely two unqualified victories. Both of these—the Iranian revolution and Hezbullah's victory over the Israel Defense Force (and before that, over the U.S. Marine Corps)—came out of the minority Shi'a branch of Islam. This track record alone argues for circumspection, no matter how impressive the military victory in Iraq was. Among other things, the U.S. needs to calculate how using the Mujahideen-e-Khalq could come back to haunt us, antagonize the "Iranian people" we're trying to win over (by all accounts, the group is universally loathed by Iranians who recall its support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war), and otherwise backfire as a tool against Iran; there may also be consequences to not employing the Khalq, or worse, ignoring it.

The first step is to acknowledge that we are actors in this situation. Playing what the Arabs call "the dirty game" may be a sin. But an even graver sin is playing the game and not winning.