In a sign that Iran’s dissident movement isn’t going away even as the U.S. and its partners eye a deal with Tehran, tens of thousands of Iranian opposition exiles gathered in France for an annual rally demanding regime change in Iran and condemning President Obama’s push to sign a nuclear accord with the Islamic republic.
The gathering was led by a controversial albeit influential Iranian exile organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Dozens of current and former officials from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East joined in the call for Iran’s Shiite Islamist government to be overthrown.
Among the more high-profile figures was Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, who told the massive crowd in a pre-recorded video message that “the Iranian regime [is] the true epicenter of Islamic extremism in the world.”
Despite participating in nuclear negotiations with Western powers, Iran’s leadership “continues to fund terror and incite chaos and in its campaign for domination in the vacuum of American withdrawal,” the 2008 Republican presidential nominee told the gathering.
Event organizers said more than 100,000 supporters were on hand, with hundreds of buses ferrying in activists from across France and beyond to fill a fairground and convention center in the town of Villepinte, just north of Paris.
Several U.S. lawmakers were there in person. Among them was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, who drew large cheers by declaring that he wanted to “remind the brutal mullahs in Iran that their day is coming, and it will come soon.”
“I see a day coming when thugs riding motorcycles will not beat people up in the streets in order to silence them in Iran,” Mr. Rohrabacher said. “I see a day when women asking for rights will no longer be thrown in jail and beaten and raped in Iran. I see a day when the mullahs will not be choosing the candidates.”
He said the nuclear negotiations with Iran distract from what should be a Western policy backing the Iranian government’s overthrow.
‘Longing for change’
The left-wing, secular umbrella organization includes more than 300 opposition groups peppered across 24 nations, members say. It sided with other revolutionary groups in overthrowing the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran in 1979, but broke violently with Islamist forces under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the years after the shah was overthrown. Leaders said the group has since renounced violence.
Although the National Council of Resistance of Iran has critics in Washington and Europe, its leader, Maryam Rajavi has a kind of cultlike following from its core members.
On Saturday in Villepinte, hundreds of supporters waved blue flags emblazoned with Ms. Rajavi’s photo and chanted her name as she took the stage dressed in a blue outfit and headscarf.
A large screen behind her broadcast the slogans: “Regime Change in Iran” and “We can and we must.”
“Look at today’s Iran. Do you see any Iranians not longing for change? All of them feel the same pain and demand for change,” she told the crowd, asserting that her organization stands for “freedom, democracy and equality.”
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, Ms. Rajavi said in an interview with The Washington Times that the “circumstances are ripe for regime change” in Tehran. She blamed Washington and other Western governments for standing in the way by legitimizing the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah 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,” she said. “In the absence of Western assistance, this regime would have fallen by now.”
Ms. Rajavi’s anti-regime proclamations have long appealed to neoconservative Republicans as well as to some hawkish Democrats in Washington.
But the organization is also known for its turbulent history in the U.S. and Europe.
Few dispute that the National Council of the Resistance of Iran is massive — some even describe it as the largest Iranian dissident group in the world — but its most influential faction is the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, an outfit that the European Union and the U.S. listed for years as a terrorist organization.
The MEK emerged during the late 1970s, when its members engaged in a power struggle against leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and were known to have carried out terrorist attacks against Iranian government targets.
A 2014 report by the Council on Foreign Relations described the MEK as having formed along ideological lines espousing “a blend of Marxism, feminism, and Islamism.” Some former members have drawn attention over the years for criticizing the group as a cult.
Current supporters dismiss such criticisms as slander coming from disgruntled former members.
During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, thousands of MEK fighters fled Iran to join forces with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The group was still listed as a terrorist organization when U.S. forces invaded in 2003, and the MEK’s status and fate would soon become deeply entangled in the U.S. military mission.
Disavowing violence and laying down their arms, MEK supporters began living under the protection of U.S. forces at an Iraqi compound known as Camp Ashraf. But on the departure of U.S. troops in 2011, the camp fell under the control of the Iraqi government.
In the years since, reports have suggested that Baghdad, seeking to win support from Iran, authorized repeated Iraqi military attacks on the camp, killing dozens of unarmed MEK members and forcibly relocating others to a compound known as Camp Liberty.
Winning political supporters
MEK supporters outside Iraq have engaged for years in an exhaustive public relations campaign to get the organization removed from international terrorist lists.
After spending millions of dollars lobbying current and former U.S. and European officials, the MEK was removed from EU and U.S. terrorist lists in 2009 and 2012, respectively.
The group’s changed status was on display at Saturday’s gathering, which brought together a bipartisan who’s who of former and current political players from the U.S. and Europe.
Former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was there, as were former CIA Director James Woolsey, American power lawyer Alan Dershowitz and a host of others.
Like Mr. McCain, Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, recorded video messages expressing their support for the rally.
House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, penned a letter of support calling the group “a vital part of our shared efforts to support democracy, human rights and justice in Iran and throughout the world.”
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani went further. Appearing on stage Saturday afternoon, he slammed the Obama administration for pursing a nuclear deal with Iran and ignoring the calls for regime change.
“We’re told there is no alternative,” Mr. Giuliani said. “Wake up. How many people are here today — 100,000, 110,000?”
Several former U.S. officials who spoke with The Times during the rally in France last year acknowledged that the event’s organizers paid their expenses. But they also asserted that their support for the group’s core message was real and passionate.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who has attended the rally for the past several years, told The Times that he was there Saturday because of concern over the fate of MEK “dissidents in Ashraf and Camp Liberty.”
“I feel that when the United States makes a commitment, they have to keep it. And the U.S. has not kept our commitments to the 2,400 people that are still in Ashraf,” said Mr. Dean. “In fact, we have barely lifted a finger.”
Some at the rally said they had deep personal ties to Camp Ashraf. Fahali Lafzya, 58, said her daughter was stuck at the camp and died after Iraqi authorities refused to let her leave to treat an illness.
Ms. Lafzya also decried the government of Iran. “There are so many executions and torture in Iran,” she said. “At least there is someone here to raise the flag and gather people, to back us, because the regime kills and tortures.”
Another high-profile American on hand was P.J. Crowley, the State Department’s spokesman during the early years of the Obama administration.
In an interview, Mr. Crowley acknowledged that the NCRI and MEK have a “controversial” history but said it was far less relevant than the message of democracy and freedom that the rally projected.
“In the U.S., the tea party is controversial,” said Mr. Crowley. “There is a history with this group. There is no question about it, but again, political groups evolve. This group has embraced a democratic agenda. It is an organization with diverse perspectives and, ultimately for the opposition here, they will have to find a way to compete inside Iran.”
Former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who was also in attendance, said the “main goal here is to make sure that this very important issue stays on the radar of our political leaders, especially [President Obama].”
“I don’t propose or pretend to forecast what the government [will be] in Iran after the current regime is replaced — and they will be replaced either by a popular uprising or external factors or collapsing on the weight of their own activities,” Mr. Freeh said in an interview. “What I do propose is a fair and open process of choosing the successor to this regime. If it’s to be the MEK that’s fine. If it’s to be another group, that’s fine too.”
— Karine Barzegar contributed to this story from Paris.