An array of high-level former U.S. officials, both Democrats and Republicans, were in France over the weekend calling for regime change in Iran and throwing their collective weight behind an Iranian dissident group once designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
“You’ve got an assortment of former generals and senior politicians from all over the world here,” Howard Dean said as he headed to the annual rally held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The group is an umbrella organization of Iranian opposition groups, the largest of which is the Mujahedin-e Khalq, which was removed from EU and U.S. terrorist lists in 2009 and 2012 respectively.
The event was scheduled to include former U.N. Ambassadors John R. Bolton and Bill Richardson, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former Sen. Joe Lieberman and others.
“I think the thing that brings us together is human rights,” Mr. Dean, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, told The Washington Times when asked how such a diverse collection of U.S. dignitaries agreed to speak at the rally.
Mr. Bolton went further, telling The Times that the event, which drew more than 30,000 Iranian dissidents to Villepinte, France, was about raising “the larger issue of the illegitimacy of Iran’s mullahs and their regime in Tehran.”
“My personal view,” Mr. Bolton said, “is that it ought to be U.S. policy to overthrow the regime in Tehran because I think it is still our principal opponent in the Middle East.”
The catch is that, despite such support from the former U.S. officials, questions remain in the wider foreign policy community about the role the council might play if Washington ever pursues a policy of regime change rather than engaging the Iranian regime on targeted issues.
The organization’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, said outright during a speech at the rally Friday that the message of the gathering was that the “religious fascism” governing Iran “must be overthrown.”
Although officials in many Western capitals may agree, the message is coming from an organization with ties to the MEK, which has emerged in recent years as perhaps the most organized Iranian dissident movement in the world outside of Iran.
Although former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was among the dignitaries showing support, the French government raised alarm about the MEK’s involvement in the gathering.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal was quoted by The Associated Press on Friday as condemning the MEK for having “violent and non-democratic inspirations,” for espousing a “cult nature” and an “intense campaign of influence and disinformation.”
A checkered past
Controversy over the MEK has long revolved around the question of why the State Department moved to list it as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.
The MEK, which engaged in a power struggle against leaders of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, was known to have carried out terrorist attacks against Iranian government targets during the 1980s. Although U.S. officials say it also participated in attacks on Americans, MEK representatives have long argued that the terrorist listing was never driven by any legitimate U.S. national security concerns.
The group’s representatives in Washington say that during the late 1990s, officials within the Clinton administration engaged in a calculated smear campaign against the MEK and ultimately listed the group as a terrorist organization as part of an ill-conceived strategic attempt to improve relations between Washington and Tehran.