Davis Richardson is a policy reporter for Observer who has written for Vice, The Daily Beast and Wired. His reporting has been featured on Fox News and cited by The Washington Post, BBC, CNN, Politico, Southern Poverty Law Center and Chicago Council on Global Affairs. 

National security hawk John Bolton may finally have his opening to overthrow the Ayatollah.

As the Pentagon explores the possibility of deploying 120,000 troops to Iran, with President Donald Trump threatening the mullahs’ regime over Twitter, Bolton has a unique opportunity to imprint his own vision on the region. Neither Bolton, nor any Trump official, however, has discussed what an alternative to Ali Khamenei’s regime would look like—leaving a giant question mark over whether a president who campaigned on a non-interventionist platform intends to wage his own variant of the Iraq War.

Who Does Bolton Want to Replace the Mullahs?

Over the past decade, Bolton has endorsed regime change in Tehran at the hands of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK).

Founded in 1965 as an opposition movement to the Pahlavi monarchy comprised mostly of younger members of Iran’s traditional middle-class intelligentsia, the group worked alongside Iran’s former Supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini to overthrow the Shah, who the United States supported and later provided asylum to after his overthrow. The MEK’s intellectual foundation is rooted in a secular interpretation of Islam mixed with Marxism, and many of the movement’s founding members were opposed to United States interventionism—Massoud Rajavi, whose wife Maryam Rajavi now leads the MEK, once called U.S. imperialism the “main threat” facing the people of Iran. The group, both in its founding and up to the present day, advocates for violence—a summit hosted last fall featured blown up poster-boards emblazoned with the words “Death to Khamenei.”...

... Many lawmakers and policy architects have promoted MEK’s interests in Washington.

Democratic Representatives Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) pushed heavily for the State Department to delist the group, the latter calling the decision “very important for the American people.”

But MEK’s biggest supporters are tasked with making foreign policy in the White House. Bolton has spoken at MEK events, touting regime change for over a decade, and as recently as 2017 promised the mullahs’ regime would collapse “before 2019.”

“There is a viable opposition to the rule of the ayatollahs,” Bolton told an MEK gathering in Paris at the time. “And that opposition is centered in this room today.”

The national security hawk’s actions over the past year indicate he is looking for a fight with Tehran. Last week, Bolton ordered the Pentagon to draw up military preparations for the possible deployment of 120,000 to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or ramp up production on its nuclear weapons, according to a New York Times report. A video uploaded to the White House’s Twitter page in February featured Bolton accusing Tehran of “terrorizing [its] own people.”

“You could really say that since the Islamic Revolution this is certainly the hot watermark of MEK’s influence,” Benjamin told Observer. “My guess is that they’re feeling pretty good about all the investments they’ve made to build their influence in Washington. Bolton has continued to make video messages that echo what he was saying before to MEK groups.”

Another member of President Donald Trump’s inner-circle who has spoken at MEK events at home and abroad includes Rudy Giuliani—who last fall told Iranian dissidents in Times Square that regime change is “going to happen.” When asked by Observer about the group’s controversial history said to include violence against Americans, he echoed the group’s narrative that an unaffiliated group of Marxist dissidents were behind the attacks.

“What you’re referring to happened over 30 years ago,” Giuliani told Observer during a press conference after his speech. “It happened during the overthrow of the Shah. It was a group of people that were not connected to the MEK. This particular organization has been extraordinarily friendly to the United States, embraced by the United States military.”

A spokesperson for Bolton at the National Security Council did not return Observer’s request for comment on whether he saw the NCRI’s vision as a suitable replacement for Tehran’s regime.

Recent NCRI Lobbying Campaign

As the Trump administration escalates its rhetoric toward Iran and hints at possible military action in the region, the NCRI has seized on the conversation surrounding regime change to promote itself as an alternative to the Ayatollah.

“Decades of human rights abuses and domestic suppression need to be dealt with now,” reads a blog post uploaded to the organization’s website last week. “The regime is in the most vulnerable place it has ever been and this is when it could potentially be dangerous so the policy of exerting the maximum pressure should go on and the international community should more than ever listen to the only viable alternative which is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) with its president elect Maryam Rajavi.”

Earlier in May, a former NCRI lobbyist launched an advertising campaign on Facebook to promote a Washington Times article about an NCRI event, which quoted the organization’s deputy director of U.S. operations, according to The Daily Beast.

The organization has been careful not to advocate explicitly for a U.S. military invasion and has walked a fine line in promoting regime change, while recognizing Trump’s aversion to interventionism. Representatives for the NCRI also reject the narrative that the U.S. is aggravating Iran and point to the regime’s sponsorship of state terrorism throughout Europe. One policy they are in favor of is a continued push of the White House’s maximum pressure campaign.

“The regime is having a lot of problems domestically. It is also isolated regionally and internationally,” Safavi told Observer. “The maximum pressure policy hasn’t yet run its complete course. There are other areas where the regime should be sanctioned, in particular the petrochemical and gas industry. Another step that we see is necessary is to designate the Ministry of Intelligence as a voluntary terrorist organization because it qualifies as such.”

“I’d be surprised if they want to oppose Trump in any vocal way,” added Benjamin. “That would only diminish their fanning.”

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