Two U.S. senators - one Republican and one Democrat - have pledged greater support for a U.S.-based Iranian-American group that calls for replacing Iran’s Islamist leadership with a democratic, secular government.
Republican Senator John Boozman and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin spoke to the Organization of Iranian-American Communities (OIAC) on Thursday, as the group held an annual luncheon to celebrate the Nowruz holiday, or Persian New Year, at the Russell Senate Office Building.
In remarks to the gathering, Cardin, of Maryland, promised to keep working with OIAC to, as he put it, “plan strategies to help the people of Iran escape the oppressive regime they currently have and return Iran to its roots, to its proud history, so it can have a bright future.” He said his membership on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations gives him the ability to promote causes, such as protecting Iranians’ human rights from what he called “violations of international norms” by the Iranian government.
Speaking later at the event, Boozman, of Arkansas, promised to be “very supportive” of the change that OIAC seeks in Iran. “I understand the importance of this, and I’m committed to helping in any way that I can,” he said.
OIAC is a nonprofit group that seeks to mobilize Iranian-Americans to support what it calls the Iranian people’s “struggle for democratic change” and a “non-nuclear government.”
It is allied to exiled Iranian dissident movement Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which leads the France-based National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and advocates the "overthrow" of "religious dictatorship” in Iran.
Islamist clerics have led the nation since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.
‘Moment of real opportunity’
Former U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, an MEK supporter who chairs the nonprofit group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), also spoke at the luncheon and urged the two senators and congressional staffers in attendance to build relationships with the dissident group, which he said leads an “organized” opposition that played a role in Iran’s recent anti-government protests and that is ready to serve as a new Iranian government with U.S. help.
In January, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Iran’s “enemies” of provoking a week of nationwide anti-government demonstrations that began in late December and posed the biggest challenge to his rule in years.
Protesters chanted anti-government slogans and some engaged in violent confrontations with security forces, but were not seen professing loyalty to opposition groups.
“This is a moment of real opportunity,” Lieberman said. “If we act together: Congress and the [Trump] administration, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives and even a few independents and moderates, then next Nowruz we are going … to celebrate the end of the Islamic republic of Iran.”
Former Marine Corps Commandant U.S. General James Conway, another MEK supporter, adopted a more cautious tone in his remarks to the group, saying history shows that efforts to change another country’s system of government from within have failed more than succeeded.
“It’s not uncommon to see that happen in nations, and also to see [an attempted revolution] put down very quickly especially by a dictatorial government,” he said.
Moral support urged
Conway said a successful uprising in Iran would require several components, such as a critical mass of people who draw growing numbers of protesters into the streets and who are seen as patriots by the rest of society rather than as revolutionaries. He said a “recognizable figure” would have to lead the movement – ideally, in his view, an army general who could seize communication centers, government buildings and airfields.
The retired U.S. general urged the Trump administration to continue to express moral support for the protesters on Iran’s streets.
“If another Iranian government does come about, [the U.S. should] quickly recognize it and hope that other nations will follow suit,” he said.
Critics of MEK in exiled Iranian communities disparage the group for its former alliance with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and for enforcing what they say is a cult-like discipline on its members.
MEK carried out bombings against the Iranian shah’s government in the 1970s and later against Iran’s post-revolution Islamist rulers in the 1980s and 1990s. The United States designated MEK as a terrorist organization in 1997, citing those attacks, including 1970s-era bombings that killed several U.S. defense contractors.
The U.S. removed its terrorist label from MEK in 2012, citing the group’s public renunciation of violence, the lack of any confirmed militant attacks by the group in more than a decade and its cooperation in the closure of its paramilitary base in Iraq.
MEK had spent years lobbying and securing the support of prominent American politicians to press for the removal of the terrorism designation.
Guita Aryan and Kaveh Jamshidi of VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.