By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
The Iranian regime is terrified of widespread public awareness of its mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak. It is terrified that that awareness will lead to re-invigorated public discontent and ultimately, to new protests. And it is terrified that those protests will be led by an organized opposition movement that represents a serious alternative governing structure for the transition period towards true democratic elections and a new constitution for Iran.
Some of these fears were laid bare on Sunday May 17 when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei held a videoconference with student members of the Basij, a civilian branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In it, he seemed to acknowledge the inevitability of future protests, coming in the wake of two nationwide uprisings and countless smaller-scale public demonstrations.
“Do not allow your protests to be viewed as protests against the Islamic system; the enemy is waiting for this. Sometimes, you may assume that you are protesting the issue of the stock exchange or Pride [an automobile brand produced locally]. But depending on the way you protest, the enemy views or implies it as a protest against the system. You must seriously prevent this from happening and not allow the enemy to have an opportunity to make such an assumption because of your protest or imply to others that this is a protest against the system,” Khamenei said in the videoconference.
Looking ahead to those protests originating on university campuses, Khamenei implored the Basij to take control of them and try to keep slogans and public demands focused on a narrow range of issues rather than on the structure of the Iranian regime. That has not been the case in any of the recent demonstrations, least of all in the uprisings that popularized such provocative slogans as “Death to the dictator.”
The first of these grew out of economic protests in the city of Mashhad in December 2017. Over the following month, the unrest spread to another 150 cities and towns. Last November’s uprising spanned an even greater geographic area, as well as encompassing a wide range of communities and social sectors. It has been said that while the 2009 protests exposed middle-class white-collar opposition to the ruling system, the recent uprisings did the same for the blue-collar workers.
The uprisings also helped to clarify the extent of the public’s demands. While the 2009 protests were regarded by some observers as a movement for simple reform, the 2018 and 2019 protests were unmistakably motivated by a desire for regime change. It is then no surprise that they met with brutal repression by government authorities whose hold on power grows weaker with each passing year.
In January 2018, dozens of activists were either fatally shot or tortured to death while in the custody of security forces. Thousands of others were arrested, many of whom were condemned to lengthy prison sentences. Participants in last November’s uprising were similarly subject to arbitrary prosecutions, which are still ongoing. At least a handful of those participants have now been sentenced to death.
These injustices pale in comparison to the immediate death toll from attacks on the November demonstrations by the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards. It is estimated that 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed in the span of little more than a week. The brutality of this response was a clear testament to the regime’s desperation in the face of incessant public unrest and growing popularity for opposition voices lead by Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the Iranian resistance.
In his recent remarks, Khamenei emphasized his concerns on the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). He also condemned it for its refusal to accept “the foundations of the revolution”, which in the mullahs’ minds are expressed by the absolute rule by clerical authorities.
Overwhelmed by the enthusiasm exhibited by young people towards the MEK, Khamenei said “Places of gathering for young people, including universities, have been the target of two major evils: passivity and deviation. In the early days of the revolution we had some young people who believed in Islam…. They were attracted to the MEK… And joined their path.” In a clear edict to suppress the MEK and dissidents in general, Khamenei added “Expand the revolutionary front. Recruit … Of course, I do not mean the MEK, the non-believers … I do not recommend that we appease those who do not accept the foundations of the revolution, cast doubt on its foundations, promote the enemy, and put us on the wrong path. Not at all. You must deal with them explicitly and strongly… They (the enemy) also work on our youth and try to exploit them and are planning for this”.
The MEK is the earliest major force of opposition to the religious dictatorship and today it is widely regarded as the most serious challenge to that system, despite having been constantly targeted for destruction since the 1980s. Near the end of that decade, MEK members even comprised the vast majority of the 30,000 political detainees who were massacred in various Iranian prisons. But it rebounded from that blow and has steadily grown since then both in terms of domestic membership and international support.
Khamenei’s mere mention of the MEK in his Basij videoconference was a testament to its growth. The regime has long taken the position that the MEK should not be publicly acknowledged, for fear that it would be fueled by any publicity whatsoever. Even so, the January 2018 uprising helped to disabuse the authorities of any notion that their conspiracy of silence was having an adverse effect on the Resistance.
While that uprising was in full swing, the Supreme Leader begrudgingly admitted that the MEK had played a leading role in organizing and facilitating it. And since then, Tehran’s strategy has inched toward confronting its opposition directly rather than attempting to dismiss it as a cult with weak organizational skills and little popular support.
Khamenei’s appeal to the Basij represents the latest evolution of the regime’s strategy, but it will almost certainly prove to be a futile gesture. After having followed the MEK in calling for regime change on two major occasions in the last two years, there is little chance of the Iranian people falling back into a pattern of focusing their activism on a small set of demands in hopes that their protests will be just barely tolerated by the regime.
If there was any chance of this reversion in activist strategies following the November uprising, it has been undermined at least twice since then. In January, the regime attempted to cover up the Revolutionary Guards’ downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet, earning renewed public condemnation. And in the subsequent months, authorities first denied, then grossly mishandled Iran’s coronavirus outbreak.
These two back-to-back developments are among the clearest indicators both of the regime’s incompetence and of its malicious disregard for human life and the implications of the bungled coronavirus response are only just beginning to come into true focus. While Iran’s Health Ministry says about 7,000 people have died from the outbreak since mid-February, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), has determined that the true death toll is more than 44,000.
Of course, many Iranians are already aware of the heavy impact and the regime’s attempted cover-up as evidenced by their posts on social media and comments to foreign news outlets. Many others will come aware of it in the days ahead as the infection rate continues its upward climb following the regime’s extremely pre-mature reopening of the domestic economy.
When that happens, the impulse toward regime change will no doubt intensify and the people will continue to line up behind an opposition that has already articulated their frustration on a grand scale. The mullahs are keenly aware of this, but there is little they can do to stop it other than hope in vain for the triumph of false narratives and propaganda.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)