By Cameron Keyani
July 12, 2017
This year’s annual Iran Freedom Rally in Paris’ Villepinte Exhibition Center was a gathering of tens of thousands of members of the Persian diaspora, as well as policymakers, military experts, civil society, and activists from across the world and across ideological spectrums. The keynote speakers of the event were former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) President-elect Maryam Rajavi.
Though they stand in very different places, the speakers and participants were uniform in their desire for a secular, democratic, and non-nuclear republic Iran brought about by the Iranian people and their organized resistance. This year’s rally had a celebratory mood for two reasons:
Firstly, at a time when the vilification of Middle Eastern refugees has come into vogue across the industrialized world, this year marked the first conference since the resettlement of 2,700 former residents of Camp Ashraf, Iraq, to Albania. These Iranian People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK/PMOI) members were political refugees & had operated in Camp Ashraf for decades. But upon the shifting of political winds in Iraq in the last decade, they had been subject to violent attacks and forced relocations by Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its many proxies in Iraq.
Former Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko, who led his country’s delegation at the rally, could barely start speaking before he was given a standing ovation by conference attendees for his part in the resettlement. The story of much of the Iranian diaspora is defined by refugees from the Islamic Republic’s regime, and for many at the conference, Albania’s act of humanitarian compassion was deeply personal. The successful relocation of these Iranian opposition members was also a strategic defeat for the clerical regime, which wanted them killed or extradited to Iran.
The second reason for the jubilant tone of the conference was the mantra repeated by the speakers: regime change in Iran is within reach, and closer than it has ever been. The consensus was that arrival of a new U.S. administration is likely to bring a cataclysmic shift to the established U.S. foreign policy in many ways, but perhaps the most marked may be a shift in its approach towards Iran.
Trump administration has thus far discarded the conciliatory vision of the Obama administration, and identified the Islamic Republic as the primary obstacle to peace in the region. Conservative thought leaders like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and former UN Ambassador John Bolton were speakers at the conference, and lauded the potential for regime change that this new administration’s hardline stance could bring.
Their argument was buttressed by a US congressional delegation led by Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX), Chairman of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Subcommittee. Judge Poe gave a rousing speech and made a promise to conference attendees to push on his legislation to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. Such a designation would be a massive blow both for the IRGC’s legitimacy, its ability to orchestrate Iranian military engagement in Syria, its ability to maintain uninterrupted oppression within Iran, and for the organization’s ability to move financial assets.
It would be a slight to suggest that the only American voices at the conference were Republican ones. The conference received an eloquent speech from former US Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) in which he quoted Civil Rights hero Martin Luther King Jr.and said that, “The moral arc of the universe bends slowly, but it always bends toward Justice.”
Senator Lieberman clarified that while the arc bends slowly, there are things that individuals can do to make the arc bend more quickly, and that the massive crowd that he was addressing, of people in support of religious tolerance, gender equality, free press, and rule of law in Iran, was evidence that change was possible.
Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Elliot Engel (D-NY) Subcommittee Ranking Member Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also addressed the conference through video messages. While the United States Congress is marred by partisan gridlock and the feeling that neither party can afford to give an inch, the Foreign Affairs Committee remains a unique arena in which cooperation, especially against destabilizing threats like the Islamic Republic, is achievable.
A repeated theme of the rally was not only that the global opposition to the Islamic Republic was strong, but that the regime itself stands at a point of relative weakness. Compared to its regional neighbors, Iran today may appear as a stable and developed nation. Internally, however, the regime faces a disaffected population that is only kept dormant through state terrorism and absolute oppression. The consensus was that the international community and particularly the United States must end the policy of engagement with Tehran and instead recognize the Iranian people’s longstanding aspiration for democracy & freedom.
Furthermore, participants demanded that IRGC be blacklisted and Iranian officials be held accountable for their crimes against humanity – committed against the Iranian people and in the Syrian conflict. In this context, if and when the Supreme Leader dies or the regime faces another spate of popular uprisings, their divided government would likely not be able to weather the storm.
As many speakers stated: will next year’s conference be held in a free Tehran?
For this observer, that prospect is unclear. Change takes time, and as Ambassador Bolton said of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, policy experts and observers who think they know the future often find themselves inconsolable at how events unfold. What is evident from this year’s Paris Rally is that when Iran is ready to cast off the yoke of fundamentalist rule, there are leaders across the world who are ready to extend the olive branch and bring them into the international family.