Last week the Iran’s rally in Paris has attracted more than 100,000 Iranian dissidents who appeared as a strong force capable to challenge the theocratic regime in Iran. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that unites more than 300 Iranian opposition groups located in some 24 counties, including the United States, was behind the rally with its charismatic leader Maryam Rajavi. However, while the rally was broadly covered in the Western media and was welcomed across Sunni-dominant nations of the Middle East, it was largely ignored within the Islamic Republic and likewise negatively influenced reformists’ movements.
The event became a symbol for many in the Western world of a pending erosion of the current Iranian regime. While more and more Iranians are deemed as being discontent with Rouhani’s leadership that is far from being ‘moderate’ and not improving economic realities, the voice of a dissent is gaining public appeal.
The current leadership wants to keep a tight grip on its society by carrying an unprecedented number of executions for the past 25 years and secure the regime’s stability. By addressing facts of human rights violations, barbarity of the current Iranian regime and augmenting number of political prisoners—the rally first and foremost aimed at supporting political and ideological prisoners, reformists, and democratic transitions in the Islamic Republic.
Appearance of a large number of renowned Western speakers helped to persuade the Western public. The rally featured a number of former and publicly known politicians some of whom were famous for a lengthy advocacy for the Iranian regime change. For instance, the Former White House Director of Public Liaison Linda Chavez, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, the former U.S. Congress speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Senator John McCain and others, attended the event. Interestingly, while their voices were appealing in the West, in case of Iran and its allies the event symbolized a prolongation of an anti-Iranian and warmongering rhetoric.
The Iranian channels as well as pro-Shiite media outlets have avoided covering the rally or at best minimized the allocated time. Therefore, those who learned about the event had mixed feelings, as the rally was portrayed as a direct meddling into Iranian domestic politics and a secret plot to orchestrate a coup. In effect, the majority of Iranians remained unaware about the event and its initial goals. Interestingly, the information about the rally was also extremely limited across Russian media outlets as a possible gesture of solidarity with the Iranian leadership.
While the protesters thought that they were advocating for a noble cause, they have actually done more damage than contribution to the country’s future. It was not a secret that the rally would not receive extensive coverage within Iran or that appearances of a large number of Western and Sunni politicians would be a great chance to distort the rally’s major premises by the pro-regime media.
Meanwhile, the event represented strength of Iranian dissents it has also discredited large fractions of the political opposition within the Republic by deeming them as Western puppets and traitors in the public eye. As objectively as it seems, the event made it harder for the reformists within Iran to appeal to the Iranian public as it has added fuel to the fire by portraying Iran as a ‘besieged fortress’ surrounded by the Sunni enemies and Western governments seeking to overthrow the current regime.
The rally has further damaged perspectives for the religious reconciliation within the Middle East. In addition to hosting the former Saudi Intelligence Minister Prince Turki Al Faisal who has fiercely advocated for the regime change in Tehran for years, the event was also attended by numerous Sunni speakers who share good relations with Riyadh. In effect, support of democratic transitions coming from countries representing Sunni and pro-Saudi dictatorships, further aggravated the Sunni-Shia split. There were not many politicians in Iran openly supporting rapprochement with Riyadh before and after the rally their voice would likely remain silenced for long time.
The event was likewise accompanied by multiple allegations that the Saudis have bankrolled it. For instance, another group that organized the anti-Iranian event in Paris was the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) that was earlier delisted by the U.S. and EU from being a terrorist organization. While the group’s values are far from representing democratic ones it has still managed to attract renowned speakers for anti-Iranian meetings by paying high speaker fees that account for tens of thousands of dollars. The possible involvement of the Saudi funds is particularly alarming in lights of ongoing proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia all across the Middle East.
Overall, the rally while designed to perpetuate changes in Iran and facilitate transition to secular and democratic norms was counterproductive and even damaging. While the voices of dissent are suppressed in Iran, the event has further affected the constructive elements of the Republic’s society. In addition to being associated with conservative Western war hawks and reformists—secular activists in Iran are now could also be linked to the Saudis, which makes public support nearly impossible.