- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2015

Days before a major Iranian dissident rally in France, the head of the host organization says the “circumstances are ripe for regime change” in Tehran, but Washington and other Western governments are standing in the way by legitimizing the regime of Supreme Leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei through the pursuit of a nuclear deal.

“Through their policy of appeasement and giving concessions to the regime, Western governments have served as an obstacle to the regime’s overthrow,” said Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. “In the absence of Western assistance, this regime would have fallen by now.”

Mrs. Rajavi made the remarks in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times ahead of an annual gathering that the council — an umbrella organization that members say includes more than 300 Iranian opposition groups peppered across 24 nations — is holding Saturday on the outskirts of Paris.

Organizers expect there will be well over 100,000 supporters at the rally, where Mrs. Rajavi says she intends to trumpet a simple but aggressive message: “The religious dictatorship ruling Iran — which is based on the doctrine of velayat-e faqih, or ‘absolute clerical rule’ — serves as the stimulus and epicenter of the menace of fundamentalism masquerading as Islam in the region and the rest of the world.”

“Western governments, especially the U.S.,” she told The Times in an email exchange this week, have made a “mistake” by “drawing a distinction between Shiite fundamentalism and Sunni fundamentalism” and thinking that Shiite Iran can be trusted to confront the recent rise of Sunni extremism in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

“The main objective of fundamentalism is to establish an Islamic Caliphate and to implement Sharia law by force,” Mrs. Rajavi said. “This phenomenon does not recognize any borders and its Shiite and Sunni variants are essentially cut from the same cloth.

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“The failure to prevent the Iranian regime’s meddling in Iraq after the 2003 Iraq War, which morphed into the gradual occupation of Iraq by the Iranian regime, gave an unprecedented boost to the growth of fundamentalism,” she added. “Similarly, the [Khamenei] regime’s crimes in Syria and Iraq and the genocide against Sunnis, which is accompanied by Western silence, have enabled the rise of [the Islamic State].”

A complicated history

Mrs. Rajavi’s anti-regime proclamations have long appealed to neoconservative Republicans, as well as to some hawkish Democrats. But her group, known by the acronym “NCRI,” has a turbulent history in Washington.

While no one disputes the organization is massive — some even describe it as the largest Iranian dissident group in the world — its most influential faction is the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an outfit that for years was listed by Europe and the U.S. as a terrorist organization.

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.

And, after an exhaustive campaign that saw supporters spend millions lobbying and cozying up to current and former U.S. officials, the MEK was removed from EU and U.S. terror lists in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

While media scrutiny of the group has lingered, the bigger, umbrellalike NCRI has come to be known during more recent years as perhaps the only dissent group on the planet with enough money and political juice to rally tens of thousands of supporters in the heart of Europe each June behind a collective call for the overthrow of Iran’s Shiite Islamist government.

And it’s not just Iranians who show up. Last year’s gathering brought together a bipartisan who’s who of former high-level U.S. officials and political players. Howard Dean was there. So were John Bolton, Bill Richardson and Newt Gingrich.

Several who spoke with The Times acknowledged that their expenses were being paid by the NCRI. But each also asserted that their support for the group’s core message was real and passionate.

This year’s rally is expected to be the same. Organizers say former CIA Director James Woolsey is going. So are Alan Dershowitz, Rudolph Giuliani and a host of others. Reps. Edward R. Royce and Eliot L. Engel — the Republican chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, respectively — are said to have recorded video messages for the rally to express their support for its message.

Against the nuclear deal

For the NCRI, this year’s rally is significant for its timing, just weeks before U.S. and other world powers face a June 30 deadline for a final nuclear deal. Mrs. Rajavi argues that deal will fail because Washington and its allies have simply doled out too many “concessions” to Iran that “leave open its path toward a nuclear weapon.”

Under the terms of a framework agreement reached in April, Iran will still be allowed to enrich uranium at low levels, even as Western sanctions are eased.

The only way for a deal to truly block Tehran from developing nuclear bombs, according to Mrs. Rajavi, would be to completely halt uranium enrichment, totally dismantle Iran’s nuclear sites and guarantee that snap inspections can be held by U.N. officials “anywhere, anytime” inside Iran.

“The Iranian regime only responds to the language of power and firmness,” Mrs. Rajavi told The Times. “Western governments are incredibly oblivious to this reality.”

The Obama administration and its European partners, she said, are responsible for triggering more aggressive and more militarized Iranian interference around the Middle East during the past year.

“These governments, especially the U.S., want to avoid jeopardizing nuclear negotiations, and so they choose to remain silent about and ignore the regime’s meddling in the region,” Mrs. Rajavi said. “This provides the clerical regime with the opportunity to become more emboldened to export terrorism and fundamentalism while encouraging it to ask for more concessions in the nuclear case.

“An agreement that provides sizable concessions,” she added, “will have as its inevitable conclusion the intensification of the regime’s interference and aggression in the region.”

Democracy in Tehran?

Mrs. Rajavi expressed outrage that U.S. and Europe appear to be trying to placate Tehran after years of aggressive posturing toward her own exiled organization.

She slammed Washington for designating the MEK as a terrorist organization until 2012.

She echoed claims by the group’s representatives in Washington, who have long asserted 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 — all as part of an ill-conceived strategic attempt to improve relations between Washington and Tehran.

During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, thousands of MEK fighters fled Iran for the Iraqi side, where they joined forces with then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Although the group was listed as a terrorist organization when U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, its status and fate would soon become deeply entangled in the U.S. military mission.

Disavowing all violence and laying down their arms in Iraq, MEK supporters began living under the protection of U.S. military forces at an Iraqi compound known as Camp Ashraf. Over time, the group’s supporters outside Iraq engaged in a growing public relations campaign to get the organization removed from Washington’s terrorist list.

A central issue for the MEK is the plight of its members still living inside Iraq. There once appeared to be momentum for airlifting the members out of Iraq, but finding another nation to accept them proved difficult because the group remained on the U.S. terrorist list until 2012.

Mrs. Rajavi accused Washington and its allies of handing MEK members in Iraq “over to the puppet government of the Iranian regime in Iraq, while exercising silence in the face of their murder.”

Away from the MEK issue, she asserted that if the NCRI were in power in Tehran, the group would break down the Iranian government’s grip on the media and freedom of speech and hold free elections toward “the establishment of a democratic government based on popular vote and the separation of religion and state.”

“We want a pluralist system, freedom of parties and assembly,” she said. “We respect all individual freedoms [and] we underscore complete freedom of expression and the media and unconditional access by all to the Internet.

“This is something that is completely attainable in Iran,” said Mrs. Rajavi, who accused Western powers of “standing against the Iranian people’s will.”

— Karine Barzegar contributed to this report from Paris.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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