NEW YORK — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani may have been greeted as a moderate and friendly face inside the United Nations compound Monday, but outside the building, a large crowd of his opponents and Iranian-American dissidents gathered across the street, their chants heard well within the grounds of the world governing body.
As the Iranian president prepared to take the podium at the United Nations General Assembly, hundreds of protesters filled Dag Hammerskjold Plaza across the street from the white UN compound, calling in Farsi and English for regime change in Iran.
“Your image is being broadcast live in Iran! Let them hear that we are their voice and we are never gonna let them down!” a speaker called out to the crowd, which raised hundreds of pre-Islamic Revolution Iranian flags – decorated in the center with a golden winged lion and sun – into the air, chanting anti-Rouhani slogans in Farsi.
The protest attracted a high-profile line of speakers, intermingled with celebrations of Iranian culture as it was remembered prior to the 1979 revolution, which put religious clerics in power at the head of the Iranian state.
“We the Iranian-American youth in the United States stand with you, the youth in Iran! We will continue to be your voice,” a young girl told the crowd, which included many supporters of Maryam Rajavi, who has been president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran since 1993.
Former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge addressed the crowd, emphasizing the plight of the members of the anti-clerical People Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) who are still in Camp Ashraf and Camp Liberty in Iraq, cut off from supplies by the Iraqi government and under threat from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps led by Qassem Suleimani. The PMOI was de-listed as a terror organization by the US, but relatives of the organization have accused the US of leaving the anti-regime movement exposed to attack.
Rajavi’s husband, Massoud Rajavi, founded the People’s Mujahedin of Iran in the years before the Iranian Revolution as a militant group that opposed the Shah’s rule.
Speaking Monday, Ridge described Camps Ashraf and Liberty as “concentration camps” in practice. He and other speakers accused the United Nations of harboring a terrorist by agreeing to host Rouhani, and granting legitimacy to a regime that demonstrators complained consistently violates the rights of its citizens and sponsors terror across the region.
Whereas in previous years smaller protests have focused on the conditions in the besieged camps, this year’s demonstration spread a wide tent of opposition to Rouhani, to the Iran nuclear deal, and to the clerical regime in general.
Speaking from the podium, a young woman named Sefideh said that she was there “to represent the hundreds of thousands of young women who do not have the freedom of speech in Iran.”
“I am here for the women who are imprisoned because they want to stand on their own two feet, or because they simply want freedom in Iran,” she continued. “I am here because I do not support the barbaric regime in Iran.”
“We are here today to tell the people of Iran that we will not stop until there is a free Iran,” she concluded.
A giant papier-mâché Rouhani strode through the crowd with gallows dangling from his fingers, as speakers complained that state-sponsored executions had increased rather than decreased under the president’s so-called more moderate regime. Of an estimated 2,000 executions that have taken place since his 2013 election, the demonstration’s organizers complained, 700 have been conducted in the last six months alone.
The mostly Iranian-American crowd represented a broad coalition of allies opposed to the Islamic regime – ranging from Iranian communists to supporters of the long-deposed shah, as well as a large contingent of African-American Christians protesting the regime’s treatment of their coreligionists, and Syrians and Iraqis protesting Iran’s involvement in their respective countries. A coterie of Yemenites – one draped in a blood-stained flag of his country, hoisted signs protesting Iran’s intervention in the Arabian peninsula state.
Attorney and human rights advocate Alan Dershowitz was welcomed by the diverse crowd, as he listed the many victims of state repression, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is and homosexuals, before railing against the recent nuclear deal signed with Iran.
Emphasizing that he is a longtime supporter of President Barack Obama, Dershowitz accused the president of “undemocratically enacting” the deal “by using a discredited maneuver called the filibuster which prevented real debate and a real vote.”
“What the United States is doing today, essentially is committing a crime…providing material support to terrorism,” he complained. “Of every dollar that the Iranians get, much of it will go to repressing dissent in Iran, and the rest of it will go to encouraging terrorism around the Middle East and ultimately around the world.”
Demonstrations are commonplace in New York as world leaders gather for the opening days of the United Nations’ General Assembly, but the anti-Rouhani rally was easily the largest, dwarfing the anti-Putin Ukrainians and members of the Falun Gong organization, who protested China’s discrimination against their group.