This weekend, the Iranian expatriates will be holding their annual gathering, the “Free Iran World Summit“. In consideration of the ongoing pandemic, the event will once again be both an in-person rally and an online conference, as it was last year.
Speeches will be broadcast from the sites of expatriate rallies in various different countries, as well as from the offices of high-profile supporters of Iran opposition and advocates for its goal of facilitating regime change and established a democratic alternative to the existing theocratic dictatorship.
Recent progress toward that goal has been remarkably swift. In December 2017, protests broke out all across the country after economic grievances were expressed on a large scale in the country’s second city of Mashhad. By mid-January 2018, the resulting uprising had encompassed well over 100 cities and towns and had assumed a much farther-reaching political message.
The 2018 Iran protests did a great deal to popularize anti-regime slogans. The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged that the leading opposition group, Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), had “planned for months” to bring about the uprising, with help from the global support system provided by expatriate activists and the NCRI.
Tehran’s warnings about an ascendant Resistance movement in Iran continued long after the initial uprising had been driven underground by dozens of killings and thousands of arrests.
By keeping those slogans in popular circulation, MEK’s “Resistance Units” helped to set the stage for yet another uprising in November 2019, this one spanning nearly 200 localities. The recurrence of such far-reaching and social diverse calls for regime change threw the regime into an immediate state of panic. Khamenei directed the regime authorities to restore order by any means necessary, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps promptly responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters, killing approximately 1,500.
Soon thereafter, the activist community began reporting that upwards of 12,000 individuals had been arrested, with many being taken to undisclosed locations before being held for months on end. Many were also subjected to systematic torture with the aim of securing false confessions and implicating other pro-democracy activists in “national security” crimes. All in all, this torture continued well into 2020, as detailed in a report by Amnesty International titled “Trampling Humanity.”
But even these violent reprisals failed to keep the lid on the public expression of dissent. After the IRGC shot down a commercial airliner near Tehran in January 2020, student activists and residents of more than a dozen Iranian provinces once again took to the streets to condemn the entire system that had attempted to cover up that incident before it was exposed by civilian witnesses and foreign intelligence. Once again, the slogans from January 2018 came to define the resulting uprising, and once against the PMOI took center stage in organizing its spread.
The rest of 2020 was comparatively calm, not because of anything that the Iranian regime did to confront the Resistance movement but rather because of what it deliberately refused to protect the civilian population against the Covid-19 outbreak. By imposing new, invisible risks upon all public gatherings, the coronavirus pandemic confined most public expressions of dissent to a relatively small scale. The regime authorities, meanwhile, did very little to provide the population with the sort of support that might have allowed them to apply the same caution to business and commerce.
Indeed, Khamenei declared in March 2020 that the new Iranian calendar year should be considered the “year of boosting production,” which is to say that the regime explicitly prioritized its own wealth over the basic needs of the Iranian people. Khamenei and the IRGC each are wielding personal control over hundreds of billions of dollars in financial assets, through front companies, “religious foundations,” and more.
This situation naturally left the Iranian people with even more grievances against the regime later on, even as it constrained their opportunities to voice those grievances over the short term. Khamenei commented upon the pandemic by referring to it as a “blessing.” Khamenei sees no viable means of holding onto power at this historical moment other than by keeping the overall population off the streets by any means available.
The consequences of this strategy were evident last month in the form of Iran’s sham presidential election, which brought to power one of the regime’s most notorious human rights abusers. In 1988 Ebrahim Raisi played a leading role in what has been called the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and one of the greatest crimes against humanity to take place anywhere during the latter half of the 20th century. As a key figure in the “death commissions” that implemented a fatwa issued by the regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomenei against the MEK, Raisi bears responsibility for many of the 30,000 executions carried out in the summer of that year.
Having recently been rewarded for such political violence with an appointment as judiciary chief, Raisi also oversaw the crackdown on the November 2019 uprising before being set up to run virtually unopposed in the June 18 sham election. Khamenei’s intended purpose was no doubt to set the stage for even worse crackdowns on dissent after Raisi takes over the presidency in August. The ultimate consequence will be the dissolution of the regime, especially if the international community stands alongside the Iranian people.
Tehran acknowledges that the turnout for the sham election was historically low, and the MEK has cited independent journalists and videos of empty polling places to support the conclusion that it was less than ten percent. Signs of promised nationwide uprising began to emerge the following day in the form of protests and labor strikes all across the country, and the message of the prior uprisings has begun to evolve into the even more explicit “down with the dictator.”
The further progress of the Resistance movement will be highlighted for the whole world to see at the Free Iran World Summit between Saturday and Monday, and all democratic nations would be well-advised to pay close attention to what it says about how their policies can shape the future of democracy in the Middle East.