This week, the National Council of Resistance of Iran reiterated its call for an international “fact-finding commission” to investigate the condition of Iranian prisons and interview the persons who are detained there on political grounds. The latest appeals carried a marginally greater sense of urgency on account of the fact that they were responding to new reports of growth in the population of Iranian prisoners of conscience.
The NCRI specified that multiple police raids had taken place on November 11, targeting known activists and individuals who had previously been detained in connection with recent civilian unrest in the country. Three of them, Saeed Asghari, Saeed Samimi, and Kasra Bani-Ameriyan had each been interrogated over the course of two months, from March to May of 2018, before being released on bond. Their re-arrest this month was, by all accounts, arbitrary, coming in absence of prior summons or the presentation of a legal warrant.
The initial March 2018 arrests coincided with a series of potentially transformative developments in Iranian affairs. At the time, the regime was still reeling from a nationwide uprising that spanned most of that January and encompassed more than 100 cities and towns. Those broadly coordinated protests were disrupted following the deaths of approximately 60 activists, but not before regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took the surprising move of acknowledging that the unrest had been largely planned and facilitated by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
This effort was not confined to the borders of Iran. Khamenei’s acknowledgment of the MEK’s role made it virtually necessary for his regime to confront that organization directly, and this in turn prompted authorities to target its foreign bases of support. At the same time as the regime was beginning months-long interrogations of domestic political prisoners, it was also planning for terrorist attacks against Iranian Resistance activists on European soil. Fortunately, though, these attacks did not come to fruition, with one being disrupted in Albania in March 2018 and another in France the following June.
Though unsuccessful, the significance of these plots cannot easily be overstated. Had it not been disrupted through the combined efforts of multiple European law enforcement bodies, the French plot would have seen a powerful explosive device detonated in the midst of a gathering of Iranian expatriates and political dignitaries from throughout the world. The blast itself would have almost certainly killed hundreds while ensuing panic within the densely populated venue would have likely caused further casualties to mount.
The potential loss of life is a symbol of the Iranian regime’s contempt for human rights, and this should have implications for the international response to recent reports of new politically-motivated arrests inside Iran. At the same time, Tehran’s willingness to court such a response is indicative of a certain panic that set in among the regime’s leadership following Khamenei’s acknowledgment of a serious domestic challenge stemming from the activities of MEK “Resistance units.”
This panic proliferated in November 2019 when another popular uprising made it clear that attacks on protests, interrogation of political detainees, and threats against foreign supporters had done little to impede the progress of the pro-democracy activist movement. In the middle of that month, Iranians from all walks of life reacted with fury to the announcement of a sudden increase in gasoline prices, which the public regarded as a symbol of the regime’s disregard for their worsening economic hardship. The resulting uprising was even larger than its predecessor, encompassing at least 191 cities and towns and featuring all of the same far-reaching condemnations of the theocratic regime as had defined the January 2018 uprising.
The second uprising followed a variety of statements from Khamenei and other regime officials which affirmed their need to worry about the growing influence of the MEK. Once it was confirmed that those worries were justified, the regime reacted with an outpouring of political violence that dwarfed previous crackdowns stretching back more than 30 years. In a matter of only several days, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps oversaw the shooting deaths of 1,500 peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders. About 4,000 others were wounded, and 12,000 were arrested, many of whom went on to face charges that could carry the death penalty.
Unfortunately for the regime, even this failed to turn the tide of popular revolt. Just two months later, university students and other activists gathered in more than a dozen provinces to memorialize the victims of an IRGC missile strike that killed 176 people onboard a commercial airliner, and to condemn the very nature of the regime that had attempted to cover this up.
The January 2020 protests were the last that could be rightly described as having a truly national scope. But given what the activist community had previously overcome, it is likely that equally, far-reaching unrest would have emerged at some other time over the past year if Iran had not been suffering from the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East during that time.
In any event, the January uprising also illustrates the power of mourning as an organizing principle for Iranian protests, and this appears to be a driving force behind the latest wave of politically-motivated arrests. The raids on November 11 coincided exactly with the anniversary of last year’s uprising, as well as with other repressive measures like the closure of cemeteries in which some of the martyrs to those uprisings are buried. The mullahs were evidently worried that the anniversary would be the latest spark for widespread unrest, and they had good reason to be.
Although cemeteries were largely off-limits, many Iranian activists still found ways to gather and commemorate the dead. It practically goes without saying that many of those gatherings will lead to planning for how to continue pursuing the cause for which 1,500 people died in last November alone. Meanwhile, gatherings and online conferences among Iranian expatriates worked to bring greater international attention to the massacre on its one-year anniversary, in hopes that world powers might help set the stage for an uprising that is defined more by its pro-democracy message than by the regime’s backlash.
Western policymakers might be surprised by just how much they can contribute to this outcome simply by pushing for an international investigation into recent and ongoing detention of political prisoners, and mistreatment of the same. When Tehran finds itself under serious scrutiny over its human rights abuses, it will feel far less free to escalate those abuses. And since restraint is not a common feature of the theocratic regime, it is something that the Iranian Resistance will be able to exploit when repeating its demand of freedom and democracy for all citizens.