By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Last November, Iran was the site of a nationwide uprising by anti-government activists. After an increase in the government-set price of gasoline sparked a spontaneous outpouring of popular rage and protesters in more than 200 cities and towns quickly began to endorse a message of regime change.
With slogans that condemned both factions of mainstream Iranian politics and called for “death to the dictator,” the November uprising directly mirrored a similar set of demonstrations that began in December 2017 and continued through much of January 2018.
The more recent uprising appeared to be even larger than its predecessor, both in terms of geographic reach and in terms of the variety of communities and social groups that participated. However, it was also somewhat more short-lived on account of even more brutal government response to the unrest.
By the end of January 2018, hundreds of Iranian protests had been killed. Some were shot dead in the streets while others died from the effects of torture after being taken into custody. Thousands of others survived their arrest and interrogation, only for many to be condemned to multi-year prison sentences for the crime of peacefully protesting against the regime.
Unsurprisingly, the regime responded with panic when it found, less than a year later, that the violent crackdown had not prevented further expressions of dissent. In the wake of the November uprising, Amnesty International and other human rights groups confirmed that security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had been “shooting to kill,” and in some cases were firing into crowds from rooftops.
As with virtually all anti-regime protests in Iran, the country’s leading opposition group played a major role. As well as operating “resistance units” to facilitate public demonstrations, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) maintains an active network inside Iran. This network closely tracked reports of fatal encounters between protesters and regime authorities during the November uprising.
On December 15, 2019, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) released its first statement clarifying the overall death toll from the prior month’s crackdowns. It found that 1,500 people had been killed, while others remain at risk of death from the effects of the regime’s repression. Many of the thousands of arrests in November were carried out in hospitals, where wounded protesters were prevented from receiving full treatment.
Knowing this, many participants declined to even seek treatment after weighing the risk of experiencing severe infection at home against the risk of experiencing it in the harsh and unsanitary conditions of an Iranian prison. The abuse of inmates is rampant in those facilities and authorities have a well-established reputation for using the denial of medical treatment as a form of pressure or simply as a means of extrajudicial punishment.
Yet in the seven months, since the uprising was suppressed, Iranian authorities have made every effort to downplay and discredit the opposition’s account.
For most of that time, these efforts consisted of plain denials, without any contrary details. Tehran not only rejected the NCRI’s death toll estimates out of hand, it also rejected the more modest estimates provided by international human rights groups. State media offered no explanations as to how these figures could be disproven but instead focused on dismissing them as part of an effort to undermine public confidence in the government – the same government that had been the target of two popular appeals for regime change.
On Saturday, May 31, 2020, the regime finally sought to attach some specificity to its denials. Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli declared that only 200 protesters had died. This was lower than any independent estimate had determined, and Rahmani-Fazli pushed things even further into the realms of implausibility when he added that nearly a quarter of all fatalities had been caused by weapons that are not standard issue for Iranian security forces.
The clear implication was that the protesters had somehow been shot dead by their own fellow activists. Hiding under the surface of that remark were the same tired narratives that Tehran has long used to smear the opposition as “terrorists.” Those smears only became more important to the regime’s hold on power in the face of the November uprising. Since then, regime officials have been uncharacteristically transparent about their view that the MEK presents them with their greatest threat.
Last month, Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a speech to student members of the Basij civilian militia in which he urged them to make their presence known at future campus protests and to try to get in the way of any dissent against the system as a whole. In the video conference, Khamenei identified the MEK as “those who do not accept the foundations of the revolution,” namely the concept of the velayat-e faqih, or absolute clerical rule. He also made it clear that the organized opposition would take the helm of protests in the days to come unless security forces and the Basij “deal with them explicitly and strongly.”
There is no sensible interpretation for these words other than that Iranian regime’s leadership is setting the stage for even greater crackdowns on dissent, should there be something like another nationwide uprising. At the same time, hardline voices like the Asra think tank have warned those same authorities that such an uprising is practically inevitable in the wake of devastating coronavirus outbreaks and a range of other crises such as the public backlash against the downing of a commercial airliner in January.
Even the most casual advocates for human rights should be deeply concerned about the prospect of stepped-up attacks on the Iranian people by the regime. November’s 1,500-person death toll strongly underscores the danger of further escalation. However, this carnage is far from the worst example of Iranian regime’s crimes against humanity. In the summer of 1988 alone, the regime executed over 30,000 political prisoners, following a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini.
The primary targets of that massacre were members and affiliates of the MEK. In the light of this precedent and with that organization’s name very much on the lips of Iranian authorities in the wake of the November uprising, the consequences could be devastating if the international community remains silent about Tehran’s recent and ongoing crimes.
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)