In a dusty little enclave about 60 miles north of Baghdad, some 3,800 opponents of the Iranian regime present a difficult problem for the next American president. The Iranians, members of the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI), who once mounted military operations against the Tehran regime from sanctuary in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, have been disarmed and placed under the protection of American forces since the United States invasion of Iraq.

To add to the confusion, some Iraqi sources say Iraqi troops have deployed to “protect the camp, not to seize it.” But the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is now under discussion. With that withdrawal in prospect, Iran is pressing for the fighters, the military arm of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran, to be returned to Iran, or at least turned over to the Iraqi government, which it believes would do Tehran’s bidding. Understandably, the dissidents fear that either outcome would mean their imprisonment, torture, or death.

The future US relationship with Iran is perhaps the most pressing international issue that the new US president will face. To hand over the Mujahideen to a cruel fate at the hands of Iran would probably cause an outcry among the American public, and in the US Congress, where the former Iranian fighters have substantial support.

Indeed, they are credited by US sources with having provided earlier accurate information about clandestine Iranian nuclear facilities. But not to accede to Tehran’s demand to hand them over could hinder any broader negotiations for less tension in the US-Iran relationship.

Standard diplomatic procedure requires the White House to assert that military action is always an option. Both presidential candidates have echoed that line. The reality is that both the State Department and the Pentagon know that an airstrike against Iran’s

nuclear facilities would be a political catastrophe and could not guarantee eliminating some of the facilities buried deep underground.

Predictably, the State Department favours diplomacy and has been trying some initiatives of a conciliatory nature. It is trailing in front of the Iranians the prospect of a US Interests Section in Tehran, a step short of an embassy and diplomatic recognition.

Another gesture was the first-time dispatch of a senior US diplomat, Undersecretary of State William Burns, to join six-nation, face-to-face talks with the Iranians. The options confronting President Bush — or his successor if the saga drags out that long — are unenviable. One is to withdraw the protective US military guards from Camp Ashraf, thus turning the Mujahideen over to Iraqi forces, and probably to the hands of Iran.

That would fly in the face of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ruling regarding the protection of individuals who face serious risks if returned to their country of origin.

The other option would be to transport the Mujahideen to refuge in the US. That would require another decision: abandoning their designation as terrorists. Some who favour this argue that if North Korea can be considered for delistment, why not the Iranian Mujahideen? It is a decision that pits principle, humanitarianism, and national self-interest against one

another. — The Christian Science Monitor