Former U.S. officials joined an Iranian expatriate group in a rally outside the United Nations Tuesday to blast any diplomatic opening between the Obama administration and Iran.
Thousands of Iranian-American supporters of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (the People’s Mojahedin of Iran) transformed Manhattan’s Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, right outside the UN building where the General Assembly was taking place, into a sea of MEK flags and pictures of MEK leaders Maryam and Massoud Rajavi. Their ranks were bolstered by some Syrian-American supporters of the Syrian opposition and others who were bussed-in from around the country. Other participants included Americans from around the country–some of whom “didn’t have a clue what it was all about,” in the words of one attendee–who had their tickets, food and hotel paid for by the organizers of the rally.
One protester who joined the rally, 53-year-old Iranian-American Amir Rezaian, said that he wanted the U.S. to “stop the appeasement and let the Iranian people overthrow the government.”
While the Iranian expatriates, some of whom fled the country in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, chanted for the downfall of the Iranian regime, former U.S. officials spoke on stage.
The stars of the rally included former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; former Rhode Island Democratic Representative Patrick Kennedy; and former chairman of the Republican National National Committee Michael Steele. They had one uniform message: stop Iraq from cracking down on MEK members and halt the Obama administration from carrying out talks with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani.
The rally was held immediately after President Obama addressed the UN–where he hinted that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear energy program might be pursued by the U.S–and just hours before Rouhani spoke. The new Iranian president said that he was open to nuclear negotiations as long as Iran’s right to enrich uranium–which is protected under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty–was respected. But those words were likely to do little to persuade hardline former U.S. officials who attended the pro-MEK rally.
“He ought to be thrown out of the UN,” Rep. Kennedy said of Rouhani. “President Rouhani and his mullahs…are waging a war not only against the Iranian people, but the Syrian people.”
Kennedy and other speakers decried the killings of 52 people in Camp Ashraf. On September 1, Iraqi security forces reportedly opened fire at the camp, where members of the Iranian group have been based since the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein supported them while they launched attacks against Iran. The majority of MEK members have moved to a different area in Iraq in anticipation of being resettled abroad.
Kennedy, along with Bolton, Giuliani and Steele have all received handsome speaking fees in the past from MEK-affiliated organizations. They were among a gaggle of former U.S. officials who lobbied the U.S. hard in recent years to take the MEK off the State Department terrorist list. The lobbying effort bore fruit last year when the State Department did just that, despite the MEK’s past involvement in violent attacks. The MEK had been trained by the U.S. in Nevada in 2005 and received U.S. intelligence that the group used to carry out the assassinations of Iranian scientists, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. In February 2012, NBC News’ Richard Engel and Robert Windrem reported that the MEK colluded with Israel to kill Iranian nuclear scientists.
The scene at the UN rally was standard for events put on by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political branch of the MEK. It was a well-orchestrated affair, and the group seems flush with cash. There were security barriers and guards preventing people from moving towards the front, where a row of yellow-hatted MEK supporters and members sat listening to former U.S. officials give speeches. There was free water and food, and large television monitors showing the speeches in the front set up throughout the plaza. Balloons at back of the rally were fashioned to spell out, “Viva Rajavi,” a reference to Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the MEK who spoke via video link at the protest. Rajavi has been criticized for running the MEK like a cult; Elizbeth Rubin, a New York Times contributor, described the camp in Iraq where the MEK was based as “a fictional world of female worker bees” where “acolytes of Rajavi” lived.
But the cultish aspects of the MEK–or their violent attacks on Americans and Iranians–have not deterred former U.S. officials from supporting them in the hopes of fomenting regime change, despite the fact that most Iranians dislike the group.
At the rally, Giuliani warned of the U.S. falling “under the spell of the mullahs” and the catastrophe of allowing “nuclear armed Iran” to exist. After denouncing the attacks at Camp Ashraf, the former GOP presidential candidate launched into blasting any chance of diplomacy with Rouhani.
Giuliani also repeated a charge aired by neoconservative groups that Rouhani was linked to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 people. “Rouhani…was certainly aware of it, certainly involved. Their blood is on their hands, and just wishing people ‘Happy Rosh Hashanah’ doesn’t wipe away the blood of these Jewish martyrs from Iran’s hand or Rouhani,” said Giuliani. But while Iran has been implicated in the attack, Rouhani himself “did not participate” in the meeting that approved the bombing, according to the Argentine prosecutor of the case.
Other former U.S. officials echoed Giuliani’s dismissal of diplomacy with the new Iranian leader. “I do not understand and I do not accept the president meeting with the leader of a terrorist state,” said former Senator Robert Torricelli.
While chances of an Obama-Rouhani meeting faded by day’s end, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif will get together Thursday as part of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear energy program.