The Iranian opposition in exile, the National Resistance Council (NRC), staged protests Friday against the Iranian government in Washington, D.C. in what appeared to be a show of solidarity with the recent student protests in Iran. According to Saturday's Washington Post, NRC organizers said 12,000 people attended the rally, which included Iranians in exile from all around the United States.
But the an earlier Washington Post report on July 15 revealed that Friday's protest had been planned long before the crisis erupted in Iran over the closing of the pro-reform newspaper, Salam, by the conservative Iranian parliament.
A prominent theme in Friday's protests in Washington, according to the Washington Post, was "the blood of the students," but the NRC seems to have little real connection with the popular student movement in Iran.
The NRC, the political wing of the People's Mujahideen, has set up a complete provisional government with a president-elect, several committees and a provisional assembly. Its supporters range from Shah sympathizers, to Kurdish minority elements, to old supporters of Muhammad Mossadegh, the left-wing Prime Minister who ousted the Shah but was himself overthrown in 1953. Despite the diversity of its support base, the NRC seems to have agreed on a political program that is at ideological odds with what the students in Iran, under the leadership of the United Student Front, have so far demanded.
The United Student Front submitted earlier last week a list of 14 demands to be met by the Iranian government before their protests would stop. According to the Los Angeles Times on July 14, the group called for, among other things, greater press freedom, a return of the bodies of slain protestors, the trial of vigilante groups that have reportedly terrorized the student protestors and a better investigation into past political murders. But the Los Angeles Times report makes it clear that the students have not advocated the abolishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran nor have they called for the sidelining of Islam. Rather, students merely seem intent upon obtaining greater personal freedom and a more flexible government. And although the students have been critical of reform-president Khatami's recent condemnation of the riots, they have generally been supportive of the President's efforts to make the Islamic Republic more democratic.
But the political ideology of the NRC seems completely divorced from any mention of Islam and sides closely with American secular ideals. An outline of NRC principles states that the movement "believes in the separation of Church and State." Furthermore, the outline says, "The NCR's economic policy is based upon the free market, recognition of national capitalism and the bazaar, private and personal ownership and investment."
The NRC advocates the complete overthrow of the Islamic government in Iran and has been skeptical of Khatami's reform efforts. According to Saturday's Washington Post, the Washington rally called for an end to American "appeasement" of Iran through its support of Khatami. NRC U.S. representative, Soona Samsami told the Washington Post, "Khatami is not a moderate. He is a man of the system." And protestors at the rally yelled slogans such as, "The only way to freedom is to support the Mujaheddin and topple this regime with armed struggle!" according to the Washington Post.
It is evident that the NRC/Mujahideen is well organized, well financed and supported from a variety of sources. Although the United States has refused to rescind its placement of the People's Mujahideen on its list of terrorist groups, it has declined to expel the organization from U.S. soil despite requests from the Iranian government to do so. Additionally, the NRC enjoys almost open support from high-level U.S. officials. According to the Washington Post, four U.S. congresspersons spoke at Friday's rally.
Judith Kipper, Middle East Forum director at the Council on Foreign Relations says that events in Iran no doubt "stimulated" the protests in Washington. However she points out that there seems to be little real connection between the protests in Iran and those staged elsewhere by the NRC.
Kipper warns that it may or may not be true that the student protests represent the 70 percent of Iranians who voted for Khatami out of a desire for greater reform and liberalization. In her view, these voters are disgruntled by the slow pace of reform. And in her scenario, Kipper sees the recent riots as possibly the first page, or first step in a long process that could lead to the fall of the Islamic government in Iran.
But this may be somewhat of an oversimplification of the situation. While a there seems to be a sudden groundswell of support for a fast pace of reform, there are still many Iranians who are content by the status quo, as was evidenced by the counter demonstrations late last week by pro-government citizens. Whatever the case may be, the Iranian government is ever vigilant against foreign meddling in Iranian affairs, and it seems determined stay the course of the revolution and uphold its values.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iview.com