An Iranian political opposition group held its annual conference just outside Paris on Saturday, with notable speakers including two figures close to President Donald Trump. The "Free Iran" movement, whose stated goals involve the removal of the county's Islamist rulers in favor of a secular government, has found outspoken allies in Newt Gingrich, an informal advisor to the president, and Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer.
Much has changed since last year's conference in regards to how the U.S. plans to conduct relations with Iran and with those who do business with the isolated nation. In April, Trump brought on John Bolton as national security advisor, and within the next month announced he would remove the U.S. from the Obama era Iran nuclear deal, which was designed to restrict nuclear weapons development through the easing of sanctions.
Also, the Trump administration has made public statements encouraging protesters within the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken in a sympathetic way to those who want change to occur while also issuing sharp critiques of the Iranian government, threatening it with what he called the "strongest sanctions in history" following the U.S.'s departure from the 2015 agreement.
When announcing that decision, furthermore, Trump spoke directly to Iranian citizens, saying they deserve a nation that "does justice to their dreams" and "honor to their history."
In light of these developments, there seems to be heightened international attention on this year's event, which leaders hope will help legitimize and further their cause, a point stressed by Maryam Rajavi in a statement to press prior to her appearance on stage before an audience of tens of thousands.
Rajavi is head of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the self-proclaimed Iraninan government in exile. The MEK is closely affiliated with the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, headquartered in Washington, D.C, which seeks to recruit influential figures like Giuliani and Gingrich, the former of whom proclaimed Saturday that President Trump "does not intend to turn his back on freedom fighters."
The U.S. in 1997 designated the MEK as a terrorist organization -- the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union each viewed it likewise at one point as well -- but this was reversed in 2012 in light of arguments that the group had curtailed its alleged militant strategies to achieve its goal of government overthrow.
While the MEK fends off criticisms that it resembles a cult, it is nevertheless in perhaps its most advantageous position yet to lobby policy to top decision makers in the west wing like Bolton, who spoke at the "Free Iran" event just last year.
Yet the administration has downplayed whether its recent words of encouragement equate to an unequivocal call for regime change like the MEK desires. "It's not about changing the regime," Pompeo told VOA's Persian news service, "it's about changing the behavior of leadership in Iran to comport with what the Iranian people really want them to do."