By Alejo Vidal Quadras
Last November, Iran was rocked by a series of anti-government protests that arguably comprised the most widespread anti-government uprising since the inception of the current regime. Demonstrations were confirmed to have taken place in 191 cities and towns, spanning all 31 Iranian provinces. The significance of this geographic diversity was amplified by the fact that some of the participating locations had been assumed to be strongholds of the theocratic system until their residents joined in adopting slogans that left little doubt regarding popular support for regime change and democracy.
Those slogans had generally been established about two years earlier, in the context of another uprising that was nearly as large and diverse. Both in December 2017 and in November 2019, citizens of Iran poured into the streets in response to distressing economic indicators which revealed the extent of the regime’s mismanagement and lack of care for the wellbeing of its own people. In the first instance, the nationwide unrest was sparked by an organized protest in the city of Mashhad, which sought to highlight the overall economic conditions. In the second, the entire uprising proved to be spontaneous, in response to the government’s announcement of a sudden spike in gasoline price.
Despite these differences, both uprisings quickly shifted focus from expressions of economic discontent to a full-throated condemnation of the system that was responsible for it. Both movements came to be defined by slogans like “death to the dictator” and “hardliners, reformists: the game is over.” The latter referred to the two mainstream factions of Iranian politics, associated with the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, respectively. The public rejection of both these factions underlines the demand for an alternative drawn from outside of the existing power structure. And the further details of the unrest indicate that most people seem to have a specific alternative in mind.
In January 2018, while the first uprising was still in full-swing, Khamenei himself acknowledged that the extent of the unrest was a sign of the growing social influence of an organized Iranian Resistance group, namely the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). That group has long been recognized as the mullahs’ arch-enemy, and this status led to it being targeted for destruction in the years immediately following the 1979 revolution. In the summer of 1988 alone, the MEK comprised the vast majority of the 30,000 political prisoners who were killed in a series of mass executions.
Since the time of that massacre, the regime publicly maintained the position that nothing was left of the MEK other than a marginal cult or a “grouplet” – until Khamenei 2018 speech relinquished decades of propaganda in order to explain the origin of a protest movement that could not have existed without the backing of an organized leadership structure. Presently, that leadership is identified with Maryam Rajavi, who stands at the President of the coalition National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Mrs. Rajavi is also the author of a 10-point plan for the country’s future. It specifies an antidote to the current system, to consist of safeguards on the rights of women and minorities, separation of religion from the state and commitment to peaceful foreign relations in absence of weapons of mass destruction. Not only does this plan identify the Iranian Resistance movement as a natural ally to Western democracies; it also provides the Iranian people with a shared vision upon which to build an effective protest movement. That, as much as economic discontent, is what was on display in last November’s uprising.
Although they would never say so explicitly, there are clear signs that Iranian officials recognize this phenomenon and are afraid of it. Among those signs are their public expressions of commitment to a violent crackdown, particularly one that is focused on resuming past efforts to destroy the MEK in its entirety.
The Friday prayer leader for Tehran outlined the clerical regime’s plan for confronting the unrest on November 21, even before the uprising had been brought to heel. “I say to the Judiciary: The first thing is that judicial officials must hand down the ultimate punishment to the organizers and leaders,” Ahmad Khatami said. But as would soon become clear, this advice was only meant to supplement the summary executions that had effectively already been carried out at the point of a gun.
Immediately after the November uprising began, the government dispatched the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to areas of particular unrest with orders to restore relative calm by any means necessary. The IRGC promptly opened fire on crowds of demonstrators and Amnesty International later confirmed that the gunmen were shooting to kill. About a month after the uprising began, the MEK began releasing reports on the regime’s response, which concluded that approximately 1,500 people had been killed and more than 4,000 injured.
Even now, a full year after the uprising, the death toll stands to rise further as authorities follow through on the advice of figures like Khatami. What’s more, the judiciary doesn’t appear to be done with its fatal crackdown on the January 2018 uprising or, for that matter, on any of the scattered demonstrations that took place in the intervening period, as part of what Mrs. Rajavi called a “year full of uprisings.”
This has always been evident to Resistance activists, but unfortunately they have struggled to make the international community fully aware of the regime’s reprisals or the underlying clashes between that regime and the Iranian people. Western policymakers may have come to some sort of an awakening on this matter in September, however. It was then that the Iranian judiciary carried out the death sentence for an activist named Navid Afkari, whose status as a renowned athlete helped to raise the profile of his case and generate a slew of international appeals to spare his life.
Tehran was heedless of all these appeals, though they came from Western governments, individual policymakers and powerfully influential human rights organizations. Afkari’s execution can be described as unusually efficient, with only a few weeks between its confirmation on appeal and its implementation. Officially, the champion wrestler was charged with murder, but there was video evidence pointing to his innocence and it is widely understood that he was targeted for execution in order to prevent him from inspiring further pro-democracy activism. His quick hanging was presumably intended to prevent more international scrutiny.
Of course, it is ridiculous to think that the world will turn away from this particular case just because the activist in question is dead. It is even more ridiculous to think that the feared international scrutiny will not expand to include the 1,500 people who were killed one year ago this month or the others who have been marked for execution since then.
At least, it would be ridiculous to think these things, if not for the fact that there is a long history of Iran’s human rights abuses being ignored, especially when they involve the organized Resistance movement. No one has been held accountable in international court for the 1988 massacre and last November’s crackdown has barely been mentioned in policy discussions in Western democracies. Sadly, it remains to be seen whether Western powers will rectify these oversights before Tehran tries again to destroy the democratic opposition.
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)