Last week, a member of the Iranian regime’s parliament acknowledged some facts, when speaking to state media about Iran’s adventurism in Syria. Heshmatullah Falahatpisheh estimated that the regime’s spending on its support of Bashar al-Assad had reached 30 billion dollars before the beginning of last year.
That spending has continued since then, taking the form of direct aid to the Assad regime as well as the support of a sprawling network of militant proxies scattered around Syria.
Similar networks benefit from Tehran’s largesse in Iraq, although they are gradually losing ground to civilian protests calling for the removal of the Iranian regime’s interest. For the time being, though, this unrest has only driven the regime toward more desperate measures to maintain its footholds in the surrounding region. When the Iraqi protests erupted last year, it was the regime’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) that took the lead in suppressing peaceful activism. Those operations provided a sort of practice run for the tactics the IRGC would use inside Iran just weeks later.
In November 2019, the Iranian regime experienced its second-largest nationwide uprising in years. The previous incident, in January 2018, popularized stark anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator.” These re-emerged on an even grander scale after regime authorities announced a plan to increase gasoline prices, thus adding to the hardships of a people who have already suffered from many years of economic mismanagement. And while the first uprising was brutally suppressed, the regime responded to the second with something like blind panic.
Activists from the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) quickly set to work identifying the victims in the wake of the November protests. They ultimately listed approximately 1,500 people who were shot dead by security forces and the IRGC over a two-week period. This doesn’t even account for those who might have died since then, whether under torturous interrogation or on account of infections from wounds that were left untreated while they languished in jail. Participants in the November uprising are still being prosecuted for their peaceful activism, and some have been sentenced to death.
Each of the uprisings also inspired mass arrests of known activists and anyone deemed to be a threat to the theocratic system. Now, roughly six months later, the regime appears to be employing the same tactics again. In this case, though, they are doing so in anticipation of a new uprising that many suspects to be looming, rather than in response to one that has already taken place. In a speech last week, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned the regime’s supporters, particularly members of the Basij militia, to be on guard against this prospect.
Khamenei’s remarks urged Basijis to be on the lookout for campus demonstrations at Iranian universities. Taking care not to acknowledge the extent of public antipathy toward the clerical regime, he suggested that protests could still be controlled so as not to appear as attacks on the system itself. Of course, this seems highly optimistic on Khamenei’s part, given the sentiment that has already been unleashed with the previous two uprisings. It is all the more optimistic in light of Iranian regime authorities’ clear awareness of the growing challenges they face from a frustrated, impoverished, and now pandemic-ravaged population.
Khamenei himself seemed to acknowledge some of those challenges in his speech to Basij students. A substantial portion of his remarks was focused on the People’s Mojahedin Organization, which he described as having long rejected “the foundations of the revolution,” namely the system of absolute rule by clerical authorities. But this rejection of theocracy in favor of democratic governance is the very thing that makes the MEK’s platform representative of the Iranian people’s hopes for the future. And the mere mention of that organization in last week’s speech was indicative of its growing popular embrace.
In acknowledging the MEK’S recent prevalence, Tehran has essentially undone more than 30 years of propaganda dismissing the group as an insignificant cult that had largely been destroyed in a massacre of political prisoners in 1988.
Despite comprising the overwhelming majority of that massacre’s 30,000 victims, the PMOI quickly rebounded and has grown steadily ever since. Now, as well as playing a leading role in anti-regime protests, the group regularly helps to expose those details of the regime rule which drives the growing popular demand for regime change.
Over the past few months, this work has focused on quantifying Tehran’s mismanagement and disinformation about the coronavirus outbreak. Whereas regime authorities claim that the death toll is just over 7,000, the PMOI’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, now estimates that the true number is more than 44,800. And in reporting this figure, the Resistance has made a point of underscoring how much different the situation would be today, if not for Tehran’s grossly misplaced priorities.
The PMOI and NCRI have called attention to the hundreds of billions of dollars in assets that are available to the regime in the form of Shiite religious foundations and the private holdings of the Revolutionary Guards’ various front companies, including its construction conglomerate Khatam al-Anbia. These assets remain untapped despite the fact that the IRGC was given broad authority over the coronavirus response – an authority it has exploited to consolidate its control over Iranian civil society.
At the same time, IRGC-led activities beyond Iran’s borders continue to eat up vast quantities of the regime’s wealth, as Falahatpisheh confirmed last week. What’s more, his estimate of 30 billion dollars in expenditures is considered modest by the NCRI, which points to such factors as the transfer of underpriced or free Iranian oil to Syria as further evidence of Tehran’s regional force projection coming at the expense of the Iranian people.
The price tag from these expensive foreign projects goes hand in hand with the price tag for crackdowns on an increasingly restless domestic population. This is large because the same institution, the IRGC, is the leading driver of both phenomena. And the hardline paramilitary has actually seen its share of the national budget increase in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. That fact alone is proof of the regime’s compulsion to place suppression of groups like the PMOI well ahead of the vital needs of the Iranian people.
The NCRI recently reported on a new wave of arrests and interrogations, which are focused on obtaining information about the PMOI and its relationship to individual activists. In response, the coalition’s leader Maryam Rajavi explicitly called on the United Nations, its Human Rights Commission, and various human rights organizations to investigate Iranian prisons and be on the watch for escalation in the crackdown on dissent. Western policymakers should echo this call, and they should also keep up the pressure for Iran to halt its adventurism in the surrounding region. As they well know, the Iranian people’s welfare is equally dependent on both outcomes.