By Susan Katz Keating
More than 1,000 Iranian exiles joined some leading American political figure in Washington, D.C. this weekend to demand an end to the hard-line regime in Tehran.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when Rudolph Giuliani, who has joined President Trump’s legal team in the Russia probe, suggested the U.S. may scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. “What do you think is going to happen to that agreement?,” Giuliani asked the crowd at the Iran Freedom Convention for Democracy and Human Rights. In response, he held up a piece of paper which gleefully pretended to spit on and shred, provoking a roar of approval..
The May 5 conference, held near the White House at Penn Quarter’s Grand Hyatt Hotel was the first of two major Western gatherings this year aimed at rallying momentum for the dissidents’ cause.
“We want regime change,” said Ali Safavi, who serves in the U.S. office of the Paris-based National Council of Resistance of Iran. “We say it now in Washington. We will say it more loudly in June in Paris.”
Nevertheless, participants – who included President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson – emphasized the need for a stable, peaceful Iran.
“We want a non-nuclear Iran, free of weapons of mass destruction,” said Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, in remarks delivered via video.
The repression that began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution has continued through the present, conference organizers charged. They delivered their findings in a resolution presented at the Washington event, the 2018 Iran Freedom Convention for Democracy and Human Rights.
Since December 2017, when a new series of demonstrations began across Iran, more than 50 protesters have been killed in the streets or tortured and more than 8,000 have been arrested, according to conference organizers.
“I want to see Iranians free,” said Shirin Nariman, who was imprisoned in Iran at age 17, and who helped organize the conference. “I want to see Iranians not beaten up for wanting to go to a sports stadium. I want to see women with no limitations.”
Throughout the day, participants told stories of how they and their families fared under the mullahs who rule Iran.
Soolmaz Abooali was a child when her family fled Iran shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. While bouncing from slum to slum in various countries, she said, the family scrambled for food and shelter. The young refugee routinely sliced one apple into seven pieces in order to ensure that she had something to eat every day for a week.
“We were indeed crazy, crazy for freedom,” said Abooali, who became a member of the U.S. National Karate Team and now is pursuing graduate studies in Virginia.
Firouz Daneshgari said he was deemed a criminal in 1979 in Iran for refusing to embrace the mullahs’ rule.
“I was arrested, jailed, tortured, and still suffer from complications to this very day,” said Daneshgari, who now is a medical professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
A man named Mehdi, who would not allow his surname to be published because he still has family in Iran, was born in the notorious “torture factory,” Tehran’s Evin Prison, where his mother was being detained as a dissident.
“I lived in the prison until I was two years old,” Mehdi said.
An uncle was kept in a standing coffin inside the prison for three years, during which time he could only stand or crouch. “Afterwards,” Mehdi said, “he could only use a wheelchair.”
Although that uncle, along with Mehdi and others in his family managed to escape via an underground network, he said, another uncle was killed.
Mehdi and others support Rajavi’s 10-point plan for the future of Iran. Key aims include universal suffrage, equal rights, the rule of law, and the separation of religion and state. The plan includes abolishing both Sharia law and the death penalty.
“The people here, their plans and their stories make me feel like I am on fire, in a good way,” said Farid Momeni.
For exiles like Mehdi, the fire comes from inside.
“When I do this, I feel the spirit of my uncle,” said Mehdi of the relative who was assassinated. “I can feel that he really likes seeing me here.”
While the regime continues to arrest and suppress the dissidents in Iran, exiles acknowledge that they face challenges.
“It’s always difficult, when lives are at risk,” Abooali said. However, she added, “I also think it’s not as hard as it would have been a few years ago.”
The exiles have high hopes for the resistance.
“I think it is very likely it will succeed,” Nariman said. “It’s very well organized, very popular.”
The next event is the “annual grand gathering of the Iranians” on June 30 at the Parc des Expositions de Villepinte near Charles de Gaulle Airport.
“There is a lot of support for this movement,” Safavi said. “Come to Paris. You will see.”
Photo Caption: Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran addresses the Washington D.C. event.
Photo Caption: Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was one of the events keynote speakers