In the diplomatic dance between the United States and Iran that is expected to segue into a dialogue that will ease three decades of hostility, if not actually produce a live-and-let-live rapprochement, the fate of a bizarre group of Iranian dissidents living under US protection in Iraq may well be a critical factor.
The Mujahedin-e Khalq (People's Holy Warriors, or MeK) is a mostly forgotten relic of another era, but its fate has become a test of US-Iranian cooperation. "The MeK threat might be a useful card for the United States and Europe to hold onto in their negotiations with Iran," Strategic Forecasting, a US security consultancy with strong intelligence connections, commented in a recent analysis.
The MeK has been the main opposition to the fundamentalist regime in Tehran since shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution took power in Iran in February 1979. The dissidents were invited to Iraq by Saddam Hussein after they were driven out of Iran in the early 1980s, and he armed and bankrolled them to fight Iran as an arm of his military forces.
Since Saddam's overthrow in the US-led invasion in March 2003, the MeK has become an irritant and an embarrassment to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who sees them as an obstruction to having good relations with Tehran.
The MeK rebels have been a thorn in Tehran's side since they began operating against the regime from Iraq in the 1980s. They were the most implacable foes of the fundamentalist regime in Tehran established in 1979. Many were killed fighting the regime.
Iran has wanted to get its hands on the group for more than two decades. Its intelligence services ruthlessly hunted down MeK operatives across the globe, killing dozens over the years. According to German Intelligence, which over the years has had better relations with Iran's security apparatus than most, in December 2003, eight months after Saddam was toppled by the Americans, Tehran reportedly offered to trade senior Al Qaeda operatives it was holding in exchange for MeK commanders under US control in Camp Ashraf.
The Al Qaeda figures included Saif Al Adel, an Egyptian considered to be the organisation's No. 3 figure, and one of its top operations chiefs, Mahfouz Ould Walid, better known as Abu Hafs the Mauritinian. No deal was struck. But Tehran may now feel they have the MeK chieftains within reach.
Maliki is eager to get rid of the Mujahedin, but the Americans have demurred, possibly in hopes of using the MeK as a bargaining chip in whatever negotiations emerge between Washington and Tehran. According to several sources, some Mujahedin have been recruited by the Americans since Saddam was overthrown in 2003 to infiltrate Iran and spy for the US.
The US military took control of the MeK's headquarters, Camp Ashraf, a sprawling 30-square-mile complex 40km...