Iran underwent an historic uprising at this time last year. On the anniversary of Iran November 2019 protests, it is important to understand the impact of this uprising and the Iranian opposition role.
First of all, it is important to note that the November 2019 uprising was not the first of its kind. It emerged less than two years after another nationwide protest movement, with the two demonstrating notable similarities. The prior uprising began in the final days of 2017 and lasted through much of January 2018. Although initially focused on economic grievances, it came to be defined by slogans like “death to the dictator” and calls for regime change. This broad messaging was kept alive in a series of scattered protests in the months following the initial uprising and was taken up on an even larger scale last November.
While the January 2018 uprising reportedly spanned something like 150 cities across all 31 of Iran’s provinces, protests were confirmed to have taken place in 191 cities during a period of less than two weeks in November 2019. The brief duration of the latter uprising was a sign of the effectiveness of the Iranian Resistance organizing. During both uprisings the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) played a leading role. And this spurred regime authorities to use “whatever they can” to prevent the regime’s downfall.
The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei confirmed the MEK’s leading role, in one of his speeches. While that uprising was ongoing, Khamenei stated that the MEK had “planned for months” to popularize the message of regime change. Tehran naturally responded with violence to that initial uprising, and it is estimated that several dozen protesters were killed, some of them under torture. Yet the regime’s oppression did not prevent Iranians from pouring on street again in November.
Khamenei’s speech confirmed the regime’s fragility. In his speech Khamenei acknowledged to the public that the MEK is the regime’s main opposition. By giving such credit to the leading Resistance group, he also undid more than three decades of his regime’s propaganda that referred to the PMOI as a “grouplet” that had been largely destroyed during the systematic executions of more than 30,000 political prisoners, mainly supporters of the MEK on summer of 1988.
This statistic stands out as an historical marker of the lengths that the regime is willing to go to in its effort to stamp out organized dissent. Tehran’s crackdown on the November 2019 uprising now stands right alongside that incident.
Recognizably anxious over the growing influence of the MEK organizing, regime authorities ordered the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to confront the November uprising with deadly force. Amnesty International later confirmed that IRGC forces were shooting to kill when they opened first on crowds of protesters. On December 15, the MEK presented a report to the international community on the impact of the crackdown. According to the MEK, the IRGC had killed 1,500 people in shooting incidents all across the country, with victims including adult protesters as well as bystanders as young as three years old. MEK revealed more than 800 names of the victims.
The severity of the response was clearly by design, and it has been backed up by numerous other incidences of repression connected to the November uprising and its counterparts. In September, Amnesty International released a report titled “Trampled Humanity” which detailed many forms of torture that had been meted out to political detainees in the aftermath of the uprising. The PMOI/MEK continued to report on prisoners’ conditions and noted that the situation was worse than it initially appeared, in part because some detainees had been housed in particularly secretive, temporary jails.
But other instances of repression have been highly public, being motivated by the desire to intimidate the public into compliance. In both September and October, the State Security Forces publicly assaulted citizens and drove them around in the backs of pick-up trucks as an act of coordinated humiliation. The regime’s authorities explicitly justified those actions by referring to the targets as “thugs” – an epithet that had also been applied to participants in the nationwide uprisings.
IRGC Brigadier General Seyed Majid Mirahmadi took the explanation further by citing the will of the supreme leader. “Khamenei’s main demand is to uproot insecurity in society,” he said before adding that it is the responsibility of “all armed forces” to stop the regime’s organized opponents from “depriving comfort” of Khamenei and his regime.
Mirahmadi also noted that the IRGC and its associates were prepared to violently confront anyone who “wants to insult the values of the revolution.” This phrasing is distinctly reminiscent of the way in which the supreme leader described the MEK in a speech his “thugs” in Basij militia at the beginning of the current Iranian calendar year. Khamenei desperately urged Basij forces to counter the MEK’s growing influence on university campuses, lest the world recognize student activism as being geared toward the same goal of regime change as was outlined in the November uprising.
But by the time of that speech in March, the student population’s connection to the MEK’s goal of regime change had already been made fairly apparent. Last January, less than two months after the IRGC’s most severe crackdown in recent years, university campuses became the focus of new anti-regime protests spanning more than a dozen provinces.
January 11 – Tehran, #Iran
Amir Kabir University – Somaye Avenue
Crowd chanting: "1,500 people were killed in November."
— People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) (@Mojahedineng) January 11, 2020
In that case, the public was reacting not to economic indicators but to the revelation that Tehran had attempted to cover up an IRGC missile strike that killed 176 people onboard a commercial airliner. Still, the ultimate message of the unrest was the same, in that condemned the regime as a whole and urged a complete change of government. The January uprising was an early sign of the lingering effects of its predecessors.
The Iranian state media outlet Afkar News referred to detainees from the November uprising as being “in some shape or form tied to” the MEK, and another outlet, Jomhouri Esmali quoted a high ranking IRGC official as saying that same thing about the protesters as a whole.
What’s more, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, admitted to parliament that even activists who are not members of the MEK still tend to be part of “a vast network of individuals, operating not under [its] name, but pursuing their line and modus operandi.”