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Iran: After Mass Uprisings and Public Defiance, Tehran’s Fear of the MEK Grows

Ashraf-3, the MEK home in Albania

Recent public statements from Iranian regime’s officials have been unusually forthright about threats to their hold on power. At Friday prayer gatherings in major cities at the end of July, local representatives of regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took special aim at the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI / MEK), warning the regime’s elements to be on guard against the further actions of the MEK “Resistance Units”. But in so doing, they also showed their fear of the regime’s viable alternative.

This would be one explanation for an outpouring of activities by the rebellion youths, which roughly coincided with those Friday speeches. From the last week of July through the first week of August, defiant youth in a number of Iranian localities recorded themselves in public places, burning pictures of Ali Khamenei and other leading officials. Some went even further as setting light to billboard images of Khamenei and the regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini, or even sparking fires near the walls of buildings belonging to repressive forces like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Such direct action against regime authorities is made all the more significant by the fact that Iran’s activist community recently suffered what may have been the worst single instance of government repression since the 1980s. Last November, the MEK played a leading role in a spontaneous nationwide uprising against the regime. Participants in roughly 200 cities and towns reclaimed the slogans that had characterized a similar nationwide uprising in January 2018, leaving little doubt about their endorsement of a platform of regime change. In panic over its prior failure to stamp out that message, the regime deployed the IRGC to open fire on crowds of peaceful protesters, killing approximately 1,500 in a matter of days.

The crackdown apparently succeeded in pushing the anti-government movement back underground, but not for long. In January, massive public protests erupted once again across several Iranian provinces, after regime authorities attempted to cover up the IRGC’s responsibility for the downing of a Ukraine International Airlines flight, which killed 176 people. As with the prior two uprisings, the initially narrow focus of the January demonstrations ultimately gave way to condemnations of the entire regime, and the longstanding practices that made such incidents possible.

With each new series of protests, Iranians showed they are becoming more and more aware of that regime’s inherent contempt for human rights. And as trailblazers of these struggles, the MEK’s resistance units are uniquely aware of that feature. This fact is clearly emphasized in some of the recordings those activists have produced over the past couple of weeks, and also in accompanying graffiti which calls attention to unresolved crimes from the regime’s past.

Some walls bore statements that could be translated as, “Mass murder is the main symptom of the mullahs’ virus.” Others highlighted specific instances of that treatment, particularly the massacre of political prisoners which took place in the summer and autumn of 1988. On orders from Khomeini at that time, the judiciary convened “death commissions” to interrogate dissidents over their views and affiliations, then executed all who remained defiant of the regime’s authority, or sympathetic to the MEK. After several months, the death toll climbed to more than 30,000, and many victims were interred in secret mass graves.

On Iranian city streets, some of the most recent graffiti messages identify this massacre as “the greatest unpunished crime against humanity.” Others highlight activist calls for prosecution of its masterminds and perpetrators. Still others connect those calls to action with the domestic activities of resistance units, stating for instance that “the blood of the martyrs gives rise to uprisings in Iran.”

“The blood of the martyrs of the 1988 massacre gives rise to uprisings in Iran” MEK Resistance Units

The various messages go hand-in-hand and further underscore the escalating threat that Iran’s leaders are facing both at home and abroad. The calls for prosecution were echoed in mid-July by Iranian expatriates as well as Western politicians in the context of an online video conference called the Free Iran Global Summit. That event, organized by, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), highlighted the growing chorus of appeals for a UN-led investigation into the 1988 massacre.

The same event praised resistance units for demonstrating the same sort of resilience that allowed the MEK to survive and flourish in the wake of that massacre, to the point at which it is now playing a leading role in ongoing unrest. The ensuing statements from the Iranian regime’s officials and prayer leaders indicate that they realize the challenges to their hold on power did not end with crackdowns on the November uprising. The regime’s Supreme Leader himself has urged oppressive bodies like the Basij militia to be ready to confront future protests, and to help prevent the outside world from recognizing them as outright appeals for regime change.

But anyone who has been paying attention to Iranian affairs should already understand that the activist community is on the path to establishment of a new, democratic government. The regime cannot conceal the evidence that has already emerged. It may be able to forestall its own overthrow through further acts of repression, but it is difficult to believe that there is anything the Iranian Resistance is not capable of overcoming, considering what it has already survived. It’s resilience will only prove more effective if the international community continues paying attention as the situation unfolds in Iran.