An outlawed Iranian opposition group, which obtained a permit from the New York Police Department to hold a demonstration in front of the United Nations last week, attracted an estimated 2,500 supporters to protest the presence of Iran’s president at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly.
But many of the crowd, coming from Denmark, Germany, Canada, Eritrea and Sudan, acknowledged that they had been recruited by the organization to attend the rally for money, and that all their expenses — including international air fare, hotels, and a daily stipend — had been paid by the organization.
“Basically, what you see is “rent-a-crowd,” said Kourosh Kalhour, spokesman for a pro-monarchist group, the Constitutionalist Movement of Iran, which held a rival demonstration nearby.
The Mujahedin-e Khalq, also known as the MEK, the MKO, was black-listed by the Department of State in 1994 as an international terrorist organization because its members had assassinated U.S. military officials in Iran in the 1970s.
MEK hit squads also murdered U.S. employees of Rockwell and other defense contractors in the 1970s.
Condemned as a “Marxist Islamic” cult by the former Shah, the MEK played an active role in the 1979 revolution and supported the taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran. The organization today claims that those actions were not condoned by the current leaders of the organization, but were the actions of a splinter group.
In 1986, the group moved its headquarters from Paris to Baghdad, and attempted to launch an armed invasion of Iran in April 1988, backed by Saddam Hussein. In the 1990s, Saddam used MEK troops to attack opposition militias in the Kurdish safe haven of northern Iraq that today have joined the new Iraqi government.
A front organization, the National Council of the Iranian Resistance, has also been black-listed by the State Department. Speakers at last Wednesday’s event, which included a member of the Canadian parliament, demanded that the United States lift the terrorist designation of the group.
Many U.S. members of Congress have signed letters urging the State Departement to remove the group from the terrorist list because they helped to expose the Iranian regime’s secret nuclear programs.
While large numbers of Iranians enthusiastically waved portraits of MEK leaders Massoud and Miryam Rajavi, hundreds of non-Iranians stood out in the crowd.
Martin Peterson, 26, of Ringe, Denmark, said MEK representatives contacted him recently in his country and offered to fly him and members of his family to New York for the rally. “We thought it was a good cause to support,” he said.
Peterson said he flew over from Denmark all expenses paid with a group of 70 Danes, and that similar groups had been recruited in Germany and France.
The MEK flew a group of 25 Africans from Sudan and Eritrea to New York from their homes in Ottowa, Canada,
Elizabeth Val, 35, flew down from Ottowa along with her three children, thanks to MEK recruiters. “We want to tell the UN that the same violations of human rights we see in Iran are happening in Darfur” region of southern Sudan. “We have come to protest human rights violations.”
Traveling with her was Sumia Ibrahim, 40, and Abeba Suleiman, 40 both originally of Eritrea. Both women brought children along, on MEK-paid tickets.
Pro-monarchist Iranians demonstrating nearby said a group of 21 MEK-protestors had flown with them overnight from Los Angeles, and talked openly of how they had been recruited by the MEK for the rally.
Rival demonstrations of U.S.-based Iranian exile groups gathered an estimated 800 people outside the UN. Some came in buses from Washington, DC, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Others flew in on a group charter from Los Angeles, with each person paying their own way.
“We worked very hard to bring together people who normally don’t talk to each other,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, secretary general of Iranians for a Secular Republic (Marzepor Gohar). Farahanipour was a key leader in the July 1999 student uprising in Tehran and fled to the United States two years later.
While not a monarchist, Farahanipour said he felt it was important for Iranian opposition groups who supported non-violent regime change to work together.
“That is the important thing,” said Zia Atabay, a prominent broadcaster who founded National Iranian TV in Los Angeles. “Here we have all these groups together, even if normally they don’t talk.”
Several speakers called for the United States to prevent Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from holding lobbying sessions with pro-regime groups during his stay in New York.
Others called on the U.S. to arrest him on terrorism charges, stemming from his alleged involvement in the 1979-1981 hostage crisis and his alleged role in the murder of Iranian dissidents in Vienna, Austria and elsewhere.
Non-monarchist groups held a separate rally earlier in the day that included leaders of Marzepor Gohar, Iran Society, SOS Iran, Alliance of Iranians (Texas), National Iranian Congress, Social Democrats, Iranian Council, Iran of Tomorrow, the Pan-Iran party, and the Student Movement Coordinating Committee for a Democratic Iran (SMCCDI). Members of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran protested separately.