THERE WERE TWO separate rallies taking place at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, on 1st Avenue, Tuesday, to mark the second day of protests of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United Nations. Both consisted of Iranian-Americans calling attention to the grave human rights atrocities perpetrated by the mullahs against their own people, rather than focusing on the threat a nuclear or terror-sponsoring Iran poses to the international community. Monday's far larger event, which drew about 2,000 people and was coordinated by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, dealt with the "minute to midnight" aspects of a theocracy that boasts of future Judeocide, while denying that the first ever took place. Meanwhile, wedged between the two camps were a handful of Falun Gong meditators protesting the People's Republic of China. New York is nothing if not a city of political non sequiturs.
The larger anti-Ahmadinejad rally was organized by a group known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran; the smaller was more of a hodgepodge of individual oppositionists--monarchists, social democrats, even a handful of Communists--drawn together under the charismatic sway of Nazanin Afshin-Jam. She is the former Miss World Canada, as well as an international pop star, regarded as much for her extraordinary beauty and Top 40 vocals as for her tireless activism on behalf of the child victims of the Islamic Republic. (You might say that she really has used her crown to pursue world peace.) Posted on stage behind the assorted speakers invited to her rally was "Ahmadinejad's Wall of Shame," a memorial to the 140 minors now sitting on death row in Iran. There were also, at ground level, cardboard effigies of faceless children wearing black bandanas, symbolizing the Martyrs Brigade that was commissioned as suicide-warriors by Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq war, as well as a mock gallows from which dummy adolescents were hanging.
Still, it was the NCRI protest that drew the biggest crowd, which arrived promptly, clamored and chanted on cue, and dispersed neatly once the day's activity was over. It was the very model of organized, disciplined opposition. And if you ask any of the Iranians on Nazanin's side of the barricade, it's also a cause for alarm. "Islamo-Leninst cult to be avoided like the clap" was the most polite description I heard of the NCRI, the political arm--or "parliament in exile"--of the People's Mujahedin of Iran (MEK). The MEK was founded in 1963 by radical supporters of Mossadegh as an anti-shah party, which later, along with other leftist blocs, allied with the Ayatollah Khomeini in the Islamic Revolution. In 1979, it assisted in the student-led takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, and prior to that it had killed 5 American military and civilian personnel who had been working on defense projects in the Iranian capital.
Like all handmaids to budding tyrannies, the party's moment of triumph was short-lived. Following the clerics' seizure of power, its leadership was summarily executed, and ever since then, the remaining members have coalesced under the Peron-like guidance of the husband and wife team of Mariam and Massoud Rajavi (she's still a public figure, he's in hiding), and directed all its violent activity against the theocratic establishment. In 2000, the MEK tried to blow up President Khatami's palace; in 1998 it assassinated the director of Iran's prison system and the deputy chief of Iran's armed forces general staff.
Headquartered in Paris until France recognized the Islamic Republic in 1986, the MEK has had a welcome home in Iraq for the last 22 years. It sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and in return he provided it with weapons, materiel, and money. At the close of the first Gulf War, MEK guerillas facilitated the brutal slaughter of the Iraqi Kurds and Shia. They've since been disarmed by coalition forces, and now reside at Camp Ashraf under the status of "protected persons." Indeed, an overriding concern of the NCRI--articulated today by its speakers and placards--is that these exiles not be sent back to Iran, where they will surely be imprisoned and/or executed.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the MEK's ideology is a strange admixture of Marxism, feminism and Islamism. Its official flag, brandished liberally throughout the assembly, is an iconographic cross between the Hezbollah pennant and the hammer and sickle. However, the MEK is still tolerated by certain Western figures and lawmakers who operate under the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The group's most significant public relations coup to date has been its role exposing Iran's nuclear program, for which the NCRI has gained renewed credibility in U.S. intelligence circles.
Since 1995, it has advocated a seemingly liberal and Western-friendly platform that enshrines freedom of speech and freedom of religion (several members are Jews, Bahai and Christians) and abides by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, in 1997, the State Department put the MEK/NCRI on the list of foreign terrorist organizations at the behest of the Clinton administration, then looking to placate Khatami by criminalizing his most persistent and dangerous foe. (The EU, Canada and Iraq consider the MEK terrorists, too, although the European Court of Justice overturned the EU designation last year.) Former House majority leader Dick Armey, and serving representatives Tom Tancredo and Bob Filner have argued for its removal from the blacklist; even Condoleezza Rice has referred to the NCRI as a "dissident" group.
The NCRI has cash to burn because, like the Church of Scientology, it reportedly demands a goodly portion of its adherents' personal income. This was a claim I was not able to substantiate independently, although I did notice that many of its assembled guests were flown in from Los Angeles just to help make Ahmadinejad's stay in this city that much more unpleasant this week. If the NCRI is in fact invited back into the international community's good graces, it will be because it has what other Iranian oppositionists lack--a committed and loyal cadre with the political savvy to match its ideological zeal.
Michael Weiss is a writer living in New York.