The Iranian regime set the stage for the start of a new era this month with a sham presidential election that served to install the candidate who had been hand-selected by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ebrahim Raisi‘s era will be marked by even worse domestic repression and foreign terrorism than has defined the mullahs’ regime in recent years.
The international community now has several weeks to prepare its response to this development before Raisi formally inherits the presidency from Hassan Rouhani in August. Some policymakers in the United States and Europe already have a clear sense of how Raisi should be received as the regime’s new representative on the world stage. But others may need to reevaluate their preferences regarding Iran policy, to determine whether the status quo can be maintained even when dealing with someone who is considered to be responsible for rampant human rights abuses and full-scale crimes against humanity.
Fortunately for those lawmakers who are currently uncertain about the best way forward, the entire world will have an opportunity next month to hear expert opinions and input from persons directly affected by the Iranian regime’s choices of leadership. Between July 10 and 12, the organizers of the Free Iran Summit will host its annual mass gathering of Iranian expatriates and political supporters, and reactions to Raisi’s “election” are sure to take center stage for much of the event.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) June 30, 2021
As with last year’s event, the Free Iran World Summit will be held primarily online. But it will be comprised of in-person gatherings in a number of countries with substantial Iranian expatriate populations and will feature live speeches from a politically diverse array of American and European policy experts, human rights activists, and others.
Tehran tried to plot a bomb against the 2018 summit in June 2018. Fortunately, the terror plot was thwarted and served to reveal the regime’s desperation and vulnerability in the face of the Resistance movement. The 2018 bomb plot was evidently motivated in large part by the MEK’s success in playing a leading role during an anti-government protest that spanned more than 100 localities and lasted from late December 2017 through mid-January 2018.
The 2018 uprising was significant not only for its scale but also for its slogans which comprised calls for the ouster of all leading figures of the regime including the supreme leader and expressed condemnation for both factions within the regime and the entire underlying system. This messaging made it impossible for regime authorities to explain away the unrest as being focused on specific economic indicators or other issues, and so at the height of the uprising Khamenei delivered a speech in which he acknowledged the MEK’s role and spoke of its months of high-level organizing within communities of every stripe.
Since then, Tehran has never ceased to convey warnings about the MEK’s influence. In fact, those warnings intensified in the face of countless loosely connected protests inspired by the 2018 uprising, and especially in the face of another nationwide protest in November 2019, this one spanning nearly 200 cities and towns. The second uprising spawned a tremendous upsurge in domestic repression and thus reaffirmed the preexisting brutal legacy of Ebrahim Raisi, who by then had taken over leadership of the regime’s judiciary. Within days of unrest breaking out, 1,500 people lay dead and 12,000 had been jailed. Torture of those arrestees would continue to be reported for months afterward.
The regime’s anxiety over MEK influence persisted throughout 2020, during which the uncontrolled coronavirus pandemic kept most mass gatherings in check but also gave the general population even more cause to express outrage with the corrupt and self-serving regime that ignored that crisis in favor of continuing to spend national wealth on support for militant proxies and provocative advancements to the nuclear program. Furthermore, right around the time when Tehran first acknowledged the community spread of Covid-19, the Iranian people inflamed Tehran’s anxiety in a different way, by participating in a boycott of the country’s February 2020 parliamentary election.
This rejection of the regime’s legitimacy was repeated just this month in the context of the sham presidential election. Voter turnout in each case was the lowest in history for that type of election, and the MEK, through its vast internal network, has concluded that less than ten percent of eligible voters took part in the presidential election. The more recent boycott was preceded by the return of widespread protests and clashes with security forces, thereby making it clear that the Iranian people and the organized Resistance movement were not about to be cowed by the regime’s brutal response to the previous uprisings or the threat of worse repression under a Raisi administration.
As a matter of fact, NCRI Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mohammad Mohaddessin predicted in May that a successful boycott of the presidential election would set the stage for a nationwide uprising that is “much more intense and widespread than in previous years.” This message will no doubt be reiterated at the Free Iran World Summit, participants pointing to the recent progress of the Resistance movement and the apparent desperation of the regime itself as evidence that there are greater prospects for regime change during the Raisi era than at any time in recent Iranian history.
Western powers and the entire international community should listen carefully to all arguments to that effect. They should resolve to do everything in their power to facilitate that outcome.
By dealing normally with the regime, the international community would almost certainly have to brush aside reports of worsening human rights abuses under Raisi’s leadership. This is a sufficiently troubling prospect. But it is positively unthinkable for major world powers to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses when a simple change of policy could effectively empower the Iranian people to throw off their dictatorship and secure freedom and democracy in their homeland once and for all.