By Jubin Katiraie
This weekend in a cavernous convention hall outside of Paris, over 100,000 flag waving, foot-stomping, cheering supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran ( consisted of MEK/PMOI and other groups and personalities) gathered for their annual meeting.
Part pep rally and part television programming for a global audience, the annual event has for years been focused on galvanizing support for the MEK and drawing attention to the plight of dissident refugees sheltering in squalid camps inside Iraq and subject to frequent attacks from Iranian-backed forces resulting in score of deaths.
What was different this year was that all of MEK members —nearly 3,000 of them—were safely evacuated to a welcoming Albania as part of long-delayed resettlement program and escaped the clutches of an Iranian regime that seemed hell-bent on eradicating any sign of an indigenous Iranian resistance movement.
In a dramatic cinematic touch, a satellite feed from Tirana, Albania of the 3,000 resettled MEK members was beamed into the main Paris rally to the delight of the participants and vice-versa in what could be considered the world’s largest video conference call.
The atmosphere bordered on giddy as the MEK logged several positive developments over the past few months, not the least of which was the survival of their besieged members in Iraq.
The movement benefitted from a sea change in political fortunes with the departure of the Obama administration and the incoming Trump administration taking a decidedly harder tone with the Iranian regime, along with a Republican-controlled Congress that has made it a legislative priority to re-impose economic sanctions on Iranian regime for its ballistic missile program and sponsorship of terrorism.
The Iranian resistance movement, led by the National Council of Resistance of Iran which counts as its members human rights groups and the People’s Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK), experienced a similar resurgence within Iran itself as the Iranian political landscape experienced what can only be described as a significant earthquake during presidential elections this year.
Top mullah Ali Khamenei and his personally selected councils did an admirable job vetting thousands of candidates for president to just six men, all of whom were old hands within the clerical bureaucracy, but Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps which controls virtually all of the Iranian economy, made a move to push incumbent Hassan Rouhani out and install Ebrahim Raisi whose dubious claim to fame was to be part of a “death commission” that helped sentence 30,000 Iranian dissidents mainly MEK members and supports to death in 1988.
The attempted swap failed and the regime had to resort to its usual ballot box stuffing to make it look like there was an overwhelming turnout from an electorate that was decidedly unenthusiastic over its choices or lack thereof.
In fact, the NCRI and its leader, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, got an unexpected boost with some of the most overt and daring signs of public protest yet in Iran under the mullah’s rule with the hanging of banners and signs bearing Mrs. Rajavi’s picture throughout Tehran and other provinces.
The mere act of publicly supporting the banned MEK can get you imprisoned and executed in record time, but that did not deter what seemed by a considerably larger number of clandestine protestors, including a steady stream that secretly filmed themselves (without their faces showing) clapping in rhythm to a banned resistance song in front of iconic Iranian landmarks.
The parallel changes in fortunes in the U.S. and in Iran produced a cavalcade of speakers ranging from noted American politicos such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former FBI director Louis Freeh to human rights activists Ingrid Betancourt of Columbia and Rama Yade, French human rights minister, taking the podium to pronounce a common theme: The Iranian regime was in trouble internally and it was time for the world to align itself with the Iranian resistance movement.
Gingrich, ever the professorial lecturer, reminded the audience of President Ronald Reagan’s decision to support a nascent Solidarity union movement led by a then-unknown welder named Lech Walesa in helping topple Poland’s communist regime and spark and the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
A similar move to endorse the NCRI and Mrs. Rajavi might be the catalyst necessary to ignite regime change within Iran according to several speakers, including former Senator and vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.
Most intriguing was the unity shown by a parade of speakers and delegations from assorted Arab nations, led by Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, who emphasized how radically things had shifted in the Middle East by labeling Iran the center of all of the turmoil the region is currently experiencing.
It was a notion hard to ignore since Iranian forces and support are now involved in a vast area including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Pakistan in a variety of proxy conflicts, terrorist actions and efforts to overthrow regional governments.
This is on top of the proliferation of ISIS which was enabled by Iranian regime through its meddling in Iraqi politics forcing a split between Sunni and Shia coalition partners and driving Sunnis into the arms of a then-nascent ISIS that was getting a free pass in Syria from attack by Assad regime and Iranian regime-backed forces in order to concentrate their firepower on moderate rebel groups.
Speaker after speaker noted how the Obama administration’s ill-fated attempt to curry favor with the mullahs in Tehran through a flawed nuclear agreement that essentially paid for most of the regime’s military for the past three years had failed miserably and now the Trump administration is left to deal with the debris in its wake.
But the tone was upbeat and optimistic in that the prospect of real regime change within Iran actually closer now that it had been in most participants’ recent memory.
Mrs. Rajavi, in her remarks, emphasized that regime change must come from within Iran and not be perceived as being fueled or controlled by external forces such as the U.S. Only then could the Iranian people embrace a peaceful movement to a true democracy willingly aligning themselves with fellow exiled Iranians notably MEK members.
The stage has been set and the recipe seems to be cooking. Now we just have to see if the chef can whip up a masterpiece.
More about MEK:
A Long Conflict between the Clerical Regime and the MEK
The origins of the MEK date back to before the 1979 Iranian Revolution., the MEK helped to overthrow the dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi, but it quickly became a bitter enemy of the emerging the religious fascism under the pretext of Islamic Republic. To this day, the MEK and NCRI describe Ruhollah Khomenei and his associates as having co-opted a popular revolution in order to empower themselves while imposing a fundamentalist view of Islam onto the people of Iran.
Under the Islamic Republic, the MEK was quickly marginalized and affiliation with it was criminalized. Much of the organization’s leadership went to neighboring Iraq and built an exile community called Camp Ashraf, from which the MEK organized activities aimed at ousting the clerical regime and bringing the Iranian Revolution back in line with its pro-democratic origins. But the persistence of these efforts also prompted the struggling regime to crack down with extreme violence on the MEK and other opponents of theocratic rule.
The crackdowns culminated in the massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, as the Iran-Iraq War was coming to a close. Thousands of political prisoners were held in Iranian jails at that time, many of them having already served out their assigned prison sentences. And with the MEK already serving as the main voice of opposition to the regime at that time, its members and supporters naturally made up the vast majority of the population of such prisoners.
As the result of a fatwa handed down by Khomeini, the regime convened what came to be known as the Death Commission, assigning three judges the task of briefly interviewing prisoners to determine whether they retained any sympathy for the MEK or harbored any resentment toward the existing government. Those who were deemed to have shown any sign of continued opposition were sentenced to be hanged. After a period of about three months, an estimated 30,000 people had been put to death. Many other killings of MEK members preceded and followed that incident, so that today the Free Iran rally includes an annual memorial for approximately 120,000 martyrs from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The obvious motive behind the 1988 massacre and other such killings was the destruction of the MEK. And yet it has not only survived but thrived, gaining allies to form the NCRI and acquiring the widespread support that is put on display at each year’s Free Iran rally. In the previous events, the keynote speech was delivered by Maryam Rajavi, who has been known to receive several minutes of applause from the massive crowd as she takes the stage. Her speeches provide concrete examples of the vulnerability of the clerical regime and emphasize the ever-improving prospects for the MEK to lead the way in bringing about regime change.
The recipients of that message are diverse and they include more than just the assembled crowd of MEK members and supporters. The expectation is that the international dignitaries at each year’s event will carry the message of the MEK back to their own governments and help to encourage more policymakers to recognize the role of the Iranian Resistance in the potential creation of a free and democratic Iranian nation. It is also expected that the event will inspire millions of Iranians to plan for the eventual removal of the clerical regime. And indeed, the MEK broadcasts the event via its own satellite television network, to millions of Iranian households with illegal hookups.
MEK’s Domestic Activism and Intelligence Network
What’s more, the MEK retains a solid base of activists inside its Iranian homeland. In the run-up to this year’s Free Iran rally the role of those activists was particularly evident, since the event comes just a month and a half after the latest Iranian presidential elections, in which heavily stage-managed elections resulted in the supposedly moderate incumbent Hassan Rouhani securing reelection. His initial election in 2013 was embraced by some Western policymakers as a possible sign of progress inside the Islamic Republic, but aside from the 2015 nuclear agreement with six world powers, none of his progressive-sounding campaign promises have seen the light of day.
Rouhani’s poor record has provided additional fertile ground for the message of the MEK and Maryam Rajavi. The Iranian Resistance has long argued that change from within the regime is impossible, and this was strongly reiterated against the backdrop of the presidential elections, when MEK activists used graffiti, banners, and other communications to describe the sitting president as an “imposter.” Many of those same communications decried Rouhani’s leading challenger, Ebrahim Raisi, as a “murderer,” owing to his leading role in the massacre of MEK supporters in 1988.
That fact helped to underscore the domestic support for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, insofar as many people who participated in the election said they recognized Raisi as the worst the regime had to offer, and that they were eager to prevent him from taking office. But this is not to say that voters saw Rouhani in a positive light, especially where the MEK is concerned. Under the Rouhani administration, the Justice Minister is headed by Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who also served on the Death Commission and declared as recently as last year that he was proud of himself for having carried out what he described as God’s command of death for MEK supporters.
With this and other aspects of the Islamic Republic’s record, the MEK’s pre-election activism was mainly focused on encouraging Iranians to boycott the polls. The publicly displayed banners and posters urged a “vote for regime change,” and many of them included the likeness of Maryam Rajavi, suggesting that her return to Iran from France would signify a meaningful alternative to the hardline servants of the clerical regime who are currently the only option in any Iranian national election.
Naturally, this direct impact on Iranian politics is the ultimate goal of MEK activism. But it performs other recognizable roles from its position in exile, not just limited to the motivational and organization role of the Free Iran rally and other, smaller gatherings. In fact, the MEK rose to particular international prominence in 2005 when it released information that had been kept secret by the Iranian regime about its nuclear program. These revelations included the locations of two secret nuclear sites: an uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Arak, capable of producing enriched plutonium.
As well as having a substantial impact on the status of international policy regarding the Iranian nuclear program, the revelations also highlighted the MEK’s popular support and strong network inside Iran. Although Maryam Rajavi and the rest of the leadership of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran reside outside of the country, MEK affiliates are scattered throughout Iranian society with some even holding positions within hardline government and military institutions, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Drawing upon the resources of that intelligence network, the MEK has continued to share crucial information with Western governments in recent years, some of it related to the nuclear program and some of it related to other matters including terrorist training, military development, and the misappropriation of financial resources. The MEK has variously pointed out that the Revolutionary Guard controls well over half of Iran’s gross domestic product, both directly and through a series of front companies and close affiliates in all manner of Iranian industries.
In February of this year, the Washington, D.C. office of the National Council of Resistance of Iran held press conferences to detail MEK intelligence regarding the expansion of terrorist training programs being carried out across Iran by the Revolutionary Guards. The growth of these programs reportedly followed upon direct orders from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and coincided with increased recruitment of foreign nationals to fight on Tehran’s behalf in regional conflicts including the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars.
In the weeks following that press conference, the MEK’s parent organization also prepared documents and held other talks explaining the source of some of the Revolutionary Guards’ power and wealth. Notably, this series of revelations reflected upon trends in American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran. And other revelations continue to do so, even now.
MEK Intelligence Bolstering US Policy Shifts
Soon after taking office, and around the time the MEK identified a series of Revolutionary Guard training camps, US President Donald Trump directed the State Department to review the possibility of designating Iran’s hardline paramilitary as a foreign terrorist organization. Doing so would open the Revolutionary Guards up to dramatically increased sanctions – a strategy that the MEK prominently supports as a means of weakening the barriers to regime change within Iran.
The recent revelations of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran have gone a long way toward illustrating both the reasons for giving this designation to the Revolutionary Guards and the potential impact of doing so. Since then, the MEK has also used its intelligence gathering to highlight the ways in which further sanctioning the Guards could result in improved regional security, regardless of the specific impact on terrorist financing.
For example, in June the NCRI’s Washington, D.C. office held yet another press conference wherein it explained that MEK operatives had become aware of another order for escalation that had been given by Supreme Leader Khamenei, this one related to the Iranian ballistic missile program. This had also been a longstanding point of contention for the Trump administration and the rest of the US government, in light of several ballistic missile launches that have been carried out since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, including an actual strike on eastern Syria.
That strike was widely viewed as a threatening gesture toward the US. And the MEK has helped to clarify the extent of the threat by identifying 42 separate missile sites scattered throughout Iran, including one that was working closely with the Iranian institution that had previously been tasked with weaponizing aspects of the Iranian nuclear program.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) led by Maryam Rajavi is thus going to great lengths to encourage the current trend in US policy, which is pointing to more assertiveness and possibly even to the ultimate goal of regime change. The MEK is also striving to move Europe in a similar direction, and the July 1 gathering is likely to show further progress toward that goal. This is because hundreds of American and European politicians and scholars have already declared support for the NCRI and MEK and the platform of Maryam Rajavi. The number grows every year, while the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran continues to collect intelligence that promises to clarify the need for regime change and the practicality of their strategy for achieving it.