Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tea with the Mujahedeen e Khalq

One of the sections in my portfolio is the Political-Military section, which covers subjects that have political and military (security) implications. All the cables and memos from the Pol-Mil section to the front office go through me, so I read a lot of stuff that I know very little about. Recently I was lucky enough to get a first-hand education about one of the more controversial topics Pol-Mil covers - the Mujahedeen e Khalq (aka People's Mujahadeen of Iran).

The MeK (or PMI) is a group of Iranians who left Iran about 20 years ago and established military-style training camps in Iraq (and other places) with the stated purpose of overthrowing the current Iranian regime. (See Wikipedia if you're interested in MeK and its history.) The U.S. and EU have designated the MeK a terrorist organization. Saddam Hussein was supportive of the MeK, but now the organization faces a dilemma in the new Iraq. The MeK turned over their weapons and signed a deal with the U.S. several years ago and have been living without incident at Camp Ashraf, where Coalition Forces provide security for the roughly 3000 MeK members.

A team from the Embassy flew to Camp Ashraf, joined by our military colleagues, to talk to the MeK about their status and their future after 2008, when the U.S. military will no longer have the authority to provide security. It's a very complicated situation and it was a fascinating meeting. (Understand that I spend most of my time chained to my desk, so a 3 hour meeting with a terrorist organization is exciting for me.)

The commander of the MeK is a woman. In fact, much of the leadership is female. I was the only woman on the U.S. side of the table. Like devout Muslims, the MeK men don't shake hands with unrelated women, so the MeK men didn't shake my hand. I had learned about this custom during my training in D.C., so I didn't embarass myself by sticking out my hand, but put my hand over my heart instead. As I was leaving, the commander made an effort to come over to me and shake my hand; perhaps she observed that none of the men shook my hand and didn't want me to feel left out.