The answer to a question put to both U.S. presidential candidates could prove very telling. It would speak volumes about each candidate's moral compass and indicate whether he, as president, will preside over the preservation, or liquidation, of an ally.
As background, two recent developments concerning Iraq are noteworthy. The first is journalist Bob Woodward's revelation in his new book claiming the Bush administration has been spying on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. It would be surprising if this were not true. Why? Because as the next tough decisions are made concerning Iraq, we must know whether the al-Maliki government is negatively influenced by Iran.
Concerns exist that Mr. al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, has leanings toward Tehran's Shia extremist government. Some factors suggest he may be his own man - such as his successful March 2008 military operation into Basra to crush Shia militias, many with Iranian ties. But others in his government may operate as Tehran's "Third Man." Through such a Baghdad network, Iran is capable of imposing severe damage upon a fledgling democracy following a U.S. withdrawal.
It is not unreasonable for the United States to spy on the Iraqi government to assess Iran's influence. It is a lesson we failed to learn in the Vietnam conflict - not realizing until after the war North Vietnamese agents had penetrated Saigon's highest levels of government. It is a lesson we have learned today with Pakistan - a government penetrated by Taliban sympathizers.
This brings us to the second development offered for background. MEK, an Iranian group opposed to Tehran's regime, currently lives in Iraq under U.S. protection. Originally formed by students at Tehran University in 1965 to oppose the shah, they challenged Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after he came to power in 1979. Opposed to the cleric's extreme fundamentalist views, MEK became a target for liquidation by Khomeini.
A young radical extremist first selected to run this liquidation campaign was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - now Iran's president. To date, it has claimed hundreds of thousands of MEK lives - and Mr. Ahmadinejad remains committed to MEK's complete liquidation.
Because MEK opposed Iran's mullahs, Saddam Hussein invited them in 1986 to relocate to Iraq. There, MEK conducted successful attacks against Iran.
Determined to minimize MEK's influence, Tehran pressured President Bill Clinton in 1997 to designate the group a terrorist organization. As a goodwill gesture, he did so. But, the evidence and rationale upon which the Clinton State Department relied has since been found to be "fundamentally flawed."
An independent group further found MEK was "a pro-democratic organization that for more than 40 years has worked to bring democracy and freedom to Iran," repeatedly sacrificed in U.S.-Iranian relations. (Britain recently removed MEK from its own terrorist list, describing the initial designation "perverse.")
In 2003, Tehran again focused on MEK's liquidation. For Iran's false promises not to involve itself in Iraq if the United States invaded, Washington agreed to defang MEK, stripping it of its military bite. As U.S. forces entered Iraq, MEK forces withheld fire, voluntarily surrendering their arms in a show of support. Today, about 3,500 MEK members (one-third of whom are women) remain confined to Camp Ashraf, in Iraq's al Qaeda-active Diyala Province, given "protected persons" status (enforced by the United States as an occupying force) under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
MEK is credited with being first to report Tehran's nuclear ambitions. It also provides the United States and its allies with critical intelligence on Iran's current terrorist activities in Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. It has identified dozens of supply routes Tehran uses to ship roadside bombs into Iraq - devices responsible for more than half the U.S. lives claimed there.
This chronology of events now leaves the United States in an ironic position. MEK - a group labeled by the United States as terrorist 11 years ago that no longer is; a group labeled such at the behest of the world's only terrorist nation, Iran; a group the United States, as an occupying force, now protects; a group eager to topple Iran's mullahs who, for almost 30 years, have been exporting terrorism outside their borders, including Iraq, where they have killed thousands of Americans; a group invaluable to the West in revealing Iran's nuclear progress and supply routes into Iraq, the latter helping to reduce U.S. casualties - is being prevented from taking Iranian extremist lives while those extremists continue to take American lives.
MEK is in a precarious position with its future survival directly tied to the U.S. occupation - the status of which is now being negotiated by Baghdad and Washington.
On Sept. 4, Gen. David Petraeus said, "U.S. forces still are responsible for the security of ... MEK," but the United States has "begun the process of transition of security to Iraqi security forces."
This evolution, raising the issue of MEK's guaranteed safety under Iraq control, brings us back to the first background event discussed - i.e., Iranian influence in Iraq. Knowing ongoing U.S./Iraq negotiations on a future presence of U.S. forces in Iraq provides Tehran an opportunity to finally liquidate MEK, Mr. Ahmadinejad has pressured Baghdad to disband MEK's camp and turn members over to Tehran. While Baghdad may not bend to this pressure, Iranian influence within Iraq's rank and file - entrusted to protect MEK as U.S. forces reduce their visibility - may well sound MEK's deathknell.
MEK has repeatedly shown it wishes to strengthen democracy in Iraq and counter Iranian influence. Mr. Ahmadinejad salivates over the opportunity to participate in an MEK liquidation sale - a mission given him three decades earlier. The only question remaining is whether the United States, again, will play into Iranian hands by doing so.
The question to our presidential candidates is, in light of Iranian influence in Iraq seeking to eradicate our MEK ally, what is our responsibility to MEK? An easy, morally incorrect answer is to allow Iraq (and thereby, Iran) to determine MEK's fate. The difficult, morally correct answer is that the United States should ensure MEK's survival. When the U.S. presence in Iraq ends, U.S. responsibility to MEK does not. The United States must ensure members are not turned over to Iran or otherwise left to the whim of Tehran-influenced Iraqi "protectors."
The United States has a responsibility to ensure MEK receives safe passage and safe haven - to the United States or another willing country acceptable to MEK. If not, the next U.S. president will preside over an ally's wholesale slaughter.
James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.