Widespread protests in Iran about a gasoline price hike were supported by a Nov. 17 demonstration in Sandy Springs, where about 20 people waved flags and held signs with such slogans as, “Democracy, Freedom, Regime Change in Iran.”

Batool Zamani, a Sandy Springs resident who helped lead the demonstration on Roswell Road near Sandy Springs Place, said it was organized by a local chapter of the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC). That organization is affiliated with two other controversial groups whose leaders have sought to overthrow Iran’s government and consider themselves to be a parliament in exile. The OIAC’s social media says it was among 10 demonstrations being organized around the U.S., including at the White House.

Demonstrators from the Organization of Iranian American Communities call for “regime change in Iran” while lining Roswell Road in Sandy Springs Nov. 17. The candles represent people killed in ongoing protests in Iran, and the portraits show opposition leaders Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. (John Ruch)

“We all have family there,” Zamani said of the local demonstrators and the protests in Iran, which have reportedly involved violence and deaths. “They say, ‘We don’t mind being killed, but we need to see the end of the regime.’”

The demonstration was held in front of a yet-to-open store at 6074 Roswell Road called Dancer’s Elite Wear, which has already drawn attention due to its owner’s controversial history in running sexually oriented shops involved in legal battles with city governments. Lacey outfits could be seen in the store’s windows behind the demonstrators. Zamani said the organizers at first were unaware of the store and its background, believing it to be just a vacant storefront in the same general area where holding a demonstration would not cause issues.

“I didn’t know until we got everything [organized]… It’s bad,” she said.

Participants in the Nov. 17 Organization of Iranian American Communities demonstration hold flags and signs. (John Ruch)

Zamani said the organizers originally wanted to hold the demonstration across the street from the City Green public park about two blocks away, but could not arrange that in time. She said city officials have given approval to hold a future, yet-to-be-scheduled demonstration at that original spot. However, city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said there were no such approvals.  “The organization did not apply for a permit and no approvals [were] given for any future demonstration,” she said.

“Change, change, change! Regime change in Iran!” was among the chants by the Sandy Springs demonstrators. A large banner read, “Democracy, Freedom, Regime Change in Iran. Onward with uprising to end religious dictatorship. Long live freedom!” Other banners declared “solidarity” with student protesters and opposed the execution of prisoners.

One man held a sign reading, “Islamic Repub[lic] of Iran = ISIS. Death to Islamic Republic of Iran.”

A small table held several candles sitting atop red stars printed on paper, along with a bouquet of roses. Zamani said the candles represent “martyrs” killed in the Iran protests.

A few passing drivers briefly honked their horns, apparently in support of the demonstration.

A banner displayed by the Organization of Iranian American Communities demonstrators. (John Ruch)

Zamani said Sandy Springs was chosen for the demonstration site because many Iranian-Americans live there and in nearby parts of north Fulton County. She said that local OIAC members work with several of Georgia’s members of Congress on resolutions related to Iran and its government.

According to media reports, Iran began experiencing massive, nationwide protests on Nov. 15 about a 50% gasoline price hike that is partly a response to U.S. economic sanctions imposed to discourage the government from developing nuclear weapons, a goal it has denied having. The Iranian government reportedly shut down most of the country’s internet service in an attempt to quell the protests.

The OIAC is affiliated with two other organizations outside the U.S., according to Zamani and media reports. One is the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which operates as a government-in-exile.  The other affiliate is the Mojahedin-e Khalq, also known as MEK or the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which began as a Marxist-influenced militant group seeking to overthrow Iran’s government. The U.S. government for many years listed the MEK as a terrorist organization, but removed that designation in 2012 as it assumed a more political role. Iran’s leaders reportedly blame the MEK in part for the current protests.

Organization of Iranian American Communities demonstrators hold flags while other members photograph them. (John Ruch)

The president-elect of the NCRI is Maryam Rajavi, who was long a key MEK leader along with her husband Massoud Rajavi, who disappeared in 2003.

According to media reports, the MEK has been widely criticized as a cult-like organization that controls its members, which the group denies, and for allegedly conducting such media-manipulation operations as inventing a fictional source for many news stories. The MEK also has been strongly supported by some senior U.S. officials and advisers over the years, including former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani, the lawyer for President Donald Trump. According to media reports, the OIAC advises and works with many members of the U.S. Congress in both parties.

At the Sandy Springs demonstration, some participants held flags of the NCRI, which resembles an Iranian national flag altered with the group’s lion-and-sword icon; and others held the MEK flag, which depicts a fist clutching a rifle and a sickle beneath a star. Two participants held portrait photos of the Rajavis.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from the city of Sandy Springs.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.