Madeleine Davies

The Potent Spirit of Ashraf: attending a gathering of the Iranian opposition in exile

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2014 at 6:21 pm

AN overture precedes the arrival of the leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) on the stage of the Villepinte Hall, Paris. Children with drums beat out a bombastic rhythm over the fervent cheers of a crowd decked out in yellow hats, flags and banners. The air is filled with the clacking of plastic hand-clappers shaken vigorously. From the ceiling hang huge golden lions bearing sabers — the symbol erased from the Iranian national flag after the revolution of 1979. The front rows are filled with the dignitaries of 69 countries, journalists, and activists, but in the hangar at the back, a raucous crowd is packed into tiers.

Maryam Rajavi is a diminutive middle-aged woman dressed in a modest turquoise brocade skirt suit. She makes her way through the crowd slowly, smiling, nodding, and occasionally lifting her clasped hands to wave. As President-elect of the NCRI, she heads up a coalition of five opposition groups, of which the largest is the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI), also known as the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK). Until September 2012 the MEK  was designated a terrorist group by the United States. Today, in Paris, American members of Congress, past and present, line up to voice their support for Mrs Rajavi. The masters of ceremony are Linda Chavez, the highest-ranking woman in the Regan-era White House, and Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser to George G Bush. Fox news is filming.

Thousands of people are gathered in this exhibition centre on the outskirts of the French capital for what has become an annual rally. The NCRI claims that it is the largest gathering of Iranians in exile in the world. The American contingent includes John Bolton, the former US permanent representative to the UN, and a lot of military brass. Although many are Bush-era hawks, there are plenty of Democrats present, including Danny Davis, representing Illinois in the House of Representatives, who believes that he is present at “one of the greatest demonstrations of democracy that this world has seen for a very long time”.

“We will join you in Tehran! God bless you all!”

The American delegation relishes its time at the podium. They grin, they thump the podium, they whip up the crowd. Robert Torricelli, a former Democratic Senator, lives up to his nickname – “The Torch” – by igniting a call and response with the the crowd at the back. “Will you ever give up?” he shouts. “NO!” comes the vehement reply that zooms back to him. “Hear me now Mullahs,” he wraps up. “Soon we will come to the streets of Tehran by the millions. There is a free Iran and we will join you in Tehran! God bless you all!”

Ted Poe, a Republican Congressman who chairs a subcommittee on terrorism, non-proliferation and trade, describes the current President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, as the “big bad wolf of the desert”. Colonel Thomas Cantwell, who served in Iraq, takes “the world’s largest selfie” from the stage.

The relationship between American politicans and the NCRI has been well-probed and subject to plenty of criticism. An article in Foreign Policy last year introduced readers to “the weird, super-connected group that’s mucking up US talks with Iraq”.

The discovery, in 2011, that politicans were being paid up to $40,000 for speeches in support of the removal of the MEK’s terrorist status caused some consternation.

In the same year, 37 experts wrote an open letter to the US Government warning that the group had “no political base inside Iran and no genuine support among the Iranian population”, pointing to its support for Saddam Hussein, and “numerous terrorist attacks against innocent Iranian civilians”. It warned that, “By attempting to claim credit for Iran’s democracy movement, the MEK has aided the Iranian government’s attempts to discredit the Green Movement and justify its crackdown on peaceful protesters by associating them with this widely detested group.”

A brief history

The MEK was founded in 1965 by a group of Muslim Iranian students, as an Islamic movement devoted to the overthrow of the Shah. Mrs Rajavi’s husband, Massoud (whose whereabouts is currently unknown) was among the leaders imprisoned by the Shah in the 1970s. Others were executed. Although it participated in the 1979 revolution, it swiftly broke with the clerics. The NCRI says that the split was over the MEK’s desire for a secular, democratic Iran, and Khoemeini’s plans for an Islamic dictatorship. Demonstrations attended by thousands of Iranians resulted in mass arrests, culminating in a march in Tehran on 20 June 1981 attended by up to half a million people. Fifty people were killed and 1000 arrested in the vicinity of Tehran University alone. The MEK retaliated in attacks on government targets, which it argues were legitimate acts of resistance against tyranny.

In 1981, the group was driven into exile in Paris, where Massoud Rajavi set up the NCRI. The US-based Council for Foreign Relations reports that the MEK conducted assassinations throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. The NCRI insists that it renounced violence in 2001.

During the Iraq – Iran war of the 1980s, the group was welcomed to Iraq by Saddam Hussein, who provided MEK fighters with money and weapons. In 1988, Massoud Rajavi ordered “Operation Eternal Light” – an attempt to capture Iranian territory. Two thousand MEK fighters were killed.

When the US army invaded Iraq in 2003 it was confronted with 5000 MEK fighters. After a ceasefire was agreed, the majority was detained in Camp Ashraf, the MEK’s largest facility, 40km north of Baghdad, under the protection of coalition forces.  The following year, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld designated them all “protected persons” under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, despite the terrorist listing.

In The Cult of Rajavi, a piece published in the New York Times in 2003, Elizabeth Rubin of the Council of Foreign Relations suggested that the MEK was a “cult” and operated “like any other dictatorship”, denying members access to the media and subjecting them to indoctrination. The author visited the newly-created Camp Ashraf, and also spoke to former members who described a movement of control and repression. Both she, and the BBC, have reported that it required its members in Iraq to divorce. It has also been designated as a cult by Rand, a non-profit Washington think-tank, whose 2009 report accused the group of “fraudulent recruitment practices”. The leadership “confiscated their identity documents, threatened them with persecution in Iran and prosecution for illegal immigration in Iraq, and prevented those who wished to do some from returning to their home country”.

The NCRI has fought back against these allegations, secured delisting as a terrorist group in the US in 2012 (three years after the EU), and today appears to command an impressive level of support. In addition to the American delegation in Paris, there is a large contingent of former ministers from the Western world, and some serving MPs. There are powerful speeches from women, including Patricia Solis Doyle, a senior adviser to Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign, and prior to that, to Hilary Clinton, and Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian senator held by the FARC for six years, who speaks of her love for Mrs Rajavi.

Mrs Rajavi’s ten-point plan

The foreign delegates are meeting under the banner of democracy. Kim Campbell, a former prime minister of Canada compares the Iranian regime to the Soviet Union in the 1970s:

“None of us had any idea the Soviet Union would come to and end,” she recalls. “None of the experts had ever predicted it. None of them knew how it would happen. . .The break may come when you are least expecting it and we have to accept that we do not know when it may happen, so we have to be ready, we have to be watching.”

She is among several speakers who predict that, one day, this gathering will be taking place in Tehran.

In an era in which the West has struggled to reconcile its ambitions for the Middle East with the politics of the opposition groups attempting to topple the ruling elites, Mrs Rajavi’s ten-point plan is music to many ears.

“We want a pluralist system, freedom of parties and assembly,” it reads. “We respect all individual freedoms. We underscore complete freedom of expression and of the media and unconditional access by all to the internet.”

Other principles include the separation of religion and State, complete gender equality, the rule of law (and abolition of Sharia), and a commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Foreign investors are promised that the NCRI recognises the market economy. Diplomats can look forward to a policy of “peaceful co-existence”.

Point ten appears to be of particular interest to the American delegation here in Paris: “We want a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction.”

“In Egypt and Libya the alternative to the regime was not clear,” Rudy Guiliani, the former Mayor of New York, tells the gathering. “In Syria…the alternative became very difficult. And now we have got the same thing happening in Iraq by failing to get there quick and getting rid of Maliki. The regime change in Iran is easy. There is an alternative. The alternative that stands for democracy, freedom, and is led by a woman…and most importantly, stands for a non-nuclear Iran.”

He speaks of a debt to the MEK, who exposed the existence of the Iran’s nuclear programme, in 2002. It had been successfully hidden for 18 years, breaching the country’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

“Who caught him in his lies?” shouts Guiliani. “You did! The MEK!”

 A historic phone-call

Despite the American delegation’s call for regime change, there have been signs of a slight thaw in relations between the US and Iran since the election of Rouhani.

In September, the newly-elected President told the UN that nuclear weapons had “no place in Iran’s security and defence doctrine . . . Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme.” Iran posed “absolutely no threat to the world or the region. . . Prudent moderation will ensure a bright future for the world.”

He told CNN that he brought “peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans” and had a 15-minute phone conversation with President Obama. In the same month, several political prisoners were released, including the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.

In January, the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5 +1) signed a Joint Plan of Action with Iran, with a view to achieving “a mutually-agreed, long-term comprehensive solution that would ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.” Some sanctions have since been lifted.

Any rapprochement, the Paris Gathering hears, is a huge mistake.

“I warn the P5+1 that they should not engage in deals in Vienna and Geneva at the expense of the Iranian people’s human rights and offer concessions to the mullahs,” says Mrs Rajavi.

Certainly, her claim that moderation is a “mirage” has some weight behind it. The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, has expressed alarm at a spike in executions this year. More than 250 people have been executed, including, last month, Gholamreza Khosravi Savadjani, who was convicted of “Moharabeh” – enmity against God. It was alleged that he had supported a London-based TV station associated with the MEK.

The tentacles of a monster

Looming in the background of the Paris gathering is the civil unrest in Iraq. But while the Western media speculates that it may nudge the United States into an alliance with Iran regime, Mrs Rajavi insists that this popular uprising is further proof that the regime is in its death throes.

“The 11-year investment of the mullahs’ regime in Iraq has evaporated,” she explains. “Hail to the martyrs and to all those who stand their ground.”

The West is warned that “the only outcome of negotiating with, or seeking assistance from, the religious dictatorship would be that the Iraqi people will sink further into the carnage and civil war”.

Among those singing from the same hymn sheet is Lord Carlile QC, a member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom. “The regime in Tehran is nothing less than a monster and Mr Maliki is one of the tentacles of that monster,” he tells the gathering. “We must persuade our own governments that the Iranian regime is the core of the problem and Mr Malki a detail which must go.”

On the edge

Mrs Rajavi appears convinced that the regime that came to power in 1979 is on the brink of collapse. “The most dangerous crisis engulfing the regime is popular outrage, and the readiness of the Iranian people to overthrow this brutal regime,” she tells a press conference in the morning.

She lists five reasons for her confidence: “The Iranian people’s preparedness to rise up and attain freedom, the widening rift at the pinnacle of the Iranian regime, the mullahs’ retreat from their nuclear bomb project and the regime’s plunge into two devastating wars in Iraq and Syria. And most importantly, the readiness of a resistance movement which can steer the developments toward overthrowing the religious dictatorship and the liberation of the Iranian people and their country.”

In her address, she refers to the events of 2009, when millions of Iranians protested the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the biggest demonstrations since the Revolution. The BBC reported how desperate protesters took on security forces with their bare hands, throwing stones and setting police cars on fire.

The UN condemned excessive police force, arbitrary arrests and killings. Hundreds of journalists, human rights defenders, opposition supporters and demonstrators were arrested. “The regime was on the verge of being overthrown at that time. But we and our people were betrayed,” says Mrs Rajavi, who believes the West should have intervened.

Everywhere we go, we build an Ashraf

Fury, as much as hope, emerges as the dominant emotion as the day goes on. To the left of the stage are portraits of the 52 residents of Camp Ashraf shot dead in September last year. They are inspected by Mrs Rajavi, and the mood turns funereal. The martyrs’ relatives are present in the hall. Seven people who disappeared in the attack remain missing, nine months later.“We shall revive Ashraf’s spirit everywhere” sings the crowd. “Everywhere we go, we build an Ashraf.”

Among the 52 were young Iranians who grew up in Camp Ashraf and decided to return, after being evacuated to Western countries during the first Gulf War.

I speak to Dr Masumeh Bolurchi, whose son, Rahman, was 33 years old when he was shot in September, after returning to Ashraf from Germany. “He told me, ‘I have many opportunities, all the things I want . . . but the Iranian people have not. How can I study here?” she tells me. “He sent photos, and the last was his face and a peace sign. . . It is very, very difficult for me, every day, I cannot forget it. But I know that this is the price of democracy and freedom in Iran.”

Shahzrad also lost her son in September. He returned to Ashraf from Canada. “He told me, ‘Mom I have everything in this life, a good education, but I am lacking only one thing: it is my conscience. How can I go to sleep when you see Iranian students are under torture?” She shows me photos of him and his twin brother growing up in Ashraf. Then another photo of him, handcuffed, face down, executed. “He was 29,” she says. “But he looked very young, I would say.” It is the first time she has talked about him without crying, she says.

The “Ashrafis” have an extraordinary level of support across the world. They are the heroes of the NCRI, whose members work tirelessly to raise their profile. In 2009, responsibility for their protection was passed to the Iraqi government. The September attack was just the latest in a series of assaults which the NCRI insists are carried out on the orders of the Iraqi government. In 2012, General David Phillips, who led the coalition force responsible for the Camp in 2004. told the Paris gathering that he lost sleep “every night” over the decision to hand over responsibility to the Maliki government: “We walked away from a written promise to protect them, thereby abandoning the very people who can bring about change in Iran.  We left them to the real terrorists.” His testimony provides a significant counterweight to the claims that the Camp members are subject to cult-like repression.

What is clear in Paris, is that the NCRI has no shortage of heirs to the movement.  Both Dr Bolurchi and Shahzrad insist that their children were unable to resisit the call of Ashraf, unable to enjoy life in the West. The spirit of Ashraf is potent.

Fereydoon Seyed Ahmadi’s father, Irag Ahdmadi, was killed in the September attack. On stage, to the left of his father’s portrait, he raises a fist and shouts “HAZER!” (ready). The response is ecstatic.

I travelled to Paris as a guest of the NCRI. My piece for Church Times can be seen here.

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