By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 20, 2009 4:19 PM
PARIS, June 20 -- Tens of thousands of Iranian exiles from across Europe and beyond gathered in a Paris suburb Saturday to cheer on the anti-government demonstrators in Tehran and demand an end to Iran's religion-based political system.
The rally, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was framed to associate the widely contested exile movement with the protests that erupted in Iran after the June 12 presidential election, which opposition candidates have deemed fraudulent.
"Regarding the presidential elections, I want to recall that we fully agree with annulling the results of the election masquerade, which we had called on people to boycott from the very beginning," the council leader, Maryam Rajavi, said in a 90-minute speech interrupted by banner-waving supporters shouting "Down with the dictators."
She added, "For three decades, we have been demanding the holding of free elections under United Nations supervision based on people's sovereignty."
The council, which claims to represent dozens of exile groups, grew out of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq movement, which the United States and several other governments describe as a terrorist group. The European Union removed the group from its terrorist list in January, after a long campaign of lobbying and court proceedings.
Nevertheless, the council has become the largest and most organized Iranian opposition group abroad. This is particularly true in Europe, where it has backers in various parliaments, some of whom were present for the rally, held in a cavernous exhibition center near Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
Since its association with Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, however, the movement has been shunned by many in Iran and, according to journalists' accounts, is not mentioned by the thousands of young people who have been demonstrating in Tehran. The residue of its Iraqi-backed military wing, estimated to number 3,500, has been confined to Camp Ashraf, an installation north of Baghdad under the control of U.S. and Iraqi military forces.
Rajavi, who took over from her husband, Massoud Rajavi, described a key distinction between the exiles' political demands and those voiced by the candidates who recently ran against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The exile council, while Muslim, insists on an end to the power exercised by Shiite Muslim clerics in Iran, she said, while the opposition leaders and their demonstrating supporters seem to want only a loosening of the system.
Despite the difference, Rajavi hailed the mostly young demonstrators, saying they were brave and have created "a great spring for the Iranian people."
"The National Council of Resistance stretches its hands to all persons, groups and forces who want a republic, who reject the rule by religious decree in its entirety and seek the establishment of a democratic, independent state based on the separation of church and state," she declared.
Rajavi and the more than 80,000 people bused in for the rally seemed to find hope and encouragement in the explosion of protest after an exile that, for many of them, has lasted three decades. She hailed the demonstrations as "a new era of resistance for freedom" and "the beginning of the end" for religion-based government in Iran.
Khalil Abadi, who fled his native Kerman in southeastern Iran in 1983 after two years in prison, shared in the optimism after driving to the rally from London, where he has found exile and runs a business making doors and window frames. He said tension over the election, combined with international pressure over Iran's nuclear program and changes in neighboring Iraq, mean that Iran is about to transform drastically. "I think it will be very soon," he said. "A lot of change is happening now."