Thousands of opponents of Iran’s theocratic government packed a convention center outside Paris on Saturday for a day-long event featuring prominent U.S. officials and several allies of the Trump administration, among them former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Orchestrated by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a France-based group of Iranian exiles established in 1981 that advocates for the replacement of the current Iranian government, the event was marked by reinvigorated hopes for a regime change in light of the election of President Trump.
Speaking before a crowd that organizers claimed numbered over 10,000, Giuliani, who currently works in the private sector yet is seen as a de facto emissary for the Trump administration, declared that the president is “laser-focused on the danger of Iran to the freedom of the world.”
Giuliani, who met with NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi prior to Saturday’s rally, was one of 30 former senior U.S. officials and military commanders who issued a joint statement in support of the objectives of the Iranian resistance movement. The statement read, in part:
Under the leadership of Maryam Rajavi, a Muslim woman standing for gender equality, which is an antidote to Islamic fundamentalism and extremism, [the NCRI] is working every day to bring about a tolerant, non-nuclear Iranian republic based on separation of religion and state, that will uphold the rights of all.
Iran dissidents see the Trump administration as more likely to take a tough stance on Tehran, especially in regards to the nuclear deal agreed to under the Obama administration in 2015.
At a panel discussion on Friday, former vice presidential candidate, Joe Lieberman, criticized Trump’s predecessor for the deal. “For the last eight years, we had an administration in Washington whose policy toward the Middle East was to … improve our relations with Iran almost regardless of what Iran was doing,” he said.
The nuclear deal was more transactional than transformational, Lieberman claimed, adding that “nothing about Iran’s behavior has changed in the couple of years since the Iran nuclear agreement was signed.”
After his speech on Saturday, Lieberman also stated that it would aid the NCRI’s cause if Rajavi made an appearance in the United States. “It would be great,” Lieberman told Independent Journal Review, if Rajavi were to meet with congressional leadership, Vice President Pence, and President Trump. Yet the former Connecticut senator emphasized the potential blowback of such a high-profile meeting.
“Those are always big decisions,” he said, adding, “The State Department will always say, ‘Don’t do it.'” If such a meeting did take place, however, it should be taken as a sign of respect for, rather than an endorsement of, the resistance movement, Lieberman noted.
— William Vaillancourt (@12WCV) July 1, 2017
The annual gathering occurred six weeks after Iran’s presidential election, which saw incumbent Hassan Rouhani win re-election with approximately 57 percent of the vote, according to the Iranian government.
But the election was a “sham,” Rajavi declared in her speech before a raucous crowd, claiming that the ruling party’s grasp on power was wearing thin. Speaking directly to government leaders, she went so far as to say, “The same people you hanged and whose graves you concealed have risen again as a new generation of rebellious youths who, with their calls for justice, have encircled your regime.”
In closing, Rajavi posed the question whether giving concessions would ever change the behavior of the “religious dictatorship.” “The answer is no,” she declared, emphasizing that the only solution would be nothing short of regime change.
Despite such combative statements, Saturday’s rally concluded without any major counterprotests and was deemed a success by organizers. Yet the rally received spotty coverage in Western media, likely due to the NCRI’s mixed reputation — one which leaders have made substantial efforts to improve as of late.
The Mujahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, a faction of the more politically oriented NCRI, was a formidable presence in the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and was known to have carried out terrorist attacks against targets in the Iranian government throughout the 1980s. The MEK was listed by the European Union and the United States as a terrorist organization until 2009 and 2012, respectively.
Since then, the NCRI has been broadening its appeal. Speakers this year from the United States included Congressmen Ted Poe, Tom Garrett, and Robert Pittenger, former Pennsylvania governors Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr., as well as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. Prior attendees of the conference included Sen. John McCain and former New Mexico Governor and Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
This diversity of speakers has provided positive optics that the NCRI hopes will improve things on the public relations front.
As far as intelligence about the inner workings of the Iranian regime, the NCRI also has been active of late. At a press conference in Washington last month, it released a lengthy report claiming that North Korean experts are helping the country grow its ballistic missile program.
The report revealed the existence of 12 previously unknown missile development sites and a partnership between the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the North Koreans.
— NCRI-U.S. Rep Office (@NCRIUS) June 20, 2017
“North Korean experts have been present in Al Mahdi Garrison, a key missile site allocated to missile training near Tehran,” NCRI spokesman Alireza Jafarzadeh said.
According to the report, “Delegations of the IRGC’s aerospace constantly travel to North Korea and exchange knowledge, information and achievements with North Korean specialists.”
When asked about a connection between the two states that President George W. Bush proclaimed to be part of an “axis of evil” in 2002, Gen. James Conway, 34th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, told IJR: “I think they’re in collusion with each other.”
“I really think that the Iranian nuclear weapons development is taking place, as we stand here today, in North Korea,” Conway said, echoing the NCRI’s June report.
On Tuesday, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that may have long-range capabilities.
When asked which country poses the most danger, Rudy Giuliani told IJR, “I consider Iran a bigger threat than North Korea,” noting that Iran “is expanding into an empire,” whereas North Korea is more isolated.
“There are no moderate members of the present Iranian regime,” Giuliani went on to say. He is not alone in this opinion.
Gen. Jack Keane, former U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff, said at Friday’s panel discussion, “Cheating is in the DNA of this regime.” The last thing the U.S. should be doing, he warned, is rewarding them with millions of dollars.
— William Vaillancourt (@12WCV) June 30, 2017
The Trump administration’s stance on Iran cannot currently be pinned down to one side or the other.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the U.S. would work with Iranian opposition groups toward the “peaceful transition of that government.” This marks a departure from the previous administration’s path, as President Obama had said, bluntly, at a 2013 U.N. meeting, “We are not seeking regime change.”
The Trump administration has also kept the nuclear agreement alive, at least temporarily.
Nevertheless, Ambassador Robert Joseph, former Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, maintained that the president has assembled an “excellent” national security team to confront the regime.
Michael Pregent, an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, asserted that the current administration has “called Iran’s bluff.”
Those who identify with the Iranian opposition are hoping that something will at last come of this as the NCRI continues to pick up momentum. As former Senator Robert Torricelli put it, the resistance movement is a lot like surfing:
“We don’t make the wave — we just train to understand the moment to ride it.”