If you have been paying attention to the situation in Iran over the past few years, you should be aware of a protest movement that has prompted at least two recent, nationwide crackdowns. If you have been paying attention to the situation since the years following the 1979 revolution, you should also be aware of the fact that the current movement is directly descended from the earliest organized efforts to unseat the theocratic dictatorship.
The NCRI’s President-elect Maryam Rajavi highlighted this connection last Saturday in an online video conference through Zoom, attended by individuals and groups from 2000 different locations throughout the world, with more than 100,000 have viewed the event. She pointed to nationwide protests that “erupted in 900 locations throughout Iran in less than 48 hours” last November and noted that they were “of the same character and essence” as a major street protest in 1981, during which roughly half a million Iranians marched toward the nation’s parliament building to express their support for the democratic vision of post-revolutionary Iran laid out by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
The protests of last year and 39 years ago are similar in terms of their sheer scale, and in terms of the driving force behind them. Despite concerted efforts by the regime to destroy the leading opposition group, the MEK remains at the forefront of pro-democratic activism to this day, forming the core of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The NCRI international support was prominent in Saturday’s teleconference as well, with several Western policymakers delivering remarks that urged their governments to offer formal support to the NCRI and the concept of popular domestic opposition to Iran’s clerical regime.
That opposition has existed on a grand scale throughout Iran’s post-revolutionary history. It has persisted even at times when the international community was generally silent about the simmering conflict between Iran’s clerical regime and its democratically-inclined population. This was the situation in 1981, and yet the opposition mustered such a vast outpouring of domestic support that the regime resorted to a brutal crackdown in response.
June 20 is now commemorated as the Day of Martyrs and Political Prisoners, as it was on that day in 1981 that hundreds of protesters were shot dead in Tehran, marking the start of a concerted effort to stamp out the MEK, its affiliates, and its allies. The repressive trend culminated in 1988 with a months-long massacre of political prisoners. With its focus especially trained on the MEK, the regime killed an estimated 30,000 political prisoners during that time, but the opposition survived, recovered, and continues to flourish today.
In Saturday’s teleconference, many participants expressed great confidence that mainstream recognition for the MEK and NCRI would be the very thing that pushed current trends in the regime over the edge, resulting in regime change.
But it is important to note that, that confidence generally stems from the awareness of the inroads that the Iranian Resistance has already carved for itself throughout Iranian society. The November uprising was clear evidence of this progress, especially considering that it sprang up on a national scale less than two years after a previous uprising that brought public support for regime change out into the open.
Both uprisings were characterized by slogans like “death to the dictator,” and both prompted a harsh response from nervous clerical authorities. The January 2018 uprising resulted in the deaths of several dozen protesters, but the death toll in November 2019 reached a staggering 1,500. Even so, the backlash doesn’t appear to have deterred public activism. In January of this year, students and other Iranian protesters flooded the streets across multiple provinces once again to condemn the regime’s attempted cover-up of a missile strike that crashed a commercial jet killing all 176 people on board.
And although a wildly uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak has kept activism somewhat contained since then, regime authorities have been openly warning one another of the prospect for new uprisings that rival the scope and intensity of the previous uprisings. Even the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed this sentiment in a speech last month, which warned student members of the Basij militia to be on guard against further student protests and to oppose the inevitable influence of the MEK and its message of regime change.
In the past 40 years, the regime has resorted to an unprecedented crackdown, to suppress the opposition. But ever since the 1981 uprising, they have consistently failed to bring the opposition movement under control. There is no indication that their latest crackdowns will bring them any closer to countering the popular appeal of advocates for regime change. Indeed, the regime in Tehran is engulfed in deadly crises, while the MEK receives more support from the new generation of Iranians who are enthusiastically looking for regime change.