At the beginning of October, the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech to leading security officials in which he affirmed that “security is our most important issue.” Khamenei attributed this fixation to the “hard threat of the enemies,” including “enemies within” Iranian society. Since then, warnings about this threat have been repeated ad nauseam by security officials and Iranian state media outlets, leading up to the imminent anniversary of a nationwide uprising that sparked many of the regime’s concerns in the first place.
Around the time of Khamenei’s speech, one provincial commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the paramilitary organization’s conflict “has been transferred from beyond our borders to within our home.” At the end of October, the state media outlet Aftab-e Yazd published an editorial that warned that “millions will have nothing to lose and will resort to violence” unless the national government takes serious action to curb an economic decline that has left more than half of the population in poverty, and about a quarter in extreme poverty on the fringes of society.
The November 2019 uprising encompassed nearly 200 Iranian cities and towns and featured stark anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator” as well as statements rejecting both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of the regime’s political structure. In this sense, the uprising was widely recognized as a direct follow-up to a similar movement in January 2018, which involved more than 100 localities and featured many of the same slogans.
The January 2018 uprising was also distinctive for having prompted the supreme leader to contradict his own regime’s longstanding propaganda regarding a prominent Resistance group that advocates for a democratic alternative to the theocratic dictatorship. In a speech at the height of the earlier uprising, Khamenei acknowledged that the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) had “planned for months” to bring the uprising to fruition. This stood in contrast to years of public statements and state media reports which suggested that the MEK had neither the popular support nor the organizational strength to present such a direct threat to the mullahs’ hold on power.
Almost immediately, Khamenei’s speech prompted warnings from fellow clerics, IRGC officers, and others, regarding the threat of further unrest driven by the growing social influence of the country’s main opposition group. This in turn seemed to spark new repressive efforts, including efforts by the supreme leader himself to consolidate power among those officials to prosecute successful crackdowns on large-scale dissent.
In late 2018, Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi to take over as head of the Iranian judiciary the following year. He had been in that position for several months by the time of the second uprising, at which point he played a major role in the regime’s almost unprecedentedly brutal response. After Khamenei urged authorities to “do whatever it takes” to restore order, the IRGC opened fire on crowds of protesters and the judiciary adopted a strategy of systematic torture aimed at anyone who was arrested in connection with the uprising, or on suspicion of being connected to groups behind it.
Within only days of the November 2019 uprising breaking out, at least 1,500 people were fatally shot. A complete death toll is difficult to ascertain given the absence of records regarding those who might have died under torture or succumbed to their wound later while being held within the harsh conditions of Iranian detention facilities. But details of much of the torture that went on there were published by Amnesty International in September 2020, as part of a report on the crackdown titled Trampling Humanity.
The following April, Amnesty issued a new statement which said that Iran had “increasingly used the death penalty as a weapon of political repression against dissidents, protesters, and members of ethnic minority groups, in violation of international law.” It was only one of many statements, from this ground as well as others, which indicated that the 2019 crackdown was a recurring phenomenon, if not a steadily ongoing one.
Further evidence for that conclusion came in June with Raisi’s appointment to the presidency, which the MEK publicly regarded as a reward for his role in the previous year’s crackdown, as well as in prior human rights abuses including what the Iranian regime’s single worst crime against humanity. Countless Iranians appeared to agree with this sentiment, protesting Raisi’s candidacy by declaring him the “henchman of 1988,” in reference to that year’s massacre of political prisoners which was spearheaded by a “death commission” on which he was one of four members.
Raisi’s “election” was quickly followed by additional protests and labor strikes, and large-scale clashes between protesters and regime authorities were soon registered in provinces such as Sistan and Baluchistan. The MEK and the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have continued tracking such unrest up to the present day, and have found the regime to be noticeably fearful of another nationwide uprising.
Those fears are a direct analog to the assurances offered by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, who commented upon Raisi’s emerging presidency in a July conference by saying that “in the new era, the hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society will intensify more than ever before.”
The NCRI anticipates that the growth in unrest could lead to regime change, but it also recognizes that regime authorities will stop at nothing in its effort to hold onto power, and will potentially outstrip the abuses that were on display in November 2019, or even move toward the scale of devastation that was seen in 1988, when an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were killed over the course of about three months.
With that in mind, Mrs. Rajavi said in the July conference that Raisi’s ascension to the presidency “is the litmus test of whether [the international community] will engage and deal with this genocidal regime or stand with the Iranian people.” The anniversary of the 2019 uprising is another reminder of that test, and will surely be presented to the international community as another opportunity to hold the regime and its officials accountable for historic and ongoing human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.