The Free Iran Global Summit was organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran and featured speeches on Friday, Sunday, and Monday from the organization’s President Maryam Rajavi, as well as a wide range of lawmakers and policy experts who had previously endorsed the NCRI as the best and most viable alternative to the existing theocratic system.
The three-day video conference took the place of the Free Iran rally that typically occurs on a single day each summer, with panel discussions on adjacent dates. The in-person gathering was, of course, rendered impractical by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one year after moving from its usual French venue to the Albanian compound known as Ashraf-3, which now houses roughly 3,000 members of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
While the rallies in recent years have attracted as many as 100,000 Iranian expatriates from around the world, this year’s event encouraged them to participate either by privately viewing the online stream or by joining a variety of smaller-scale gatherings that had been organized in accordance with local social distancing guidelines by numerous Iranian expatriate communities. According to NCRI spokesperson Shahin Gobadi, the new format represented a rare instance of “scaling up” in response to public health challenges that had caused many other large-scale gatherings to scale down or shutter completely.
The NCRI has yet to release complete viewership numbers, but the summit’s composite gatherings reportedly spanned 30,000 individual locations. The focus of the event remained Ashraf-3, as its residents gathered to hear Mrs. Rajavi’s speeches in person, as well as viewing on-screen remarks from supporters who would have otherwise been delegates to the centralized rally. Those supporters included multiple American congressmen, former officials from the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, British and European members of parliament, human rights lawyers, scholars of international relations, and so on.
The summit’s program also included recorded remarks from a number of activists still living inside the Islamic Republic and advancing the work of so-called “resistance units” that aim to spearhead the overthrow of the Iranian regime. The first session of the summit placed a great deal of emphasis on the apparent expansion of prospects for this overthrow in the wake of multiple nationwide protest movements.
Celebrating the work of the resistance units in her first speech, Maryam Rajavi declared that the summit as a whole “echoes the calls for the clerical regime’s overthrow in the successive uprisings from December 2017 and January 2018 to November 2019 and January 2020.” She went on to underscore that the creation of a new Iranian government was both a responsibility and a privilege for the Iranian people alone, but also that the international community has a supporting role to play.
“We urge all governments and the international bodies to stand with the people of Iran in this historic showdown with the greatest threat to the world’s peace and security,” she said. Many of the foreign participants then expressed hope that their home countries would prove responsive to this request and adopt more assertive policies for dealing with the Islamic Republic. In Monday’s session, former US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge criticized Western policymakers for a tendency toward “appeasement,” a strategy that he declared “never has and never will” lead to peace.
Also in that session, former Undersecretary of Defense John Rood said, “It is important that we continue the maximum pressure campaign to limit the ability of the regime to export terrorism and its malign influence.” That campaign has formally been in effect in the US since shortly after President Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Over the past two years, economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic have steadily increased, effectively crippling the regime’s economy and presumably helping to set the stage for the aforementioned uprisings.
While many commentators in Europe and American were initially concerned that maximum pressure would cause Iranians to line up behind their own government and against the West, the reality has been quite the opposite. The January 2018 uprising technically predated the new US strategy, but it was already clear that new sanctions were coming, and yet Iranians’ economic grievances remained focused entirely on the clerical regime. This remained the case in November 2019, and in both instances, the initial economic focus of the protests quickly transformed into explicit calls for regime change.
Although a major portion of the Free Iran Global Summit was dedicated to highlighting the growth in domestic opposition to the theocratic system, the event did not shy away from the downsides of all this domestic unrest, namely the brutal response from regime authorities. In a matter of only days, those authorities reportedly killed approximately 1,500 participants in the November uprising. And since then, leading Iranian officials have been publicly urging consolidation of power in preparation for more of the same.
This, too, featured prominently in Mrs. Rajavi’s first speech. But the real focus on the persistent danger to Iranian civilians came in the summit’s second session. A half-hour block at the start of Sunday’s proceedings was dedicated to the testimony of former Iranian political prisoners and witnesses to the single worst crime against humanity to be perpetrated by the clerical regime. Mrs. Rajavi subsequently spoke about the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, calling it “one of the most horrifying and indescribable crimes” and highlighting the NCRI’s decades-long effort to identify and pursue justice for the approximately 30,000 victims.
Many supporters of the Iranian Resistance are understandably concerned about the potential human cost of an accelerating push for regime change. But for most, this only underscores the importance of international pressure in holding the regime to account for past crimes while also discouraging the repetition of those same behaviors. Accordingly, some speakers used the final session of the summit, which primarily focused on Iran’s foreign terrorism, in order to point out that similar policies are needed in order to protect both against the regime’s threats both to global peace and to its people’s lives.
“While we need to focus on the regime’s use of terror abroad,” said former Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph, “we must also acknowledge the mullahs’ use of terror to oppress the Iranian people. No one understands this better than the Iranian Resistance, who have suffered torture, execution, and terror attacks by the regime.” He went on to reiterate the event’s overall endorsement of maximum pressure-style policies, both for the US and for all other countries that take a meaningful interest in the prospect of democracy in the Middle East. “Today’s event is a call to action. If we want to stop terrorist acts, the mullahs must know there are real consequences.”
Some speakers also made a point of acknowledging that the process of imposing such consequences must necessarily start with broader public awareness about the persistence and severity of Tehran’s malign activities. This is perhaps the primary purpose of each year’s NCRI gathering. But in his remarks on Sunday, Ken Blackwell, the former US ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, extended that duty to all Western powers: “We must expose this regime and their reign of terror with what we can… We must be the points of light in the shadow of darkness… Let’s commit to being a force for change.”