The theocratic regime in Iran has faced a virtually unprecedented challenge from the Iranian people in recent years. In January 2018, more than 100 cities and towns became involved in a series of protests that initially focused on economic issues but then expanded to include chants of “death to the dictator” and calls for regime change. In November 2019, this same message encompassed nearly 200 localities with another nationwide uprising, and the regime officials opened fire on crowds, killing over 1,500 people.
Even this did not bring an end to the unrest, however. Iranians were back out in the streets across more than a dozen provinces the following January, protesting the very institution that had led the way with those killings, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). The coronavirus pandemic finally prompted a downturn in public unrest, but although Iran is still suffering from some of the worst outbreaks in the world, the activist community’s patience appears to be at an end.
Protests have been essentially a constant feature of Iranian society since the mullahs’ regime held a sham election to confirm its next president on June 18. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian people boycotted that election in order to condemn the process itself, as well as the legacy of the pre-selected candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. In the summer of 1988, he played a leading role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, and much more recently he led the judiciary both before and after the 2019 uprising and oversaw its systematic torture of pro-democracy activists, which lasted for months after the fact.
Public awareness of these incidents was no doubt a major driving force behind the boycott, and it no doubt remains a driving force behind ongoing protests, even though many of these were sparked by specific issues like water shortages in Khuzestan Province.
In one of three speeches during the three-day “Free Iran” event, the Iranian opposition leader, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi said that with Raisi’s inauguration, Iran would enter a “new era” defined by an unprecedented increase in “hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and Iranian society.” That inauguration was carried out on Thursday with the unfortunate presence of a European delegation that helped to legitimize Raisi in spite of his having been thoroughly rejected by the Iranian people themselves. This move was at odds and undermined the European Union’s commitment to international human rights principles, and it also raises vital questions about what Western powers might do in the face of the predicted increase in oppression in Iran.
The first day of Free #Iran World Summit 10 July 2021 The clerical regime faces the impasse of impending overthrow; the democratic alternative marches on towards victory. #FreeIran2021pic.twitter.com/Vyk2sE6hou
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) July 12, 2021
Participants in the Free Iran World Summit, including prominent lawmakers and foreign policy experts from across Europe and North America, have offered some suggestions for the right course of action. Many emphasized the value of a formal investigation into the 1988 massacre, citing it as something that would signal an end to the impunity Tehran has long enjoyed in matters related to human rights. Amnesty International issued a very similar call to action in the immediate aftermath of Raisi’s sham election and also on the date of his inauguration.
“The international community, including the EU, which is sending Enrique Mora to Raisi’s inauguration, must publicly demonstrate its commitment to fight against systematic impunity in Iran for extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture,” Amnesty said in its more recent statement.
Notably, the main targets of those crackdowns were the same, namely the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
No less an authority than Khamenei himself acknowledged that the MEK was a driving force behind both of the recent uprisings. Its “Resistance Units” also played a key role in promoting the boycott of Raisi’s election, even presenting it to the public as a means to “vote for regime change.”
These advancements by the Resistance movement represent a key reason why Khamenei put forth Raisi as the only candidate in the June 18 sham election. His history of human rights abuses made him a prime candidate to oversee the Iranian government’s own contributions to the increase in “hostility and enmity” predicted by Mrs. Rajavi. The regime presumably anticipated that by leaning into this strategy, it would draw harsh criticism from the likes of Amnesty International. But it probably also anticipated that in lieu of joining in that criticism, the EU would send representatives to Raisi’s inauguration and turn a blind eye to his past crimes, as it has generally done for more than 30 years.
It is not too late for the EU or the international community as a whole to prove Khamenei wrong in this assumption. It is not too late to call for a formal investigation into the 1988 massacre or to impose Magnitsky sanctions on Raisi in the interest of making it clear that consequences still loom for such crimes against humanity. Neither is it too late to the Iranian people’s efforts to remove the repressive regime in favor of democratic rule and civil freedoms.
As it stands, the Iranian regime appears certain that the only major threats to its rule are coming from inside Iranian society. Although such threats have grown much more severe in recent years, the regime also aims that by handing the top leadership positions to its worst human rights abusers, it can suppress dissent effectively enough to maintain its grip on power.
Tehran cannot so effectively weather threats to its power when they come simultaneously from the domestic population and the international community. The former category of challenges involves direct conflict, but the latter category need not do the same. It is sufficient for Western powers to isolate the clerical regime and pursue legal accountability for its worst criminals, thereby further weakening an already vulnerable system while also leaving the real work of regime change to the Iranian people themselves.