Last weekend, I was invited to attend the annual convention of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in Paris. The NCRI is a central opposition group to the Iranian theocracy, a parliament in exile awaiting the fall of the ayatollahs. Its leadership calls for regime change and the replacement of the country’s religious dictatorship with a secular republic dedicated to religious tolerance, pluralism, democracy and human rights. The NCRI looks positively towards the West rather than seeing it as a hated enemy.
The event was a carefully stage managed form of political theatre. There were between 30,000 and 50,000 people in attendance, among them Iranian expatriates and many Syrian refugees and protestors who screamed for the overthrow of Basher Assad. One by one, speakers came on stage to affirm their belief that the Islamic Republic had to disappear. From America, there was long standing supporter John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN and staunch critic of the Iranian nuclear deal.
Both sides of America’s political divide were represented with former Republican Speaker of the House, Senator Newt Gingrich, and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, Joe Liebermann, among the highlights. Rudy Giuliani, former New York Mayor, also spoke as did a number of Congressmen and former American Generals. John Baird, Canada’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs and a well known neo-con, spoke truth to power by calling for nations to end diplomatic relations with Tehran. France was represented by former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Italy by Giulio Terzi, Germany by former Bundesdag President Rita Sussmuth and Britain by politicians from many parties, including Theresa Villiers. This was no collection of political has-beens but a roster of esteemed political figures from major nations.
When the NCRI’s President elect Maryam Radjavi appeared on stage, flanked by supporters, the crowds were ecstatic. The wife of Massoud Radjavi, who disappeared in 2003, she is the galvanising figure behind the opposition to Tehran and a much lauded person, especially among women’s groups. Her overriding theme, and that of the other speakers, was that there were no moderates in the Iranian government. Moderate dictatorship was an oxymoron, she rightly insisted. A genuinely revolutionary change could unleash Iran’s real potential as well as reinvigorate its relationships with the rest of the world. It was a noble and uplifting message.
There was much talk of the impending removal of the ayatollahs, with some predicting regime change within 2 years. In many ways, this remains a premature hope. For one thing, the Islamic Republic enjoys a broad base of support from traditionalists across Iran. The country is heavily divided between those considered khodi (insiders) and those termed nakhodi (outsiders). The socially conservative forces that back the system are considerable and enjoy support from the political organs of the state, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guards corps.
The state also enjoys the monopoly of force and uses repression and intimidation of opponents to buttress its rule. Without the Iranian army or the IRGC being ‘turned’ against the regime, it is hard to see how the ayatollahs can be easily toppled. Finally, Iran right now appears to be on the ascendant following the disastrous nuclear accord with the P5+1. After years of crippling sanctions, the country is being opened up to the rest of the world with the prospect of economic growth and investment on a significant scale. In addition, the Trump administration has recently refrained from renewing sanctions against Tehran, another boon for the regime.
But none of this alters the fact that the NCRI have a noble vision for the future of their country. Whether in the short term or the long term, regime change must come to Iran for the sake of its people, the wider region and the rest of the civilised world.