The suburban serenity of Villepinte, for most of the year, is disturbed only by planes flying to and from nearby Charles De Gaulle Airport. Yet, on one day late in June, this otherwise sleepy community on the outskirts of Paris plays host to over 100,000 flag-waving activists and supporters, who travel from all over the world to cheer on a resistance movement aiming to free the 75 million people currently living under the Iranian regime, widely regarded as one of the most repressive in human history.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the parliament-in-exile of the Iranian pro-democracy movement, has held its annual rally in and around Paris every year since 1993, amassing some of the largest crowds for a political event in the Western world, yet is largely ignored by the media. Calling for a secular democracy in Iran, with freedom for women, minorities, and of religion via the overthrow of the regime by the Iranian people, the NCRI is a coalition of extraordinary people with some extraordinary demands. This year I was fortunate enough to attend.
The NCRI is an umbrella organisation for several democratic resistance groups, the largest of which is the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), a party that was prominent during the 1979 revolution but quickly forced into exile by the Islamic extremists who now control the country. Their aim: to oust the mullahs. This year they are hopeful.
“It has been 33 years, but next year we are hopeful that we will meet in Tehran,” our guide Ali tells us. With the situation changing so fast for both the regime and the resistance, it is not altogether implausible.
The election of Rouhani – a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” according to one NCRI supporter – has demonstrated the fragility of the regime, and the ever-tightening circle of friends around Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In contrast, the resistance has seen a surge in its support since the NCRI and the PMOI were delisted from the US Register of Terrorist Organisations earlier this year. They had been placed there in 1997 on trumped-up charges by the Clinton administration as an act of appeasement to the Iranian regime. Ironically, it was his wife, as Secretary of State, who removed the listing before the US Court of Appeal could pull her forward for questioning.
With the resistance now freed from this improper designation, and with cracks in the regime starting to show, all would seem well for the NCRI and its members. Yet, despite the several thousand coaches and 1,000 hotels booked for the event, over 3,000 of their most important members cannot attend. They’re stuck in what has been described by one former UN official as a ‘concentration camp’ just outside Baghdad, callously tricked into moving there by Martin Kobler, former chief of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, who, it has been revealed, lied (and continues to do so) about conditions there. At the camp, these dissidents are constantly targeted by Tehran-backed Iraqi militia groups in mortar attacks which have killed ten this year alone. These attacks – although bloody – are proving ineffective in their aim to demoralise and eliminate the core of the resistance.
Despite the shameful incarceration of many of its key members, support for the Iranian resistance is booming. Travelling by coach to the event, I witnessed first-hand both the diversity and the youthfulness of its supporters. “I’ve been going to these things since I was about 14,” a young man in his twenties told me. “It’s great to see how they’ve grown.”
The face of resistance is young, but under it, one can certainly detect a stoic sense of duty, both to fellow Iranians and to the movement’s forefathers. “I’ll always come; I don’t know what my dad would do if I didn’t,” remarked Ali’s daughter. For a recent university graduate such as myself, accustomed to the boozy, self-absorbed, self-righteous “protests” half-heartedly made by self-styled student “activists,” this simple declaration of intent was to me bizarre, moving, and tremendously refreshing. At the rally, Patrick Kennedy declared that “the Iranian people will survive Rouhani”; the resistance is prepared not only to survive, but to outlive the regime, each generation replacing the next with an ever-greater sense of duty to those still enduring oppression at the hands of the mullahs.
Rather than the intergenerational struggle so commonly seen, the rally saw activists of all ages coming together and uniting for a common cause, not only in opposition to the regime, but in favour of the political program and leadership of the Iranian resistance, exemplified by the words of its President-elect, Maryam Rajavi:
The political agenda of the NCRI can be described in three words: liberal, secular, democratic – that is, everything the current regime is not. In advocating the creation of a modern, democratic state, the Iranian resistance understands that there is no room for compromise with the regime. In the fight for Iran, only one vision will win out.
Just as there is no middle ground in the ideological struggle being fought between the regime and the resistance, another struggle, between truth and propaganda, is being fought, and won, by the resistance. It is the failure of the disinformation campaign, which the regime has consistently employed against the resistance – and the PMOI in particular – since the 1979 revolution, that has made the NCRI so confident.
Tehran’s failure is exemplified by the delisting of the NCRI from the US Terror List, which came after the failure of the State Department to provide concrete evidence of terrorist activity by the organisation and its affiliates to the Court of Appeal. The removal of the group has been widely applauded by the US diplomatic and military community, with figures such as John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN, condemning their inclusion on the list in the fist place.
The delisting has had practical implications for the Iranian resistance; namely, making it easier to enlist the support of top politicians in the US and elsewhere. This year the rally saw Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani come together – perhaps for the first time at a political rally. Republicans and Democrats from all traditions are beginning to take the NCRI, and its call for the overthrow of the regime, seriously.
Reza, a man who had until recently lived for 25 years at Camp Ashraf, a former base of the Iranian resistance in Iraq, explained it thus: “This is a fight; there is no space for compromise. Because we fight for others, and not for ourselves, it is we who will win out.”
Yet it is a fight which the resistance is prepared and willing to conduct alone, without the direct help of the West. All they ask for is the imposition of effective sanctions on the regime and public declaration of support for their cause by Western governments, as well as an opportunity for their members condemned to existence in Camp Liberty to be offered asylum. This strategy is branded the “third option,” and was explained by Maryam Rajavi at the rally:
“The path to freedom is indeed the third option – neither appeasement, nor war – but the overthrow of the ruling theocracy by the Iranian people and resistance. This option will come to fruition by the combatant anti-regime forces, the resistance’s cells in Iran and the forces of the democratic revolution of the Iranian people.”
The third option is the epitome of both the confidence of the resistance in the fragility of the regime, and in their own ability to infiltrate the regime and advance the case for democracy within the country. The NCRI was, after all, the organisation which first informed the world of the regime’s nuclear program (and continues to lead on publicising its development). With the way things are going in Iran, they are confident change is on its way.
The resistance is faced with a crumbling regime, a boost in support – both from politicians and normal Iranians across the world – and is armed with a political program as well as a network which has been able to unearth some of the regime’s dirtiest secrets.
Villepinte may be a little quieter next June. The NCRI is looking east.