In November 2019, Iran was rocked by a popular uprising that spanned at least 191 cities and reiterated previous, powerful demands for regime change. On the anniversary of that uprising, the Iranian Resistance held a virtual conference for the purpose of highlighting its impact, commemorating those who died in the unrest, and discussing the ways in which the international community might best respond to the still-unfolding situation.
On the Anniversary of the November Uprising
#Iran Youth for Regime Change with Resistance Units
Time to Prosecute Regime Leaders for Crimes Against Humanity
November 10, 2020 16:00 CET
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) November 10, 2020
Last year’s uprising was essentially the peak of a movement that lasted more than two years and is still ongoing. In December 2017, an economic protest in the city of Mashhad sparked similar demonstrations in other cities, and by January 2018, the nationwide protest movement was aimed to ouster the regime. Chants of “death to the dictator” and “death to Rouhani” condemned both the “hardline” and “reformist” factions of the regime and left little question about the population’s desire for democracy and freedom.
The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged that the protests had been largely organized and directed by the leading democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The MEK, for four decades has led the struggle for regime change and freedom.
Widespread support for regime change was reaffirmed even after the January 2018 uprising was largely forced back underground following dozens of killings and thousands of arrests. In the wake of that repression, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the opposition president, urged the Iranians to push back by turning the entire calendar year into a “year full of uprisings.” Scattered protests and labor strikes soon indicated that the public was heeding this call, especially when those demonstrations proved to feature the same slogans as had defined the nationwide uprising.
The year of uprisings helped to keep those slogans in circulation well into 2019. And this in turn set the stage for the November uprising, which took place on a much larger scale than its predecessor. As well as encompassing at least 50 more localities than the 2018 uprising, last November’s unrest featured extraordinary demographic diversity, with many participants coming from poor rural communities that had long been portrayed by mullahs to be strongholds of support for the theocratic system.
Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian lawmaker, and presidential candidate, expressly highlighted this point in last Tuesday’s virtual conference. “The social classes who are thought in the West to be the legitimizing backdrop support of the Iranian regime were precisely the ones chanting in the streets against Khomeini and Rouhani as they were being killed by the regime’s suppressive forces,” she said.
The regime’s violent response to the protests is as significant as the composition of the protests themselves. Together, these two factors leave the international community with little to no reason for the sort of tepid response that they have given to Iran’s domestic unrest so far. Those in favor of the appeasement policy have argued that the clerical regime maintained too secure a hold on power for any mere political intervention to pay dividends. Alternatively, they have downplayed the consequences of the unrest for the Iranian people, in order to argue that it was purely a domestic matter, from which the West should steer clear.
Both of these arguments have always lacked credibility, but they were positively blown up in the aftermath of the November 2019 uprising. The demographic diversity and the MEK’s leadership of the protests made it abundantly clear that the uprising represented a serious challenge to the current regime’s hold on power. And that conclusion has been reaffirmed many times over the past years by internal communications and state media interviews in which regime authorities warn about the growing power and influence of the organized Resistance movement.
Those authorities’ anxiety was reflected during and after the November uprising, in what was arguably some of the worst political violence the country has seen since the 1980s. Whereas the death toll from the January 2018 uprising apparently maxed out at 60, this benchmark was surpassed in a matter of only hours in November 2019. According to frontline reports from the MEK, over 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps during last year’s single week of nationwide unrest.
About 12,000 other protesters were arrested during that time, and most were subjected to torture for the sake of securing false criminal confessions or simply conveying a warning to anyone who would participate in another uprising against the clerical regime. But questions were raised almost immediately about the effectiveness of those warnings, when thousands of Iranians, mostly student activists, poured into the streets for additional protests spanning more than a dozen provinces, just two months after the November crackdown.
Participants in Tuesday’s conference made a point of reiterating those questions, as well as offering their own answers. They universally agreed that widespread unrest would recur in defiance of anything the regime could throw at it. Mrs. Rajavi said that public demonstrations will “carry on until the mullahs’ religious dictatorship is overthrown.” The scale and context of last year’s uprising are testaments to what Mrs. Rajavi said.
It seems increasingly inevitable that conflict between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime will carry on, and accelerate, for the foreseeable future. In that case, the international community will ultimately have to decide whether to stand on the sidelines or to intervene with expanded economic sanctions and greater diplomatic isolation. But they should understand that under the circumstances, inaction is tantamount to siding with the Iranian regime.
The choice, therefore, is between standing behind a popular movement for freedom and democracy or defending religious fascism that killed 1,500 people in one week’s time. That choice should be the easiest one any democratic nation ever has to make.