“I salute your protest and gathering, which symbolizes an uprising for the freedom of the Iranian people,” said Rajavi, speaking in Farsi.
The controversial group, usually called by the acronym MEK, is made up of exiled Iranian dissidents who organized in the 1960s and now are mounting a political and legal campaign to end their designation as terrorists.
The group violently opposed the rule of the shah and initially supported the Islamist regime that came to power in 1979, but they became disillusioned with the theocracy and eventually fled amid growing hostility.
Some went to Europe, and others went to Iraq, where they built a heavily fortified base, called Camp Ashraf, northeast of Baghdad. MEK fought with Saddam Hussein’s forces against Iran. The U.S. designated MEK a terrorist group in 1997 after blaming it for attacks on Iranian government institutions in which dozens were killed, including Americans working in Tehran.
Kennedy said the group does not nowcommit acts of terrorism or pose a threat to the United States. He and others hailed the group as a legitimate alternative to Iran’s repressive government.
“How much worse can we do than the mullahs in Tehran now?” Kennedy asked. “Does it make sense to shackle the primary opposition group internationally? You may not like them. They may not have a lot of support. . . . But we ought to be on the opposite side of what Tehran favors as a matter of principle.”
Retired Army Col. Wesley Martin said: “The opposition in Iran has been sent to the gallows or prison. [MEK is] the only external organization with influence.”
A growing number of high-profile figures support removing the MEK from the list of terrorist groups. Those who have spoken in support of the move include retired Army Gen. Hugh Shelton and retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, both former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who was President Obama’s national security adviser; and former Vermont governor Howard Dean (D).
Lawmakers from both parties have criticized the Obama administration for not moving swiftly to clear MEK’s name or to facilitate a move to a country outside Iraq. Administration officials say there remains concern about the group’s nature.
“This is a group that has a lot of blood on its hands, including American blood,” said a senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity because legal and political decisions were being made about MEK. “We don’t want to be in a position where we later determine that a de-listed group has returned to violence.”