Members of the hawkish wing of the US foreign policy establishment met at Washington DC’s Hilton hotel for the Free Iran Summit 2021, a conference hosted by Iranian dissidents, where they called for popular revolution against Iran’s government.
The convention was headlined by former Vice President Mike Pence but attended by top Iran hawks in both parties; former Sens Joe Lieberman and Robert Torricelli represented the Democratic Party’s conservative wing at the event.
Speakers at Thursday’s event, discussed the actions of Iran’s government including its support for militant groups in the Middle East, while Mr Pence himself touted the actions of the Trump administration to turn up the pressure on the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, especially the killing of Qassem Soleimani.
The former vice president toed a fine line in his prepared remarks, stressing that while the Iranian regime was at its weakest point in decades and should me met with maximum pushback from the Biden administration, any change to Iran’s government would come through popular means. He also denounced the newly-elected president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, for his role in the killings of hundreds of Iranian dissidents over the past several decades.
“Ebrahim Raisi must be removed from office by the people of Iran – and he must be prosecuted for crimes against humanity and genocide,” Mr Pence said.
His speech drew applause and chants of “thank you” from the crowd, particularly when discussing the death of Soleimani. Loud cheers and chants also occurred when Mr Pence mentioned the People's Mujahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), a dissident organisation of Iranians which primarily relocated to Albania in 2013.
“One of the biggest lies the ruling regime has sold the world is that there is no alternative to the status quo. But there is an alternative – a well-organised, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative called the MEK,” said the former vice president.
In one notable moment during a moderated discussion with his former chief of staff, Marc Short, Mr Pence discussed the resistance to plans to withdraw the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, which the Trump administration pulled out of in 2018.
The former vice president quipped that it was “not an exaggeration” to say that nearly every major European ally and other world leaders had called the White House urging former president Donald Trump to stay in the deal, which he eventually declined to do.
That comment contrasted sharply with a remark made by White House national security adviser Jake Sherman during a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One just a short time later; Mr Sherman asserted to journalists that the Biden administration was working in lockstep and “singing from the same song sheet” with European allies on the issue of Iran.
Events hosted the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) have drawn a bipartisan cohort of lawmakers in recent years while being a stopping point for several top GOP figures, including Mr Pence, thought to be considering 2024 bids for the White House. The group consistently advocates for an aggressive Iran stance in line with the Trump administration’s tactics, including opposition to the 2015 nuclear agreement as well as support for US and international sanctions.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen Ted Cruz have both spoken at NCRI events this year; on Thursday, Mr Pence left his headline spot at the conference and headed to Virginia’s Loudoun County for another campaign-style event on the topic of “educational freedom”.
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