Iran Hawks Advocate Regime Change with Former Designated Terror Group

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The International Convention for the Future of Iran stage, taken just before Mark Wallace, the CEO of United Against Nuclear Iran took the stage.

Rudy Giuliani had a packed schedule on 24 September. There was a late-night television appearance on the Ingraham Angle, but that wasn’t unusual for Giuliani, a regular guest on the Fox News network. That day the former iconic Mayor of New York City had not one, but two keynote speeches to give. While they were supposed to be to two different organisations, functionally they were for the exact same people: the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, a group that until 2012, was designated as a terror organisation by the United States and had been responsible for killing American soldiers in Iran in the 1970s.

The official convention held at the historic luxury Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan was entitled the “International Convention for the Future of Iran” and had only been announced a month ago. No public information indicated who set up the website or which organisations were connected. Nothing. Adam Rawnsley, a reporter for The Daily Beast, noted that the invitation he received resembled a phishing scam and he didn’t think much of it.1.https://twitter.com/arawnsley/status/1173751598302081024 But despite this materialisation out of nothing, the convention was claiming a titanic achievement; it was a congregation of 30 different Iranian opposition organisations. 2.https://twitter.com/lrozen/status/1175980143279579143 All were from different, even diametrically opposed, ideologies. Yet they had apparently put aside these differences and were now united in the goal of removing from power the Islamic Republic that had ruled Iran for over 40 years. It was quite the claim and almost too good to be true, as Iranian politics among the diaspora are infamous for division and polarisation.

The group most involved in the event, and suspected of having a hand in organising it, is United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). UANI is a lobbying group opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, chaired by former Senator Joe Lieberman, and whose CEO is Mark Wallace, a former official for the George W. Bush administration. The UANI, despite being officially independent, has been mired in suspicions of US government involvement. A lawsuit against them in 2015 was dismissed on official orders on the grounds that the discovery process could jeopardise “state secrets” and “sensitive” national security information.3.“Obama administration shuts down lawsuit to protect U.S. secrets on Iran” : CNN

UANI denied to reporters that they organised the event, and said that the Roosevelt Hotel labeling it as a UANI event was a mistake. Despite these denials, the NCRI, the MEK’s umbrella group, stated that Mark Wallace was the event organiser.4.https://twitter.com/iran_policy/status/1176539514321481739 A Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDP-I) representative acknowledged the UANI in the party’s official statement addressing the invitation to the convention. UANI officials were present, but insisted they were there in a “personal capacity”, such as CEO Wallace who spoke as the first keynote speaker and Jason Brodsky, UANI’s Policy Director.5.https://twitter.com/EliClifton/status/1176571612944064512 Iran’s government was unconvinced by official UANI denials, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Abbas Mousavi announced that the government would consider adding the group to its terror blacklist, which would make the lobbying group the second American organisation to be added, after the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, or FDD was added in August.6.“ایران افزودن سازمان آمریکایی “اتحاد علیه ایران هسته‌ای” به فهرست تروریستی را بررسی می‌کند” : ISNA

As the convention drew closer, many of the opposition groups that were expected to be attending through official convention invites started to announce otherwise. Many of the groups advertised were under the banner of the Cooperation Center of Iranian Kurdistan’s Political Parties. They had been given top billing as headlining representatives in invitations sent out by the convention. They then declined to attend.

When the time of the convention came, many of the leftover seats for the opposition parties that were slated to attend, as a symbol of the unity of Iran’s opposition, were empty.7.“Iran hawks cement ties to former US-designated terror group” : al-Monitor More perplexing was the fact that representatives from several Iranian monarchist organisations, like Farashgard and the National Council of Iran, were not invited at all, despite the monarchist movement’s relative popularity among the Iranian diaspora in comparison to other invited groups like the Organisation of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas.

MEK supporters rally outside the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, 2019.

The few groups that remained were almost all under the MEK’s banner. They had held a rally in front of the UN General Assembly earlier that day with more than a thousand strong in matching suits with matching signs. And now they were effectively holding a second rally right afterward, this time to court Washington lobbyists and politicians.

The MEK has been patiently investing in its influence in Washington. This slow rise has started to displace support for Iranian monarchists, who Trump was at one point encouraged by officials to ally with.8.“Son of deposed Iranian Shah calls for U.S.-backed regime change” : Politico While the monarchists may have a relative advantage in popularity among the Iranian diaspora, with multiple organised but distinct political parties, the MEK is somewhat different. The MEK is wholly united, completely uniform in ideology, and is wholly subservient to the wishes of its leader. The MEK is also perceived as being far more willing to kowtow to larger American foreign policy interests.

This is in comparison to their counterparts lining up behind Reza Pahlavi, who have more varied viewpoints and internal schisms regarding the future of Iran. Some are torn between only having the Pahlavi crown prince as an advisory figurehead or an establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Iran, while others argue for a return to the absolute monarchy that preceded the Iranian revolution.

The Mojahedin-e-Khalq was founded in 1965 to fight the Shah’s government and formed under an ideology of Islamic Marxism that fused the ideology of the liberation of the worker with Iran’s dominant religion. This willingness to embrace Islam as part of its ideology set it apart from other leftist movements seeking to overthrow the Shah. Iranian Stalinists, like the Tudeh Party, rejected Islam in the political sphere. Iranian Maoists, like the Union of Communist Militants, rejected Islam as a whole and admonished its adherents. This willingness to fuse the two ideologies allowed the MEK to grow in popularity within the Iranian opposition.

During the period of the Shah’s rule, the MEK undertook numerous campaigns against him that also involved targeting US officials, citizens, and soldiers.9.“Giuliani Took Money From a Group That Killed Americans. Does Trump Care?” : Politico Contractors working for US companies were killed, assassinations were attempted against military leaders, and the American ambassador to Iran was targeted for a high-profile kidnapping that ultimately failed.

After the Iranian Revolution, the MEK attempted runs in elections but did not succeed in taking power as they had envisioned. After standing against the impeachment of the first Iranian president and being banned by the government, the MEK’s leaders went into exile and set up the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Somewhat shortly, the impeached president, Abolhassan Banisadr, left the organisation after it became clear the organisation was becoming akin to the dictatorship he opposed in Tehran.

Massoud Rajavi, the MEK’s co-leader from 1979-2003, meets with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1988. Rajavi’s alliance with Hussein against the Iranian government during the Iran-Iraq War severely damaged relations between the group and the larger Iranian opposition movement, as well as destroying their remaining popularity with Iran’s populace.

The MEK began crafting a cult of personality around its two leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. They were allied with Saddam Hussein against the Iranian government, earning them the ire of virtually all other Iranians. The MEK began forcing its members to divorce, give children up for adoption, and dedicate themselves entirely to the cause of the revolution. Soon, virtually all political ideology outside of overthrowing the Iranian government was void, where mentions of Karl Marx became limited and support for conservative politicians and outwardly capitalist media became paramount and instrumental to the MEK’s political and communication outreach.

Before the convention started, reporters from outlets like Jewish Insider and Al-Monitor were able to enter the hall, while some reporters, like Eli Clifton of LobeLog, were refused entry to the convention floor because it was “at capacity” even for members of the press.10.https://twitter.com/EliClifton/status/1176537727384412164 Clifton noted he seemed to be the only member of the press turned away and suspected that it had been for his critical reporting of the UANI and its funding sources in the past, bolstered by his refusal of press credentials for the official UANI convention the day after.11.https://twitter.com/EliClifton/status/1176692211523739648

A still from Rudy Giuliani’s keynote speech to the Future of Iran convention.

After Mark Wallace opened the event with a moment of silence for those who lost their lives in opposition to Iran’s government and for those in prison, the first speaker up was Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani has been on the MEK’s payroll for many years. In a rambling speech that veered from point to point, often times going off his own script, Giuliani lauded Trump’s policies toward Iran, demanded France and Germany stop giving money to Iran, for politicians at the UN to stop meeting with Iranian politicians, and for the American media to start covering the continuous protests in Iran that Giuliani has, in the past, claimed are extremely pro-MEK, despite lacking evidence for this claim.12.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3DFBB3EF5o

Giuliani also claimed in his speech that Iran’s alleged attack on Saudi Arabian oil fields, for which the US has still not released the “damning” evidence it claims it has, was not just an attack on Saudi Arabia, but on the world through its energy supply. This line of attack has been mirrored and was pioneered by figures aligned with the Saudi government, which the MEK has had close ties to.13.“Prince Turki bin Faisal Al-Saud Drops Bombshell at Iranian Opposition Rally” : Center for Security Policy Faisal J. Abbas, the editor-in-chief of a newspaper owned by Turki bin Salman Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, was among the first to call the attack on the Abqaiq Oil Field of Saudi Aramco an attack on global energy supply as well as:

a direct attack on all peace-loving people, their ways of life, their economic security and well-being.14.“Terrorist designation of IRGC ‘long overdue’: Iranian resistance” : Arab News

The next speaker at the convention, Farzin Hashemi representing the NCRI’s Foreign Affair Committee, also indulged in talking points closely aligned with those of the Saudi Arabian government and the US government. Hashemi explicitly called the attack on Saudi Aramco an Iranian “act of war”, a choice of words used by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then by Saudi officials.15.“U.S. Says Attack on Saudi Site Was an ‘Iranian Act of War'” : Time Hashemi also claimed that Iran had attacked Mecca, “the House of God”, in both 1986 and 1987. This was in reference to two incidents. The former saw the Saudi government claiming to have found massive amounts of TNT in Iranian pilgrims’ luggage, and the latter saw a protest by Iranian pilgrims against the Saudi government during the Hajj that resulted in deadly clashes and a stampede which left 400 dead.

Questions about Iranian involvement still remain regarding the 1986 plot and whether or not it had been potentially a rogue undertaking by elements of the IRGC. There also is some consideration as whether or not Khomeini could have done more to prevent Iranian pilgrims from protesting during the Hajj, but the position of the Saudi government has been firmly in the camp that these two incidents were directly perpetrated by Iran’s government. Additionally, there has been a recent push by Saudi Arabian royal-controlled media to blame the social conservatism and the country’s poor international reputation directly on the shoulders of Iran, the Islamic Republic’s ideology, and its inspired actions.16.https://twitter.com/AlArabiya_KSA/status/1176026651345522688

Hashemi also attempted to spin the Iranian government’s fall as within extremely close reach by claiming that Iranian government officials had themselves concluded two years ago that 96% of the population is against them. Hashemi spun this conclusion from what was in reality a 2017 quote from then-Iranian presidential candidate Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf, who said during the campaign that the 4% of Iran’s population that was elite was sucking like leeches off the other 96%.17.“Who’s Who In Iran’s Elections” : Time Hashemi called on the United Nations to assist in intervention against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps by invoking Chapter 7 of the UN charter to help expel the group from countries like Syria, and called for the group to be further isolated by being designated as a terrorist group by the UN itself, a designation typically limited to groups like ISIS.

Firouz Daneshgari, the next speaker, a physician and a former MEK political prisoner, seemed to endorse the unspoken sidelining of the Iranian royalist opposition, saying that the people of Iran could come together in rejecting the Iranian government just as they did “the dictatorship of the Shah” in 1979. Daneshgari also mirrored Pompeo’s claims on the effects of sanctions, claiming that sanctions placed on Iran had had no effect on medical supplies and the increase of the black market for organs, instead saying that it “had all to do with this criminal regime of Mullahs,” and was shipping all the medical supplies to other countries instead.18.“Pompeo accuses Newsweek of ‘helping’ Iran ‘spread lies'” : The Hill Doctors inside Iran have disagreed with this assessment, with one physician, Dr. Babak Gharaei, shouting during an interview with BBC Persian that Pompeo was “a liar, a liar,” for saying medicine was exempt from sanctions.19.https://twitter.com/bbcpersian/status/1060662540181651458

From there, speakers continued, all representing groups belonging to the MEK’s apparatus. The only non-MEK group to speak on stage was a representative from the Organisation of Iranian Kurdistan Struggle, also known as Khebat. Even still, Khebat is a group that has been closely aligned with the MEK in the past. Their leader has been seen speaking at MEK rallies and declaring that the NCRI is that the “organised and democratic alternative to the (Iranian) regime.”20.“Kak Baba Sheikh Hosseini: the NCRI is the organized and democratic alternative to the regime” : Iran Freedom Group Indeed, the speech at the Future of Iran convention was highly approving of the MEK and the NCRI, saying that they had become allies and had rejected any negotiations with the Iranian government.

Despite the attempt to bring together the Iranian opposition, the convention’s organisers may have only further proved that the Iranian opposition is irreparably broken. Even as the speakers called for all parties of the Iranian opposition to come together, the convention contained no one even remotely opposed to the MEK.

In involving the MEK so heavily, the convention organisers may have wanted to communicate that they do not actually want a pluralistic and politically vibrant Iran. A pluralistic Iranian government could be one with the potential to form its own independent foreign policy. Rather, Washington insiders may be voicing that it is more preferable that there be in power in Iran a government that is single-minded, one that has a deep and abiding willingness to align itself with US interests. And there is no better candidate for this sort of governance than the Mojahedin-e-Khalq.

Séamus Malekafzali

Writer. Interested in media analysis and nationalist movements.

References   [ + ]

1. https://twitter.com/arawnsley/status/1173751598302081024
2. https://twitter.com/lrozen/status/1175980143279579143
3. “Obama administration shuts down lawsuit to protect U.S. secrets on Iran” : CNN
4. https://twitter.com/iran_policy/status/1176539514321481739
5. https://twitter.com/EliClifton/status/1176571612944064512
6. “ایران افزودن سازمان آمریکایی “اتحاد علیه ایران هسته‌ای” به فهرست تروریستی را بررسی می‌کند” : ISNA
7. “Iran hawks cement ties to former US-designated terror group” : al-Monitor
8. “Son of deposed Iranian Shah calls for U.S.-backed regime change” : Politico
9. “Giuliani Took Money From a Group That Killed Americans. Does Trump Care?” : Politico
10. https://twitter.com/EliClifton/status/1176537727384412164
11. https://twitter.com/EliClifton/status/1176692211523739648
12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3DFBB3EF5o
13. “Prince Turki bin Faisal Al-Saud Drops Bombshell at Iranian Opposition Rally” : Center for Security Policy
14. “Terrorist designation of IRGC ‘long overdue’: Iranian resistance” : Arab News
15. “U.S. Says Attack on Saudi Site Was an ‘Iranian Act of War'” : Time
16. https://twitter.com/AlArabiya_KSA/status/1176026651345522688
17. “Who’s Who In Iran’s Elections” : Time
18. “Pompeo accuses Newsweek of ‘helping’ Iran ‘spread lies'” : The Hill
19. https://twitter.com/bbcpersian/status/1060662540181651458
20. “Kak Baba Sheikh Hosseini: the NCRI is the organized and democratic alternative to the regime” : Iran Freedom Group