John Bowden, Washington, DC, Monday, July 3, 2023 (originally published in Independent)
Thousands of Iranian dissidents crowded the streets of a Paris neighbourhood on Saturday while Western opponents of the government in Tehran gathered for a politically star-studded event aimed at poking a finger in the eye of the Ayatollah’s supporters.
Despite warnings from French authorities and the US Embassy in Paris that alleged threats of a terror attack made a large outdoor event unwise, there were no incidents over the weekend as Iranian dissident activists mingled with prominent current and former officials from the US, UK and other European nations. If that threat of a terror attack was real, it was hard to spot the concern of French authorities on Saturday, given that police did not provide more than a handful of officers to patrol the area, those on the scene told The Independent.
Dissidents with the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) have long held a chequered relationship with the west, in addition to their long campaign against the Iranian government. This year is no exception to that dynamic. Formerly classified as a terrorist group by the US, the MEK now resides in Albania, where just weeks ago a massive police raid was blamed for the death of a senior MEK member while others sustained serious injuries — all, the MEK alleged, at the behest of Iran’s government. The same day, French authorities moved to cancel Saturday’s rally.
Varying explanations for the raid were presented in the hours following, but over the weekend a top Iranian official tweeted that computers seized from the MEK by Albanian police had been transferred to Iranian custody, a development first reported on Monday in Iranian state media. A senior NCRI official fumed about the news in a statement to The Independent, demanding that the US State Department take a position on Albania’s collaboration with Iran’s intelligence agencies; the Biden administration had previously reacted to the raid by calling it a police action while carefully avoiding any suggestion of Iranian involvement.
The Independent has reached out to the State Department for comment on the news of the computers being transferred to Iranian custody. The agency had previously issued a brief statement in the wake of the raid depicting it as a typical law enforcement action and noting that the Biden administration doesn’t view the MEK as a viable political alternative to the regime in Tehran.
NCRI president-elect Maryam Rajavi also had sharp words for the State Department specifically in her address on Sunday.
“As for the advocates of appeasement within the US State Department, who concurrently backed the tragedy in [Albania], it is enough to note that the mullahs waved their turbans and lavished them with commendations,” she insisted.
Ms Rajavi also questioned: “Why do [Ayatollah Ali] Khameni and [Iranian President Ebrahim] Raisi demonstrate such fear over a gathering taking place 5,000 kilometres away from Tehran?”
Seemingly growing efforts by Tehran to punish the MEK and the Biden State Department’s rejection of the group as a viable alternative-in-waiting to the Iranian regime made Saturday and Sunday’s events all the more of a coup for the NCRI and MEK; with increasing support from prominent members of the DC and London foreign policy establishments, the position of the current administration is looking all the more tenuous. That fact was hammered home by the virtual address of Sunday’s convention by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, characterised by The Independent’s sources as maintaining one of, if not the, friendliest relationship between the State Department and MEK during his tenure.
Other VIPs at Sunday’s event were equally impressive gets for the dissident group, especially given the State Department’s coldness: former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss, who appeared remotely, 2024 presidential candidate Mike Pence, former Sen Joseph Lieberman, ex-House of Commons speaker John Bercow, Trump national security adviser John Bolton and a dozen sitting members of the US Congress from both parties. Members who have attended the NCRI’s events in Washington typically skew conservative or towards the hawkish wing of foreign policy thought in the US government.
Mr Pence used his remarks to lash out at Joe Biden’s White House for supposedly “working overtime” to restore the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 under the Obama administration (and later abandoned by Donald Trump).
“Now, a new administration is threatening to unravel all of the progress we made in marginalising the tyrannical regime in Tehran,” Mr Pence claimed.
“They are working overtime to restore the Iran Nuclear Deal, putting Tehran back on the fast track to obtaining nuclear weapons.”
He also claimed that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon in a year if sanctions were rolled back and the 2015 deal snapped back into place.
Ms Truss, meanwhile, appeared to take aim at the west for “appeasement” of the Iranian regime — remarks that were timely in the wake of the Albanian police action and accusations of similar betrayals by the French.
“There’s been too much appeasement. There’s been too much wishful thinking, there’s been too much hope that things would change when it was evident that things were not going to change and have not changed,” she said.
Then speaking of Iran along with Russia and other authoritarian governments, she argued: “We need to be clear…we won’t treat these countries as part of the normal international system.”
While Saturday’s rally went off without incident, the NCRI is no stranger to facing the threat of more serious revenge plots carried out by agents of Iran’s government.
The rally and convention attended by Mr Pence and others was targeted in 2018 in a terror plot that was uncovered and halted by authorities, who arrested an Iranian diplomat and five others accused of planning a bombing. The diplomat, Assadolah Assadi, was sentenced in Belgium to 20 years in prison and the French government blamed Iran’s intelligence ministries for being behind the plans.
The Iranian foreign ministry publicly condemned France over the weekend for allowing the rally to go forward, after a court battle resulted in a victory for the dissidents over authorities who had hoped to call it off.