This year, the event surprised some onlookers by including a speech from a high-ranking member of the Saudi royal family, Turki al-Faisal, who was also once the head of Saudi intelligence. His unprecedented participation was described by fellow speaker Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, as “redrawing the map of the Middle East.” Although speaking in an unofficial capacity, the Saudi prince expressed solidarity with the Iranian resistance, saying “your legitimate fight against the regime of Khomeini will reach its goals” and “we stand with you heart and mind.”
An article in the Saudi Gazette on Tuesday pointed out that Tehran had accused the Saudis of “flagrantly interfering in Iran’s internal affairs” through their support of the Iranian resistance. It went on to say that such criticisms contradict Iran’s public praise for its own foreign interventions, which officials describe as “exporting revolution and supporting the unjustly treated.”
As the Gazette points out, it was only last week that Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign wing, the Quds Force threatened Bahrain over its decision to revoke the citizenship of a Shiite leader. The implication that the Iranians would support a local armed revolt can certainly be seen as a more serious threat than Turki’s vague expression of support for an Iranian resistance movement. Furthermore, such involvement in Bahrain would simply add another item to the list of foreign conflict zones in which Iran is a participant, if not the instigator.
Chief among these, of course, is Syria and Yemen, where the Quds Force has been fighting alongside both local forces and regionally-recruited Shiite militias financed and largely directed by the IRGC. Similar involvement has been ongoing in Iraq, where Iran-backed militias are contributing to the fight against the Islamic State but have also been accused of severe human rights violations against Sunni civilian populations.
The Gazette editorial also emphasized that this foreign repression reflects institutionalized discrimination against Sunnis and Arabs inside the Islamic Republic of Iran. Such discrimination and persecution was also a major point of focus for the NCRI rally, as the organization’s 10-point plan for the future of the country includes the principle of equal protection under the law for all ethnic and religious minorities. Many speakers insisted that the human rights situation has in many respects grown worse over the three years since the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani took office, and particularly in the year since the world community provided a new opening to Iran with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
This overall message apparently drew the ire of the Iranian regime, which did not limit its criticism of the rally to the participation of Turki al-Faisal. The Associated Press reported that Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the French ambassador in the days following the event. Iran has previously tried to pressure other foreign governments to obstruct the activities of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Notably, in March the Iranian president canceled a planned trip to Vienna after the Austrian government refused to comply with Iranian demands for the cancellation of an NCRI protest.
The NCRI alleges that international marginalization of the movement has been to some extent the result of political favor trading with the Iranian regime and successful propaganda efforts on the part of the Ministry of Intelligence. These things have been cited as explanations for the former presence of the movement’s largest constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, on American and European terror lists prior to 2003.
A number of court cases concluded that there was no evidence to support the listings, and at least once French judge even went so far as to declare that the Iranian resistance has a legitimate right to pursue its struggle against a repressive government in its homeland. Such statements closely parallel the portion of Turki’s speech which also cited political legitimacy while endorsing the goal of regime change.
The French court’s positive statements regarding the NCRI are in keeping with the French government’s reputation for taking a comparatively hardline stance on Iran and the nuclear issue. During the negotiations leading to the JCPOA, the French negotiators reportedly demanded stricter provisions than even the United States, which is traditionally Iran’s main adversary.
On the other hand, overall French policy toward Iran may be regarded as somewhat schizophrenic. That is, support for the resistance stands in contrast to earlier arrests of its leaders, which led to court cases that only concluded last year, with acquittal of all suspects on all charges. Similarly, the French stance on the nuclear issue was arguably counterbalanced by the fact that France rushed to take advantage of burgeoning sanctions relief as soon as the JCPOA was concluded.
Even now, in the immediate wake of the Paris rally, France remains a major contributor to the push for European investment in and collaboration with the Islamic Republic. On Tuesday, Reuters reported that a spokesperson for the foreign ministry had even gone so far as to say that cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere was permitted under the agreement, thereby opening up the possibility of Iran being included in a fusion project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which “was launched 10 years ago by Europe, the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea.”
As well as discussing regime change and the persecution of minorities, many speeches at the NCRI rally expressed distaste for the nuclear agreement, which critics see as being comprised of many concessions to the regime and as providing little guarantee that Iran will not secretly advance its capabilities. With the rally now completed, the ITER issue can be expected to further amplify these criticisms by implying that the international community many go beyond lifting sanctions and begin materially helping Iran to move toward illicit goals.