Since the start of 2018, public discussion in Iran has been turning toward the prospect of regime change. Ordinary citizens, backed by an organized Resistance movement, have staged numerous demonstrations calling for just that. Meanwhile, government officials have acknowledged the challenge to their hold on power and have triggered some of the worst crackdowns on dissent in recent Iranian history, with varying levels of success.
These phenomena began when economic protests, already underway at the end of 2017, began spreading to dozens of localities while also taking on a broader and more political message. By mid-January 2018, these had turned into a full-fledged anti-government uprising featuring slogans like “death to the dictator” and explicit condemnations of both the “hardline” and the “reformist” faction of Iranian politics. This wholesale rejection of the ruling system led the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to begrudgingly admit that the unrest had been facilitated in large part by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
That pro-democracy Resistance group has long been recognized by Iranian activists, expatriates, and their political supporters throughout the world as the foundation for a viable alternative to the existing theocratic regime. The MEK is the main constituent of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. In the years prior to the pandemic, the NCRI hosted an annual expatriate gathering in Europe, which explicitly endorsed the cause of regime change while also highlighting plans for establishing a transitional government modeled on the 10-point plan authored by NCRI President-elect Mrs. Maryam Rajavi.
That plan calls for free and fair elections, separation of religion from the state, legal safeguards on the rights of women and minorities, and abandonment of the current regime’s nuclear ambitions and belligerent regional strategies. Unsurprisingly, it has therefore been embraced by American and European policymakers from all major political parties. Their support has been evident from their presence in the annual expatriate gatherings, but the more important role of those same gatherings has arguably been as an outlet for messages from activists inside Iran.
Those messages made it clear, long before January 2018, that Iran was on pace for a major showdown between its citizens and the regime. And after the initial uprising was gradually suppressed by the regime, it soon became clear that there would be more than one such showdown. By the end of that month, several dozen peaceful protesters had been killed, with a number of them have succumbed to the effects of torture.
Although these demonstrations remained more or less isolated from one another, they helped to set the stage for another nationwide uprising in November 2019, this one even larger than its predecessor. Residents of nearly 200 cities and towns took part in that movement, which erupted spontaneously in the wake of regime authorities announcing a hike in gasoline prices at a time of accelerating economic collapse. Once again, participants called for the ouster of the “dictator” Khamenei, as well as his supposedly more moderate counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani.
Addressing both of those figures and their associated factions, protesters chanted “the game is over” to indicate that they reject the notion that any part of the regime’s establishment could be both willing and able to provide a solution to the problems that are proliferating throughout Iranian society. The clear implication of both uprisings – as well as a slew of smaller demonstrations – is that that solution must come from outside of the ruling system. And there is simply no better-established structure for that alternative than the NCRI.
Tehran has done everything in its power to push back against that message. About two months after the January 2018 uprising, Iranian operatives were caught attempting to bomb the MEK’s New Year gathering in Albania. Three months after that, an Iranian diplomat was identified as the mastermind of a similar terror plot against the NCRI gathering just outside Paris. He and three co-conspirators were eventually prosecuted in Belgium and were sentenced to between 15 and 20 years in prison last February.
The failure of these foreign terror plots made domestic crackdown all the more imperative as a means of countering the rise in influence of the MEK’s democratic platform. Thus, when the November 2019 uprising broke out, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps immediately responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters, using live ammunition, and shooting to kill. Within a matter of only days, approximately 1,500 people were killed.
Yet even this was not sufficient pressure to dissuade the population from its open endorsement of regime change or its growing support for the NCRI as a viable alternative to the theocratic dictatorship. After the Revolutionary Guards shot down a commercial airliner near Tehran and the regime attempted to cover it up, Iranians once again took to the streets in more than a dozen provinces in early 2020. Many protesters set their sights on the hardline paramilitary, in particular, even burning images of the recently killed leader of terrorist Quds force, Qassem Soleimani, in spite of the fact that the IRGC had killed their compatriots en masse less than two months earlier.
This resilience strongly implies that the trend of anti-government uprisings would have continued virtually unabated if not for one unforeseeable factor: the global pandemic. Iran was among the countries hit hardest by the novel coronavirus, and so throughout much of 2020 and early 2021, large-scale political organizing became all but impossible. Nevertheless, in March 2021, around the time of the Iranian New Year holiday Nowruz, Mrs. Rajavi observed that the “fire of the uprisings” had not been extinguished but was showing signs of emerging again from under “the ashes of the coronavirus.”
At the time, she was referring in particular to major clashes between citizens and security forces in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, where impoverished fuel porters had faced worsening government interference with their only source of income. But since then, protests have expanded to include not just other regions of the country but also other demographics and causes. Pensioners, farmers, and victims of government-backed investment schemes have all voiced serious economic grievances, but as with the initial uprising in January 2018, these demonstrations are increasingly defined by recognition of the ruling system as the ultimate source of all such problems.
With that in mind, the above-mentioned groups have each explicitly endorsed an electoral boycott that is being actively promoted by the NCRI and the MEK “Resistance units” operating throughout Iranian society. The disaffected citizens have lately been heard to chant in various cities, “We have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.”
The subtext of such slogans is made clearer by the previous three years’ context. The sentiment driving the electoral boycott is much stronger than what prompted Iranians in 2018 and 2019 to tell hardliners and reformists that “the game is over.” Now, by the selection of Ebrahim Raisi, a mass murderer, to become the regime’s next president, more than ever, the people reject the entire system in favor of an independent alternative. And now as then, the one truly viable alternative is the National Council of Resistance of Iran.