A news conference conducted by self-described Iranian dissidents descended into chaos on Monday as audience members and two journalists accused the speakers of spreading disinformation and being agents of Iranian intelligence.
As supporters of the rival dissident groups vied for media attention, one group accused the other of being imposters. An hour and a half into the National Press Club event in Washington, D.C., organizers halted it and Capitol police were called in to keep order.
Monday’s news conference, titled "Saddam and Terrorism," was sponsored by the Iran Peyvand Association and was supposed to focus on Iraq as it was. Speakers argued that after fleeing Iran, the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) operated out of Iraq as a terrorist group. For that reason, its leader, Massoud Rajavi, should be brought to justice just as Saddam Hussein was, the Iran Peyvand Association insisted.
The MEK was expelled from Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Starting in the late 1980s, its main support came from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. While it conducted terrorist attacks against the interests of the religious regime in Iran, it also mobilized to suppress the 1991 Shiite and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam, a point the presenters emphasized.
According to U.S. government terrorist group profiles, the MEK advocates the overthrow of the Iranian regime and its replacement with the group’s own leadership. Currently, over 3,000 MEK members live in Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, where they remain under the Geneva Convention’s "protected person" status.
A press release for Monday’s event promised that attendees would see a documentary film exposing the MEK’s role in the suppression of the 1991 Iraqi uprising and "video evidence, secretly filmed by Saddam’s own security services," showing the "financial, spying and terrorist relationship between the Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization and Saddam’s regime."
Anti-war activist Carol Moore warned that if the U.S. attacked Iran, the result could be world-wide nuclear war.
A flier distributed by the organizers echoed the "catastrophic" repercussions of an American attack and argued that Iranian officials could deploy "millions of troops and enter Iraq," as well as attack Israel’s nuclear sites and cities, American bases and troops in Iraq and U.S. ships at sea.
"They could cut off much of the world’s oil, which comes through the Straight of Hormuz," read the flier, which was produced by StopTheWarNow.net, DawnDC.net and UnitedForPeace.org.
Karim Haqi, introduced as a former member of the MEK, followed Moore’s speech. After a video was shown, he addressed the meeting in Farsi while Marukh Haji translated.
Shortly into Haqi’s speech, audience members began interrupting, including one unidentified young woman who said she spoke Farsi and complained the translation being given to the audience was erroneous.
Another woman who refused to be identified except to say she was an immigration attorney, stood up and complained that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had allowed a former "terrorist" into the country.
A man who described himself as a "freelance journalist" asked Haqi whether it was true, as alleged, that he had worked with Iranian intelligence. He was escorted from the meeting by organizers. But the charge was echoed in questions by a British-Israeli journalist.
Haqi later denied any such ties to Iranian Intelligence, and through translator Marukh Haji, added that he and his supporters had spent years in Iranian prisons and were the "first ones" the government attacked.
"We put all our hopes in [the MEK]" said Haqi. "They betrayed us.
Two individuals carrying materials from the Committee Against Ahmadinejad (Iran’s new president) repeatedly interrupted Haqi and his translator. Later, members of the group gave reporters copies of a document accusing the organizers of Monday’s news conference of being in the employ of Iranian intelligence.
By Sherrie Gossett and Monisha Bansal