In the final days of 2017, protests against worsening economic conditions gave rise to a nationwide uprising, which featured provocative anti-government slogans and explicit calls for regime change. In the midst of that uprising, the regime’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, delivered a speech that attributed this messaging to the social influence and growing organizational strength of the MEK.
Several dozen peaceful protesters were killed over the course of January 2018, and several political prisoners have since been executed for taking part in this and subsequent anti-government protests that same year. Tehran’s fear of the uprising also led to the regime targeting foreign affiliates of the MEK and utilizing a terrorist network within Iranian embassies toward that end. In July 2018, a high-ranking Iranian diplomat was arrested by German authorities after being identified as the mastermind of a foiled plot to bomb the annual gathering of Iranian expatriates organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The latest crackdown on dissent inside Iran is an extension of all these activities, but it is also a response to their repeated failure. This defiance took on new dimensions in November 2019 when the regime’s announcement of a spike in gas prices turned out to be the spark for an even larger nationwide uprising.
For just over a week in the middle of that month, furious protests took place in nearly 200 cities and towns, featuring many of the same slogans as had defined the previous uprising. The second protest movement would have surely lasted longer than the first, if not for the fact that it immediately met with what may have been the worst political repression Iran has seen in more than 30 years.
Unsurprisingly, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took the lead in that repression, firing live ammunition into crowds and recognizably shooting to kill. The NCRI released reports indicating that 1,500 people had been killed across a number of cities, while 4,000 more had been wounded and 12,000 arrested. Since then, it has been revealed that a number of those arrestees are facing the death penalty, while all those who are still behind bars are at serious risk of torture, Covid-19 infection, and medical neglect.
The death toll from last November’s IRGC shooting incidents pales in comparison to the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, but 1,500 is a shocking number of civilian casualties by any objective standard. In fact, supporters of the Iranian Resistance have expressed concern that Tehran may have gauged the international response to last year’s killings in order to determine whether it can expect to get away with further killings, which might push the death toll closer to the record set in 1988. And if this is the case, it must be acknowledged that the international community has so far given the regime little incentive to change course and spare the lives of political dissidents.
On November 11 alone, agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry conducted raids on the homes of several activists and former political prisoners, including Saeed Asghari, Saeed Samimi, and Kasra Bani-Ameriyan. Those three individuals had all previously been detained in March 2018, when the regime was still reeling from the effects of the initial uprising. They had all been subjected to two months of interrogation before being released on bond, and their re-arrest does not appear to be based on anything other than a desire to exert more pressure on those whom the regime fears may still make trouble or contribute to unrest.
It is probably no coincidence that the raids in question coincided very closely with the anniversary of the November 2019 uprising. The Iranian Resistance has made strong efforts to commemorate that anniversary over the past two weeks and to memorialize the 1,500 victims of the IRGC’s reprisals. But when they have tried to do so in public spaces inside Iran, their efforts were obstructed by regime authorities, who even went so far as to close cemeteries where some of the victims were interred. Such actions betray the regime’s awareness of the symbolic significance of the anniversary, as well as the underlying danger that unrest could resume at any time.
Regime officials have acknowledged that danger themselves, sometimes identifying the MEK by name in its warnings about the explosive state of Iranian society. It is therefore little surprise that figures like Alireza Salar and Seyyed Reza Zargar have recently been arrested. Both of these individuals had loved ones who were members of the MEK in the 1980s before they were executed on political grounds. In reopening these wounds, the regime seems to be signaling that it fears the November anniversary will shine a light on simmering outrage not just over last year’s killings but also over the entire history of repression by the regime.
Naturally, Tehran’s reaction to the anniversary puts countless activists at risk. But if that risk can be mitigated, the potential for another uprising could present the regime with its greatest challenge yet. Western powers could help to realize that challenge, and all they would need to do is uphold their own commitments to universal human rights.
Toward that end, the NCRI issued a statement in response to recent arrests, in which it urged “the United Nations Secretary-General, the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteurs, and all human rights organizations to take urgent action to secure the release of political prisoners” and to establish “an international fact-finding commission to visit Iran’s prisons and meet with prisoners, especially political prisoners.”