This weekend marked the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz. Iranians ventured into the year 1400 on the Persian calendar, they will be facing considerable threats, but also considerable opportunities. The preceding year has been fraught with numerous hardships including economic collapse, worsening regime repression, and a coronavirus outbreak that is by far worse than any other in the Middle East. Each of these issues will surely persist well into the forthcoming year, but if recent experience is any indicator, they will also help to fuel an ascendant protest movement that poses an ever-greater challenge to the existing theocratic dictatorship.
Public unrest and regime’s reprisals have been caught in a feedback loop for more than two years, but even though the Iranian people have suffered terribly from it, they have also made significant progress in their fight to transform Iran into a truly democratic Republic of Iran.
That effort began in earnest at the end of 2017, with a nationwide uprising that brought stark, anti-regime slogans more fully into the mainstream than ever before. It continued through scattered protests encompassing the entire following year, then reached a new crescendo in November 2019 with an even larger uprising. In the final years leading up to this Iranian New Year, public unrest seemed to be on the rise again, first in the form of mass protests by pensioners and later in the form of clashes between citizens and repressive forces in the border province of Sistan and Baluchistan.
Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the Iranian opposition leader, acknowledged all of this in a recent speech on International Women’s Day. She described an online conference marking that date as taking place “amidst the blazing flames of the blood-drenched uprising of the people of Baluchistan.” This, she added, “was not an abrupt upsurge, but the continuation of the volcanic eruptions in November 2019 and January 2020.”
In that latter instance, university students and other activists staged protests across more than a dozen provinces in response to the regime’s attempted cover-up of a missile strike that brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran. It was the last large-scale protest movement before the country became gripped by one of the world’s worst pandemics.
The Iranian Resistance’s perspective on the prior unrest was especially significant as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) played a significant role in leading the society toward regime change. When the December 2017 uprising carried on through much of January 2018, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered a speech attributing the rapid spread of the movement and its anti-regime slogans to months of planning by the MEK. It was the first confirmation from high within the regime’s leadership that the MEK was a force to be reckoned with.
Although this only confirmed what many Iran watchers already knew, it marked a turning point in public discourse about the MEK and the Iranian regime’s grip on power, both domestically and on the global stage. Khamenei’s begrudging admission is an evidence that the regime is neither as powerful nor as politically stable as it would have the international community believe. Later in 2018, the regime seemed to confirm its own vulnerability when it made a desperate gambit on French soil, dispatching a high-ranking diplomat to oversee an operation aimed at bombing a gathering of the Iranian Resistance and its international supporters.
A Belgian court convicted that diplomat-terrorist, Assadollah Assadi, of plotting to commit terrorist murder last month. It was potentially a milestone development in Western relations with the Iranian regime, given that no other such figure has ever been held legally accountable in Europe for their ties to terrorism. The significance of the ruling is perhaps amplified by its proximity to the Nowruz holiday. Or at least it would be if the international community saw fit to follow up on Assadi’s 20-year sentence by extending that accountability to other, higher officials in the clerical regime.
This is simply the right thing to do from a security standpoint. It also represents an opportunity to affect long-sought change in the heart of the Middle East. By sanctioning or pursuing charges against the officials who oversaw the Assadi plot, Western governments would be sending a strong message of intolerance of further malign activities.
One would think that would go without saying, but unfortunately the history of Western policies toward the regime tends to tell a different story. Various European and American leaders have overlooked a wide range of Iran’s malign activities in the past, especially those that were directly specifically against the domestic population. Sadly, this trend has continued even in recent years, with Iran’s uprisings and subsequent crackdowns receiving scant attention within Western foreign policy discourse.
A similar phenomenon haunts Iran’s coronavirus outbreak, despite the fact that it represents a problem that is shared among almost all the nations of the world. The international community has been more or less content to let the Iranian regime manage its own affairs with regard to that crisis, and to take the regime at its word with regard to the severity of the infection rate and death toll. All the while, the Iranian Resistance has been issuing reports elucidating that the regime has practically weaponized the pandemic to forestall new outpourings of unrest in the regime, all while lying spectacularly about the scale of the disaster.
Drawing upon hospital and morgue records as well as eyewitness testimony, the MEK has determined that the death toll from Covid-19 in Iran is now over 235,000, or nearly four times the figure reported by the regime’s Health Ministry. The effects of the underlying infection rate will necessarily be slow to fade, and it goes to show that the Iranian people have much hardship ahead of them in the New Year. Nevertheless, the recent upsurge in protests and clashes with the regime show that their collective spirit has not been defeated.
This Nowruz is the perfect opportunity for the international community to take a step they should have taken long ago, and formally recognize the Iranian people’s right to resist the mullahs’ tyranny.