By Hamid Enayat
On Monday, a coalition committed to the overthrow of Iran’s theocratic regime concluded a three-day virtual summit that gave voice to the country’s pro-democracy activists and offered policy recommendations for all governments that oppose Tehran’s malign activities.
The Free Iran Global Summit began on Friday with an overview of recent developments in the Islamic Republic, as well as signs of progress in the actions of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. When the event continued on Sunday, it placed special emphasis on the clerical regime’s history of political imprisonment and human rights abuses, including mass executions in 1988 which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives.
The final session was largely dedicated to an assessment of Tehran’s penchant for using terrorism as a form of statecraft. NCRI President Maryam Rajavi, who delivered a speech at each of the three sessions, stated on Monday that “terrorism is the essence and fundamental nature of this regime and it is inseparable from it.” She went on to present virtual attendees and the assembled residents of the “Ashraf-3” compound in Albania with a list of specific actions that the NCRI believes are necessary for confronting this aspect of the regime’s nature.
Rajavi advised foreign governments and private industries to close Iranian embassies, avoid doing business with individuals or institutions that may have ties to the regime, impose new multilateral sanctions on the purveyors of Iranian terrorism, and commit to publicly exposing terrorist plots and would-be operatives. Similar advice has been on offer from the NCRI for years but has arguably become more urgent since the advent of a US strategy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran.
Facing a growing number of challenges both domestically and on the world stage, the Iranian regime has seemingly become more willing to openly threaten foreign adversaries since 2018.
As well as marking America’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal, that year was also the start of an ongoing series of uprisings among the Iranian people. The first of these began near the end of December 2017 and continued through much of the following month. Further nationwide protests followed in November 2019 and January 2020. And since then, Iranian officials have taken to warning about the potential for even more unrest in the wake of the country’s out-of-control coronavirus outbreak.
Each uprising has naturally met with brutal repression by Iranian authorities, especially November’s. Human rights groups like Amnesty International observed that Iranian security forces responded to that month’s protests by opening fire on crowds with clear homicidal intent. And the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, collected documentary evidence pointing to a death toll of approximately 1,500. But if left to its own devices, Tehran might have caused an even larger number of casualties in the run-up to the November uprising, and not just inside Iran.
In March 2018, just two months after the end of the first uprising, authorities in Albania determined that Iranian operatives were planning an attack on Ashraf-3, which houses approximately 3,000 members of the PMOI who had previously been living in Iraq, under threat from Iran-backed paramilitary groups. After the Albanian plot was disrupted, Tehran evidently set its sights on France, where the NCRI maintains a headquarters and held massive international gatherings each summer between 2004 and 2018. The last of these was attended by an estimated 100,000 Iranian expatriates and political dignitaries, and very nearly also by two Iranian operatives carrying 500 grams of high-explosive.
The aspiring bombers were apprehended at the border between Belgium and France, and are currently facing charges of terrorism alongside the mastermind behind the plot, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi, who was stationed at the embassy in Vienna at the time. A number of people who spoke at the Free Iran Global Summit, especially on Monday, called attention to the fact that Assadi’s trial was just beginning in Belgium and that it could stand alongside the summit as an urgent reminder of the terror threat that Tehran poses to the entire world.
In remarks delivered to the summit via Zoom, British MP Bob Blackman identified himself as “one of the plaintiffs in the trial against the arrested regime diplomat,” and said that the case “should and will bring a turning point in the foreign policy adopted by European governments vis-à-vis Iran’s regime so far.” Blackman went on to express particular hope that his own government would take specific measures including the closure of the Iranian embassy in London and the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
With both of these recommendations, Blackman implicitly endorsed an assertive strategy akin to that which has recently been adopted by the US. Washington has had no formal diplomatic ties with Tehran since the hostage crisis at the US embassy in the wake of the 1979 revolution. But it was only during the Trump administration that the State Department finally extended terrorist designation to the entirety of the IRGC, a move that many of Iran’s critics described as being long overdue.
The terrorist designation is now regarded as one aspect of a “maximum pressure” strategy that is still unfolding in the form of new economic sanctions and new efforts at diplomatic isolation. Approval for that strategy was a common feature in speeches by NCRI supporters. John Rood, former US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, declared, “It is important that we continue the maximum pressure campaign to limit the ability of the regime to export terrorism and its malign influence.”
Rood went on to note that the responsibility for carrying out that campaign is shared widely, and not just by Western governments. “Companies must be very careful who they are dealing with to avoid supporting these terrorists,” he said, referring to a complex web of Iranian operatives and supporters of the regime’s confrontational foreign policy. Echoing Mrs. Rajavi’s call for the closure of Iranian embassies, many speakers emphasized that diplomats are frequent contributors to that network.
Tom Ridge, Washington’s first Homeland Security Secretary, said that the Islamic Republic uses those embassies to “stimulate chaos and anti-government activities.” This perception no doubt informed his conclusion that there is little to no value of traditional diplomatic relations with Iran. Describing the “peaceful path” as akin to “appeasement,” Ridge said that this approach “will not lead to peace. It never has and never will.”
Alex Carlile, a member of the UK’s House of Lords, similarly criticized Western policymakers for a “tendency towards compromise” and declared that he “would welcome clearer action by the EU and the UK.” The sentiment was further echoed from the US by Robert Joseph, a former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, who described the Free Iran Global Summit as “a call to action” and said, “If we want to stop terrorist acts, the mullahs must know there are real consequences. This is the fundamental principle of deterrence. We need to see and treat the regime for what it is.”
Participants in the summit underscored that that perception goes hand-in-hand with the recognition that the event’s organizers represent the antithesis of the existing terrorist regime. “There’s a real alternative… that seeks to reshape the future of Iran,” said Lord Carlile, speaking as one of the hundreds of supporters who have read the platform of the Iranian Resistance and determined that the NCRI is the entity likeliest to create freedom and democracy in the heart of the Middle East.