- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2017

LE BOURGET, France — Thousands of supporters of an Iranian dissident group rallied here Saturday for the overthrow of Tehran’s theocratic regime at an event that featured speeches by several Trump administration allies — including Newt Gingrich and Rudolph W. Giuliani — as well as the former head of Saudi intelligence.

The boisterous event, held annually in this town just north of Paris, was organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a France-based group of Iranian exiles that brings dozens of current and former U.S., European and Middle Eastern officials together to speak out in support of regime change in Tehran.

While the Trump administration’s posture on the issue is elusive, Mr. Giuliani drew loud cheers by asserting that the new U.S. president’s view is far different from that of his predecessor, who led world powers to ease sanctions on the Islamic republic with the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord.

Mr. Trump is “laser-focused on the danger of Iran to the freedom of the world,” said Mr. Giuliani, who was perceived by many at the rally to be an emissary for Mr. Trump despite holding no formal Cabinet position in the administration.

Unlike the Obama administration, Mr. Trump “is not in a state of denial” on Iran, the former New York City mayor said.

“Iran must be free,” said Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker who rallied the crowd by condemning Tehran’s record of human rights abuses.

The two, who were advisers to Mr. Trump’s election campaign, headed a U.S. delegation that included several former Democratic lawmakers as well as three active Republican congressmen — Reps. Ted Poe of Texas, Thomas A. Garrett Jr. of Virginia and Robert Pittenger of North Carolina.

But it was an appearance by Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former longtime Saudi intelligence chief, that may have been the most significant part of the rally.

“I salute you,” said the prince, who was in attendance for the second year in a row. His presence suggested that Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim monarchy openly supports regime change in Iran — the Middle East’s Shiite powerhouse and Riyadh’s main rival.

Prince Turki bin Faisal’s appearance prompted speculation that the Saudis may even have helped finance the rally, although organizers flatly denied that, asserting instead that funding for the National Council of Resistance of Iran comes entirely in the form of donations from Iranians who are disgusted with the government in Tehran.

Controversial group

The rally was a marathon of speeches and musical performances. But it drew only limited mention in most mainstream Western media, presumably because of the turbulent history that the National Council of Resistance of Iran has with the European Union and Washington.

In attendance were more than a dozen current and former officials from EU nations, including former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

In what could be read as sign of the current French leadership’s feelings toward the national council, newly elected President Emmanuel Macron steered clear of the event. However, a member of the French National Assembly from Mr. Macron’s party was present.

Alternatively, French officials hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Paris on Thursday, and Iranian state media said Mr. Macron was among those he had met. The French Foreign Ministry offered no verification of the meeting but acknowledged talks between Mr. Zarif and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Political uneasiness toward the National Council of Resistance of Iran, meanwhile, stems partly from the organization’s most influential faction, the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq — an outfit the EU and Washington listed for years as a terrorist group.

The MEK first appeared on the scene during the late 1970s, when it engaged in a power struggle against leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. The group was known to have carried out terrorist attacks against Iranian government targets during the 1980s.

While U.S. officials say it also participated in attacks on Americans, MEK representatives have long argued that the terrorist listing was never driven by legitimate U.S. national security concerns.

After an exhaustive campaign in which MEK supporters spent millions of dollars lobbying and cozying up to current and former U.S. officials, the group was removed from EU and U.S. terrorist lists in 2009 and 2012, respectively.

While media scrutiny of the MEK has lingered, the bigger National Council of Resistance of Iran political wing of the organization has come to be known during more recent years as perhaps the only dissent group on the planet with enough money and influence to rally tens of thousands of supporters in the heart of Europe each June behind a collective call for the overthrow of Tehran’s government.

Saturday’s rally went off without a hitch. Confetti was blasted over a crowd that organizers claimed was more than 10,000 strong inside a vast convention hall that pulsed with notably more upbeat energy than past years. Some attendees credited the mood to the rise in Washington of a Trump administration seen as eager to take action against Iran.

The most aggressive speech came from Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, who condemned the “religious dictatorship” of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and asserted that the regime is run by “executioners” who have imprisoned or killed tens of thousands of opposition figures since coming to power in 1979.

Mrs. Rajavi called Iran’s recent election a sham and accused President Hassan Rouhani of complicity “in all of the regime’s crimes against the Iranian people.”

“Overthrow is possible and within reach,” she said. “Iranian society is simmering with discontent, and the international community is finally getting closer to the reality that appeasing the ruling theocracy is misguided.

“The only solution is regime change,” said Mrs. Rajavi, who has led the National Council of Resistance of Iran since its founder — her husband, Massoud Rajavi — went into hiding in 2003.

In an email interview with The Washington Times last year, she said the organization “represent[s] the voice of millions of Iranians who are being oppressed in their country and who seek regime change and the establishment of a democratic, pluralist and non-nuclear government based on the separation of religion and state.”

But critics question the council’s tactics and the extent of its reach inside Iran.

Ariane M. Tabatabai, an Iranian-American who teaches security studies at Georgetown University, told The Times last week that the council is “a cultlike organization” and said “people inside Iran don’t see it as a viable alternative to the Islamic republic.”

“That doesn’t mean that the Islamic republic is widely popular, but it is more popular than the MEK and NCRI, and the reason is that this is a group that was known for its terrorist activities against the Iranian state during the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s],” Ms. Tabatabai said.

Seeking regime change

Supporters of the council say it is the most influential organization on the Iranian opposition landscape.

No one in the Iranian opposition “stands out the way the NCRI stands out” in terms of their “day to day engagement with the Iranian public,” said Ramesh Sepehrrad, a longtime Iranian-American women’s rights activist who works with George Mason University’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

Ms. Sepehrrad told a panel ahead of the rally that it is difficult to measure the council’s popularity inside Iran because the “regime has made the price very, very high for the Iranian people to express their support” for the movement.

“Thousands of their supporters and their family members have been executed and imprisoned by the regime,” she said.

Shahin Gobadi, a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran’s foreign affairs committee, said the group has become more active inside Iran over the past year.

“People are realizing more and more, especially young people, that regime change is the only answer,” Mr. Gobadi told The Times.

But whether the Trump administration stands behind regime change remains unclear.

Jack Keane, a retired four-star U.S. Army general with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the president is crafting a far more aggressive policy than his predecessor.

“What I don’t know,” said Mr. Keane, who also spoke on a panel ahead the rally, “is if they would make a strategic move to undermine the regime to the point that it would be overthrown.”

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

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