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Free Iran Conference gathers in Paris after five-year absence

Saturday’s demonstration was called to draw attention to the brutal crackdown on protesters who rose up in Iran after the death last year of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for failing to wear her hijab as required by law.

Published: July 1, 2023 12:53am

Updated: July 1, 2023 12:53am

The Free Iran Conference returned Friday to Paris after a five-year absence, powered by a dramatic court victory and a steady stream of U.S., Canadian, and European officials endorsing the National Council of Resistance of Iran as the main democratic alternative to the ruling mullahs in Tehran.

The centerpiece of the conference was set to be an outdoor demonstration at Paris’s Place de Vauban. But that event, expected to attract tens of thousands of supporters, protestors, and onlookers, was cast in doubt when French authorities blocked its permit based on security concerns that came to light as unrelated riots left parts of the French capital in flames.

But on Friday, a French court approved the event, and though police vowed to appeal the ruling it now appears it will take place with many of those same police on guard to prevent unrest.

The demonstration Saturday was called to draw attention to the brutal crackdown on protesters who rose up in Iran to contest the death last year of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for failing to wear her hijab as required by law. The protesters argue the death was the very type of theocratic violence that would be outlawed if the National Council of Resistance of Iran, or NCRI, took charge in Iran.

The court ruling and Amini’s death came up multiple times in remarks Friday, but the main theme, as in years past, was a widespread show of support for The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or MEK, and its goal of helping topple the government of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

MEK is the main component of the NCRI, a kind of Iranian government in exile.

MEK, the NCRI, and their allies see negotiations with the Khamenei government on a nuclear deal or in other areas as mollification that legitimizes Khamenei and strengthens his hold on power.

“Iran is saying there is no alternative to the government in power in Tehran, so the U.S., the West, and everyone have to compromise with them,” Joe Lieberman, the retired Connecticut Senator and one-time Democratic nominee for U.S. vice president, declared Friday.

“That is exactly the message that Adolph Hitler made in the 1930s that brought Chamberlain to Munich to make that weak pact that really led to World War II,” Lieberman argued, referring to then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who negotiated as short-lived peace deal with Hitler’s Germany. “History cries out to us not to repeat that mistake.”

Lieberman is a long-standing ally of MEK and the NCRI and was part of a docket Friday that included Robert Torricelli, the former New Jersey senator; former FBI Director Louis Freeh; retired Air Force General Chuck Wald, a former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command; former Attorney General Michael Mukasey; as well as members of parliament, government ministers and under-secretaries, and other senior officials from Canada and across Europe.

The agenda Saturday was to feature many more luminaries, including former United Nations Ambassador and National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Paris was home to the annual NCRI Free Iran Conference for most of its history, before the conference was moved to Ashraf-3, the group’s adopted home in Albania, in 2019. The next two years were held online due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then last year it took place again in Ashraf-3 again. But worries about security there forced a move back to Paris, where that city’s own security concerns nearly limited the Free Iran program.

The conference runs through Monday.

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