Iranian opposition abroad finds new voice amid protests

 Iranian opposition abroad finds new voice amid protests

Iranian opposition groups in the West have been vocal in their calls for the overthrow of the regime during the recent widespread protests across Iran. 
Daily demonstrations have been held outside the Iranian Embassy in London while supporters at a rally on Thursday organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and its affiliate The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) echoed protesters’ chants of “down with Khamenei, down with dictators” opposite the UK prime minister’s residence.
Headquartered in France, the PMOI, which is also known as the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), claims to be the Iranian government in exile. Founded in 1965 in opposition to the shah, it has a chequered past in the UK, Europe and the US, where it was designated a terrorist organization until being delisted in 2008, 2009 and 2012 respectively.
Laila Jazayeri, director of the Association of Anglo-Iranian Women in the UK, which is under the NCRI/PMOI umbrella, said: “The fact that the PMOI was named among designated (terror) groups was the work of the Iranian regime. It was part and parcel of a political deal, part of an appeasement policy.
“It is time for change and it is time for all Western leaders to wake up to the reality and stop tying their fate to a regime that has no future.”
Before the Iranian revolution in 1979, the group conducted bombing campaigns against the shah’s regime, and then against the theocratic government during the 1980s and 1990s. They also attacked American targets and supported the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran shortly after the revolution.
Its stance changed after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, with the group claiming to have renounced violence and lobbying for support against the Iranian government among Western parliamentarians and building relationships with politicians in the Europe and the US.
Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council, described the “paranoia with which the Iranian regime officials constantly speak about the group at home, including the most recent appeal to the French president by Hassan Rouhani, in which he blamed the MEK for its role in the unrest that has engulfed Iran over the past eight years.
“The Iranian regime has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to demonize the PMOI and portrayed it as a group without popular support,” Rafizadeh, an Arab News columnist, added.
Some experts in the UK and US questioned the PMOI’s relevance after decades in exile.
“They have a support base in London, Paris, Washington, but to really become viable as a national alternative to the Islamic Republic they would need to do a lot more to attract people to their cause,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.
“They have their hardened core supporters, but that is not going to cut it as far as becoming a really viable alternative.
“History tells us that the Iranian opposition are immensely fragmented — they have a proven record of not getting along. That just helps the Islamic Republic,” he added.
Speaking to Arab News at a rally in London, Azadeh Hosseini, a member of the Anglo-Iranian Teachers Association, said: “We’re here to be the voice of the Iranian people and express our support for the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the PMOI, who have been striving for peace and democracy in Iran since the Iranian regime came into power.”
“Unfortunately Western governments have been very late in condemning the actions of this regime,” she said.
Protesters at the rally in London represented “Iranian people from all walks of life inside Iran,” Jazayeri said, adding: “The PMOI has been after regime change for the last four decades.”
The PMOI’s former association with Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, when the group conducted raids into Iran during the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war, alienated many Iranians, some of whom see them as “betrayers of the nation” according to Clement Therme, researcher fellow for Iran at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But Rafizadeh said they remain “the largest and most organized opposition group outside and inside Iran.”
“Regardless of what one might think of the group, the MEK is a major player in Iran. It cannot be dismissed. Not only have they roots within Iranian population, but they also have the organizational power, which makes them a leading player in any change in Iran.”