Paris gathering shows growing clout of anti-Iran dissident group

The rally in Paris on Saturday was led by the largest opposition organization in Iran of exiles, the National Council for the Resistance of Iran, a well-connected group which has found new prominence and influence with the strongly anti-Iran Trump administration now in power in Washington. (Sarah Wachter/Special to The Washington Times)


PARIS — Iran’s largest dissident group is getting a fresh burst of support for its decades-long push for regime change, as pressure builds on the Islamic regime in Tehran from the inside as well as the outside.

The rally here Saturday was led by the largest opposition organization in Iran of exiles, the National Council for the Resistance of Iran, a well-connected group which has found new prominence and influence with the strongly anti-Iran Trump administration now in power in Washington.

The pressure in Iran has been mounting in the weeks since the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal: President Trump announced a tightening of oil and other economic sanctions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled a new plan to increase the pressure on Tehran, and regime-change advocates such as new national security adviser John Bolton were brought into the administration’s inner circle.

The rally also was held amid a string of large street protests in Iran over the country’s faltering economy, from traders in the conservative Grand Bazaar in Tehran incensed over a plunge in the value of the currency to persistent worker’s strikes. Many here think the Iranian regime is at its weakest point in decades.

In one measure of the NCRI’s growing clout, some three dozen current and previous officials from the U.S., Europe and Middle Eastern officials attended this year’s gathering. One of the most prominent U.S. notables was Rudy Giuliani, now the personal lawyer to President Trump and a veteran of many past NCRI events.

Mr. Giuliani made a strong call to ramp up sanctions as the protests in recent months have spread to 142 cities.

“When they do that, and when these protests continue to grow and grow, this threatens to topple the regime, which means freedom is right around the corner,” he said. “This is the time to put on the real pressure. The sanctions will become greater and greater.”

Red and green confetti rained on the crowd organizers estimated at about 100,000 right before the NRCI leader, Maryam Rajavi, spoke.

The stage became a waving sea of red tulips in homage to the 30,000 MEK members, a NCRI faction, who were executed by the Iranian regime in 1981, still a searing memory in the MEK’s checkered and tragic history.

The floral tribute was a nod to an Iranian folk song about red tulips rising from the blood of martyrs.
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich also spoke, urging European nations that have balked at Mr. Trump’s tough line on Iran to get on board with the program to tighten the economic vise on Tehran.

“We need to insist that [European governments] join the sanctions once again,” Mr. Gingrich said.

The NCRI backed the ouster of the Shah of Iran with other revolutionary groups in 1979, but clashed with the Islamist forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini afterwards. Leaders say they renounce violence.

On stage at the rally were photos of “ashrafs” or cells of resistance in Iran with their faces covered, as many face arrest and imprisonment from a regime which views the group as one of the prime challenges to its authority.

But despite its influential friends and sophisticated media outreach, analysts are divided over the relevance of the NCRI and other exile dissident groups to the political tensions inside Iran.

Mahan Abedin, a British-Iranian journalist for Middle East Eye, said no longer tracks the group. “They are not important anymore, in a strategic sense,” he said by telephone from London.

But the group is considered the only credible opposition force outside of Iran, and enjoys extensive contacts inside the country. The NCRI has pursued its objective of regime change with discipline and laser-like focus.

Emblazoned along the stage was a giant banner, in English and Farsi for the #RegimeChangeIran, a hashtag that emerged right after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month laid out a long list of conditions and concessions Iran would have to meet to escape future U.S. pressure.

Former Senator Robert Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, speaking to The Washington Times on the sidelines of the huge Paris gathering, praised the NCRI’s organizational strength and persistence.

“It’s their intensity, it’s their strength, it’s their willingness to sacrifice, and it’s the appeal of their messaging,” he said.

Mrs. Rajavi inspired intense loyalty from her large cohort of followers, an intensity that critics verges on cult-like status. On Saturday, clad in her customary turquoise blue hijab and suit, her reiterated the NCRI’s plan for freedom and democracy in Iran, which includes separation of church and state, gender equality and freedom of expression in an Iran free of nuclear weapons.

After Mrs. Rajavi spoke, the people in the crowd, wearing yellow vests to symbolize the sun in the Iranian crest, stood up to show the sign on their backs, which read, “Every moment for the uprising!”

Saturday’s rally also had a strong showing of dignitaries from leading Western countries, including former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada.

Among the U.S. officials present were Bill Richardson, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.; former FBI Director Louis Freeh; and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Donya Jam, a 23-year-old graduate student studying human rights and European history at George Mason University, took time off from her studies to help plan the rally.

A Christian whose parents fled Iran due to religious persecution, she has never visited Iran.

“I will not step foot in Iran until it is free,” she said.