UNITED NATIONS — Several thousand Iranian anti-regime activists gathered outside the United Nations on Wednesday to protest Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s speech to the General Assembly, call for regime change and show support for widespread demonstrations that have rocked Iran in recent days.
The protesters gathered at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza, directly across from UN headquarters, as Raisi delivered a speech to world leaders. Organizers put the number of participants at 3,000.
Signs lining the plaza called for “Regime change by Iranians,” and hundreds of photos of executed political prisoners were on display. Standing amid the photos, two protesters wearing grotesque, oversize masks depicting Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei held chains and a noose to symbolize the imprisonment and hanging of Iranian dissidents.
The protesters said Raisi is guilty of crimes against the Iranian people and an illegitimate leader, since Iran does not hold free and fair elections.
“Raisi does not deserve a seat at the UN and he’s not the president of the people of Iran. Raisi is a mass murderer,” said activist Raha Heshmatikhah. “It’s horrible and unethical that an institution like the UN is welcoming and allowing Raisi to take a seat and be there.”
“He’s a huge criminal in Iranian history and he should be held accountable because the impunity he’s enjoying is bringing all the terror to the country,” she said.
“It’s shameful that he is here because if he goes to the United States he’s going to be legitimized and then all the other countries will invite him,” said Batool Zamani.
Israel’s envoy to the UN, Gilad Erdan, walked out of Raisi’s speech and called his appearance “a new moral low for the UN.”
The protesters were mostly from the Iranian-American community and supporters of the dissident groups Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, or MEK, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Many were survivors of Iranian government oppression or family members of victims. They came from around the US and some European countries and wore yellow vests emblazoned with the words “A free Iran.”
They blame Raisi for his participation in the execution of thousands of political prisoners, many from MEK, during a purge in 1988. Estimates put the number of executions as high as 30,000, with other estimates in the 3,000 to 5,000 range. The regime, with Raisi on a key panel deciding the campaign, hanged men, women and children during the killing spree.
Zamani said Khamenei appointed Raisi to power due to the ruthlessness he has displayed during the executions and since.
“The election was not an election, it was a selection, and Khamenei selected Raisi just because he knew that the whole society, it can explode at any time,” she said. “He wanted to put someone in power that kills and does not have any shyness about killing.”
Mass protests have spread in Iran in the past week, and security forces have killed at least six demonstrators and injured hundreds.
The protesters came to New York to oppose Raisi’s participation at the UN with rallies throughout the week, including demonstrations outside Raisi’s midtown hotel.
At Wednesday’s event, they waved signs that said “Victory will be ours,” and “Prosecute Raisi,” chanted “First word, last word, overthrow the regime” as a marching band beat on drums, and stomped on a banner bearing Khamenei’s image laid down at the entrance. Speakers from the Iranian community and Christian allies of the movement delivered speeches in English and Farsi.
The recent unrest in Iran energized the crowd. The protests began last week after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested by Iran’s morality police for not properly covering her hair, then died while in custody.
The killing of Amini has spurred calls for better treatment of women in Iran, as well as fury against the regime.
Videos have spread online showing Iranian women burning their hijabs and dancing in the street, and security forces opening fire on protesters in the southern city of Shiraz.
Women’s rights activists at the UN protest carried photos of Amini and chanted, “We will fight, we will die, we will take back our Iran.”
“People are being killed by their government in Iran and this president is the representative of that government. He’s coming here and saying that people in Iran have freedom. They are killing women in Iran because they have to wear a hijab,” one of the activists said. “They arrest them, they kill them in the jail and they come here and say the hijab is not mandatory.”
“We are here to tell the world, don’t shake hands with those killers,” she said. “You are talking with people who are killers, and are still killing.”
She said the demonstrations in Iran had inspired the community in the US, and said Iranian security forces had likely held their fire against protesters due to Raisi’s UN appearance, but would begin killing more demonstrators in the coming days.
“We’re supporting the people in Iran because we have democracy and freedom here, we can support them easily, but the people in Iran have to sacrifice themselves. Their lives are in danger when they go into the streets,” she said.
The Iranian-American community filed a civil complaint against Raisi last month in New York federal court alleging crimes against humanity to increase pressure against him at the UN.
Khamenei was reportedly in poor health last week, and several demonstrators predicted that if he dies, it will damage Raisi’s standing and further inflame protests.
Protester Ellie Taheri said she had been imprisoned for political activism in Iran in the 1980s. She spent five years in prison, was tortured and beaten, and her brother was executed after a five-minute trial, she said.
She fled to the US after getting out of prison and has come to the UN to protest every Iranian president since.
“Doesn’t matter — reformist, fundamentalist, both are the same. We don’t have any reforms in Iran,” she said. She linked Amini’s killing directly to Raisi’s oppressive policies.
Raisi also sparked an uproar this week by casting doubt on the Holocaust ahead of his UN appearance.
Zamani said the regime’s Holocaust denial fueled their proxies in the region, and connected Iran’s oppression of dissidents to its anti-Israel activities, saying it was a “divide and conquer” strategy aimed at directing attention to the regime’s foes.
“Hezbollah, Hamas, all of these are under the Iranian regime and they do anything like that, it’s like they are feeding their close people,” she said. “When they talk about the Holocaust it gives power to the people who are following them, they say, ‘Look, we are standing against Israel,’ because they want them to see the enemy is Israel.”
Raisi during his speech called Israel the most “savage power” in Middle East history.
“When I was growing up my mom was always telling me that the Jewish religion is the closest to Islam. We have a lot in common, but it is in their best interest to fight with Israel,” she said of the regime. “But the Iranian people, they think the first enemy is the Iranian regime because they are the ones who are actually killing and executing and not giving freedom to the people of Iran.”
One of the speakers at the rally said, “In the Jewish faith there is a saying ‘Next year we will gather in Jerusalem,’ I say next year we will gather together in a free Iran.”
During his UN speech, Raisi repeatedly described Iran as the patron of oppressed people seeking “unity” and “justice.”
“We believe that all freedom-seeking nations have their hearts tied to such deeply rooted values and the defense of all these values against the oppressors across the globe rests on our shoulders,” he said. “Any oppressive action is an action against world peace and stability.”
“Any path other than justice will not be sustainable and permanent,” he said. Khamenei also spoke publicly in Iran on Wednesday, but neither mentioned the mass protests in their country which continued to spread for the fifth day.