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Iran’s Protest Movement Has Persevered and Is Re-Emerging

There is substantial evidence that domestic unrest is ramping up in Iran once again. As the Iranian opposition leader, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi said in a speech marking last month’s Iranian New Year holiday, even the country’s state media outlets “describe Iranian society as a powder keg that could explode at any moment.” Those descriptions are all but certain to proliferate in the weeks ahead, as Tehran continues pushing for widespread public participation in June’s sham presidential election, while Iranians push back against what they see as mere political theater designed to provide the theocratic system with a democratic façade.

“The people of Iran also want to boycott the upcoming, so-called presidential election because they want a free and democratically elected republic,” Mrs. Rajavi said in the same Nowruz speech. Since then, her observation has been confirmed by multiple reports from within Iran featuring images of anti-regime slogans that have been graffitied or posted in public spaces in order to encourage a boycott of the sham presidential elections. Similar efforts showed unprecedented success during the February 2020 parliamentary elections, which saw the lowest level of public participation in the 40-year history of the regime.

One might have expected that boycott to coincide with renewed popular unrest throughout the country, if not for the fact that the election closely coincided with the Iranian regime’s first public acknowledgment that the novel coronavirus was actively spreading inside the country. Later, when the pandemic was in full swing, the regime’s president Hassan Rouhani boasted that authorities “did not delay one day” in informing the public, but in fact, the regime had concealed the crisis for more than a month after the first cases were registered with the National Emergency Organization. In the meantime, officials urged full participation in the sham parliamentary elections, and they only used it after the fact as an alternative explanation for why turnout had been so low.

The more natural explanation for that turnout is the widespread popular embrace of the talking points behind the electoral boycott – something that had been promoted in the context of many previous elections by the opposition movement led by Mrs. Rajavi, and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have long emphasized that there is no difference between the “hardline” political faction led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the so-called “moderate” faction associated with Rouhani.

Tehran’s claim to political legitimacy largely relies on the notion that each election presents Iranians with a real choice between these two factions. But that notion was rejected by hundreds of thousands of participants in multiple protests spanning the entire country, from December 2017 onward. That month was marked by a protest in the city of Mashhad which initially focused on economic grievances but soon began spreading to other localities while taking on a broader political message. Part of that message was expressed by slogans that name-checked both the hardliners and the reformists and declared “the game is over.” By the middle of January 2018, such slogans could be heard in well over 100 cities, from people representing countless different demographics.

While that uprising was in full swing, Khamenei delivered a speech in which he acknowledged that the MEK had played a leading role in popularizing those slogans and facilitating the unrest. In this way, he tacitly highlighted a growing sense of anxiety within the regime regarding the challenge presented by an organized Resistance movement. Up to that point, Iranian officials had claimed that the MEK, despite being the most well-known pro-democracy group, was only a marginal force with little support among the ordinary population. The January 2018 uprising seriously disrupted that talking point, as did a subsequent uprising in November 2019, which Khamenei also attributed to the MEK just one day after the unrest began.

The regime’s anxiety was further underscored by its hysterical response to the second uprising. Almost immediately, Khamenei ordered that it be brought under control by any means necessary, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responded by opening fire on crowds of protesters all throughout the country, killing 1,500. Therefore, the regime’s Interior Ministry revived its efforts to push back against this account, insisting once again that the death toll was little more than 200 and that only a portion of the killings could be directly attributed to Iranian security forces. But these claims effectively debunked themselves the first time they were presented – more than six months after eye-witness reports began pouring out from dozens of Iranian cities and towns.

The 1,500-person death toll was first presented by the MEK but was later confirmed by Reuters after interviews with anonymous sources from inside the Interior Ministry. The MEK has also released names and pictures for more than half of the 1,500 victims, fueling the regime’s concerns over public outrage in the process. These concerns go a long way toward explaining the Interior Ministry’s revival of its previous talking points, as well as the accompanying comments from Security Deputy Hossein Zolfaghari, which urged regime authorities to create a special task force with the mission of confronting popular protests when they inevitably emerge around the time of the sham presidential election.

While such protests were evidently held in check by concerns over the coronavirus immediately following the sham parliamentary elections, this phenomenon seems unlikely to repeat in June, given that there have already been recurring and large-scale protests in recent weeks. This is not to say that people’s concerns over the pandemic have diminished. Even by Iranian state media’s own accounts, the country is currently experiencing a “fourth wave” of infections, and Tehran has a long track record of downplaying the effects of the crisis.

According to detailed analysis by the MEK, the actual Iranian death toll from the pandemic is around four times higher than the regime’s Health Ministry claims, or around a quarter of a million. But as public awareness of the underlying reports has spread, so too has the people’s sense that the ruling system will not do anything to address this or any other crisis that affects society to a greater extent than it affects the mullahs’ grip on power.

This goes hand-in-hand with the sentiment underlying the electoral boycotts, namely that the theocratic dictatorship never has the Iranian people’s interests at heart, regardless of who is nominally in charge. It is a sentiment that those people have been eager to express publicly since the time of the first uprising, but unfortunately it is also one that the international community has seemingly been wary of expressing, even within the confines of policy discussions.

This should change, and ideally, it should change before the regime’s sham presidential election and the anti-regime protests that are likely to follow. Previous protests carried on in absence of real support from the international community, even after the clerical regime murdered 1,500 activists. One can only imagine how much more the uprisings would have accomplished if the public had had reason to believe that when a conflict between the regime and people reached its apex, the democratic nations of the world would be ready to support the Iranian people’s desire for regime change and democracy.

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