Earlier this month, thousands of Iranian dissidents and international supporters descended on Paris for the Iran Freedom Rally. The event, organized by the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), is designed to bring together the diaspora of Iranians yearning to reverse the devastating consequences of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution.
This collective of resistance groups based in Paris operates as a “parliament in exile,” and remains dedicated to the overthrow of the Ayatollah, and the establishment of a new democratic Iran. The gathering in Paris was intended to draw attention to the people and voices fighting to overcome the Islamic Republic’s extremist regime, in the hopes of finding wider international support for their cause.
The event garnered the support of many high profile attendees and prominent international leaders— including a full compliment of U.S. political figures, most notably former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Governor of Vermont and Presidential candidate Howard Dean. However, for all the pomp and circumstance, it was the presence and speech delivered by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud that drew the most attention, and raised more than a few eyebrows.
Prince Turki, the youngest son of Saudi Arabia’s most celebrated monarch, King Faisal, once served as the head of Al-Mukhabarat Al-A’amah, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, as well as ambassador to the U.S. and U.K. Prince Turki also boasts an extensive resume of charitable pursuits, most notably acting as the principal founder of the King Faisal Foundation, and chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
The presence of such a high-profile member of Saudi royal family at a public gathering of notable Iranian political dissidents should not be easily dismissed. It is safe to assume that Prince Turki’s presence and speech, which he delivered to numerous standing ovations, was given the approval and blessing from the top echelon of the Saudi government.
Tehran makes no secret of its disdain for the NCRI, as well as The Mujahedeen-e-Khlaq (MEK), also known as The People’s Mujahedeen of Iran, the largest and most visible member of the NCRI, not to mention it’s most controversial. Given the contents of the prince’s speech, it was undoubtedly aimed at irritating Iranian government leadership.
The MEK supported the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution in 1979 that toppled Shah Reza Pahlavi, but soon fell out of favor with his new Islamic Republic and fled to France—not long after they were soon expelled by the government of Jacques Chirac. After being forced into exile, again, the MEK found a willing patron in former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was more than happy to shelter and fund the MEK’s resistance operations.
The U.S. State Department designated the MEK a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 1997, following a report that the group was involved in the killing of six Americans in Iran during the 1970s. In 2012, after years of lobbying political leaders and a public renunciation of violence, the State Department removed the MEK from its list of terrorist groups.
Throughout his speech, Prince Turki offered a number of pointed attacks on the Iranian regime, but was careful to always draw a distinction between the regime and its people. Prince Turki lavished praised on the Iranian people, citing their proud Persian history dating back to Cyrus the Great, and the many developments that sprang forth from the Persian Empire. “The Iranians can be proud of their history and their heritage. Arabs have a great respect for the Iranian culture and Persian contributions, which no one can deny their role in the achievements and innovations of the Islamic society over the past 1,500 years,” Prince Turki exclaimed to thunderous applause.
The subtle and yet cleverly sculpted attack against the Iranian regime painted the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and his predecessor, as a perversion of Iran’s cultural, political, and religious history—something that should be viewed as an anomaly amongst the great achievements throughout Persian history.
Prince Turki condemned the Iranian regime’s intervention in the politics of Arab countries. “Khomeini tried to play the role of the Supreme Guide,” Prince Turki said, “not only in Iran, but also in the Islamic nation as a whole. The Iranian people, themselves, were the first victims of Khomeini despite the foreign policy of isolationism and intrusiveness.”
These comments outlined Iran’s exportation of Khomeini’s revolution as an ideology being collectively and forcibly imposed upon not only the Iranian people, but the entire Middle East—one man’s vision for how the entirety of the Islamic world should live. Prince Turki’s speech contained subtle and well-crafted parallels that were aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the Iranian regime.
At one point, Prince Turki even reminisced nostalgically about Saddam Hussein, and his legacy of opposition to the Iran’s expansionist ambition. During his speech, Prince Turki lamented the inability of the former Iraqi dictator to appreciate the internal political situation in Iran, saying “Saddam Hussein attempted to get rid of Khomeini’s regime, but his attempt was doomed to fail because he underestimated the consequences and severity of the political conflict in the wake of the return of Khomeini to Tehran.”
Hearing Prince Turki’s comments, it is difficult not to get the impression that he was offering a tacit endorsement of the former dictator’s efforts to combat the Ayatollah’s attempts to export the revolution. Although given the tumultuous history between Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States with Saddam Hussein, it was an odd historical example for him to call upon.
Throughout the evening, Prince Turki spoke directly to the crowd, saying at one point, “As for you, ladies and gentlemen, your legitimate struggle against Khomeini’s regime will reach its goal sooner rather than later,” words that reverberated with euphoric enthusiasm, as the audience responded “The people want to topple the regime. The people want to topple the regime. The people want to topple the regime,” to which Prince Turki replied, “I want to topple the regime, too.”
Prince Turki also offered a full-throated endorsement of MEK and NCRI president, Maryam Rajavi, as well as to the legacy of her late husband and former MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi. “Your quest to rid your people of the cancer of Khomeini is a legendary epic,” he emphatically pronounced, which for anyone familiar with the politically reserved nature of Saudi officials, these comments were highly uncharacteristic for a high-ranking member of the Saudi royal family.
However uncharacteristic Prince Turki’s comments were, they are indicative of an increasingly assertive Saudi Arabia that’s demonstrated a willingness to engage in military adventurism to achieve its broader geopolitical ambitions and protect its interests. Barbara Slavin, Acting Director of the Future Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, believes that “It’s entirely possible that the Saudis have funded the MEK for years,” and that Prince Turki’s speech “was simply making overt a covert record of collaboration.” Openly embracing the idea of overthrowing the Iranian regime, while delivering a speech in front of a crowd largely composed of MEK members, is a good to make one’s intentions clearly known.
Prince Turki’s comments didn’t go unnoticed in Tehran. During a press conference with Iranian media, the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Crops’ (IRGC) Public Relations office Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif said, “Saudis attempts to support the Mujahedeen-e-Khlaq terrorist organization are doomed to fail.”
It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia and Iran are currently locked in a geopolitical tug-of-war across the region. The battlefront in this conflict between the Middle East’s two major regional powers stretches from a deadlocked Lebanese parliament to the blood soaked battlefields in Syria and Yemen. The Ayatollah’s Islamic Republic and the Saudi royal family are sharpening their swords on the backs of the entire region. Prince Turki’s comments at the Iran Freedom Rally are only the latest example of one sides’ effort to kick sand in the eyes of the other.