Last weekend, as San Diego City Hall was consumed with the latest reports of a dustup between Mayor Bob Filner and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, the mayor was in the suburbs of Paris, spending a couple days with groups hoping to topple the current government of Iran.
Together with elected representatives from more than 50 other countries and 115,000 other attendees, Filner was at the annual meeting of the Grand Assembly of the Iranian Resistance in the community of Villepinte, a community in the northwestern suburbs of Paris.
Filner has not responded to requests for information about the event, but in two previous trips -- taken while he was a congressman -- he has described it as a “grand meeting of Iranians in support of human rights and democracy,” where he could meet with Iranian advocates of greater religious freedom and women’s rights.
“People shouldn’t be asking why the mayor of San Diego attended,” said T. Mehdi Ghaemi, an Iranian-born Colorado real estate broker who sponsored Filner’s congressional trips, but not the trip last week. “They should ask why the mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Fresno didn’t attend. Ask every senator and congressman. Iran’s the number one threat to world peace right now, part of the axis of evil and a major sponsor of terrorism that is developing nuclear weapons. And this was the largest group of people opposed to that regime.”
In her keynote address on Saturday, Maryam Rajavi, who heads the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, or MEK, which sponsors the annual events, stressed the group’s altruistic goals: “We want a pluralist system, freedom of parties and assembly. ... We are committed to the separation of religion and state. ... We believe in complete gender equality. ... Any form of discrimination against the followers of any religion and denomination will be prohibited.”
But critics note that the MEK was removed from the U.S. State Department’s terrorist watch list less than a year ago, under pressure from then-Rep. Filner as well as an array of other politicians, ranging from conservative Republicans like Orange County’s Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to liberal Democrats like Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island or party leader Howard Dean.
“I don’t believe the group has changed,” said Khoroush Hangafarin, a former San Diego Port Commissioner who was born and raised in Iran. “They still use the kind of tactics they used before.”
And in her speech on Saturday, Rajavi also made clear that she was not afraid of bloodshed in the struggle to achieve those goals.
“Oh blissful freedom, how shall I greet you on the day of your return,” she said, quoting a Persian poem. “The blood that flows greets your steps like a bouquet of red roses.”
The MEK -- which combines left-leaning politics with traditional Islam -- gained a reputation for terror in the 1970s, staging attacks both against the autocratic Shah of Iran and U.S. military personnel who were then stationed in the country and propping up his regime.
After the shah’s ouster in 1979, however, the MEK repositioned itself against the reign of the ayatollahs. For a number of years, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sheltered the group on his soil to stage attacks against his long-time enemies across the border.
But more recently, the group has tried to reposition itself as a less militant, more political voice, following the lead of other organizations such as the Irish Republican Army or the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Supporters note that even South African President Nelson Mandela spent some time on the State Department's terrorism list.
The push to get the MEK off the list, which occurred in July 2012, included a well-funded lobbying campaign that brought U.S. politicians to the group’s headquarters in France. Ghaemi, a broker with the Alborz Real Estate Co. in Greenwood Village, Col., paid $7,487 for Filner’s first class airfare and hotel accommodations in a 2007 trip and $7,989 in 2011, although he never contributed to the mayor’s political campaigns. His most recent federal political contribution went to the Republican Party of Virginia in 2004.
Despite his qualms about the MEK, Hangafarin said “right now, they’re probably the best organized resistance and opposition group. They don’t have a strong base in Iran right now, but they’re extremely trendy and these guys would be one option where people in the younger generation might go to if they want to take dramatic measures against the regime."