Every summer, thousands of Iranians gather in a town near Paris to voice their support for a free and democratic Iran at the Free Iran rally. The rally features songs and theatrical performances, speeches from international dignitaries of all political stripes, and videos from inside Iran depicting ordinary Iranians’ troubles and their support for regime change in Iran. This year’s event was attended by Saudi prince Turki bin-Faisal, who delivered a speech that has been called a watershed moment in Middle Eastern politics, as well as former U.S. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, figures from opposite sides of the political spectrum who nonetheless have found common ground in support regime change in Iran.
The event provoked more than 4,000 state-led responses from Tehran, where most media is centrally controlled. The response, which began immediately after the event and has continued since, has been overwhelmingly negative. There have also been tangible political effects, with Tehran summoning the French Ambassador to register an official protest and summoning Egyptian diplomats to protest the presence of an official delegation from the Egyptian Parliament.
As the main opposition group challenging Tehran’s clerical government, the NCRI has become a prime target for attacks by Tehran’s media apparatus. Although Tehran could not prevent the more than 100,000 Iranians who attended the event from making their presence felt on the international scene, it can use its public relations muscle to attempt to control the narrative around the NCRI and its main constituent group, the People’s Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI). As the economic and political crisis in Tehran continues to mount, it feels increasingly threatened by well-organized and internationally supported resistance groups.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani lashed out against Saudi Arabia, who sent a delegate to the Free Iran rally, in a statement given to a state-run news outlet. “There are both children-killer regimes and childlike regimes in the region,” he said, referring respectively to Israel and Saudi Arabia in a familiar euphemism. “There are childlike regimes that are seeking the support of rotten terrorist organizations”.
“The gathering and what was raised was so worthless and so impolite that it does not merit a response”, said Ali Larjiani, a member of the Iranian parliament. He also called the Saudi prince Turki bin Faisal, who spoke at the event, a “moron”.
Iran’s government also attempted to portray the PMOI as an out-of-touch group that is hated within Iran. Because the NCRI is ready to assume the mantle of control in Iran in order to conduct peaceful democratic elections and create a transitory six-month government, the Rouhani government has been keen to smear its reputation in Iran and in international politics. In the fallout of the event, many Iranian government officials called the PMOI a terrorist organization and accused those countries that sent delegations to the event of colluding with terrorists.