On March 31, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a meeting before a virtual audience of supporters from 12 countries. The event highlighted new plans for coordinating domestic activism in Iran, aimed at overthrowing the theocratic dictatorship and establishing a democratic system in its place. The Council wrote in its summary of the meeting that it anticipates the year ahead to be “decisive” in promoting that objective, thanks in part to the emerging signs of serious vulnerability at the highest levels of the Iranian regime.
That vulnerability has been visible to all who earnestly looked for it, although not all Western policymakers have been willing to do so. For the better part of four decades, European and American policies toward the Iranian regime have shied away from confronting the regime directly, and have instead promoted the idea that “moderates” within the ruling system could be convinced to initiate serious reforms that result in Tehran shedding its fundamentalist ideology and expanding its democratic veneer. This perspective has clearly influenced Western approaches to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the preservation of which Europe has prioritized above all else.
This situation has unfortunately resulted in the European Union and most of its member states turning a blind eye to alarming trends in Iran’s malign activities outside of the nuclear sphere. In June 2018, for instance, European authorities thwarted a terrorist attack on a gathering of Iranian expatriates that had been organized near Paris by the NCRI. Despite the fact that dozens of Western lawmakers and scholars were in attendance at that event, their governments remained silent about the incident even after a Belgian court issued a guilty verdict for four Iranian operatives, including a high-ranking diplomat from the regime’s embassy in Vienna.
Silence over the terror plot most likely helped to reinforce a sense of Iranian impunity, and critics of the regime have credited it with helping to set the stage for the regime’s worst crackdown on dissent in recent memory. In November 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire on crowds of protesters as they gathered simultaneously across nearly 200 cities and towns. In a matter of only two days, the hardline paramilitary killed approximately 1,500 peaceful activists and innocent bystanders, while security forces arrested more than 12,000 others.
Several months after this crackdown, Amnesty International reported that many of the arrestees were still being subjected to torture in various Iranian detention facilities. By that time, the Iranian prison system was also being largely overrun with Covid-19, as a consequence of ineffectual government response to the crisis which some activists believe was deliberate.
In advance of its March meeting, the NCRI issued a number of statements suggesting that the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei viewed the pandemic as the best tool for keeping a lid on public unrest. This is easy to believe since violent repression had clearly failed. Just two months after the November 2019 crackdown, protests were raging again across more than a dozen provinces as Iranian civilians condemned the attempted cover-up of a missile strike that brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran.
Both of those large-scale protests featured anti-government slogans that were previously popularized during an uprising that began in the final days of 2017 and continued through much of January 2018. While that movement was still ongoing, Khamenei delivered a speech that acknowledged the rapid spread of anti-government sentiment had been driven in large part by the efforts of the MEK. This was a virtually unprecedented acknowledgment of vulnerability and one for which Tehran soon tried to compensate with the Paris terror plot, the 2019 massacre, and other actions designed to present an image of strength.
Unfortunately, some Western policymakers seem to have taken that image seriously, as evidenced by their ongoing efforts to coddle and appease the clerical regime rather than confronting and exploiting its vulnerabilities. The recent meeting of JCPOA signatories in Vienna led to widespread speculation that the nuclear deal would soon be salvaged and that Tehran would once again benefit from the suspension of US sanctions, even without taking any further steps to demonstrate its commitment to nuclear restrictions that the regime has systematically violated.
That speculation persists today but was at least somewhat impeded by reports of an attack on the Natanz nuclear facility. The real significance of the attack lay in its symbolism. At a time when Tehran has been fighting an uphill battle to present an image of strength, the regime’s failure to defend its vital assets is a reminder of the fact that that regime is deeply vulnerable.
Western policymakers have been almost inexplicably willing to overlook the signs of organized revolt inside Iran, and many have persisted in promoting the goal of internal moderation even as Khamenei’s “hardline” political faction moved to consolidate power and install a similarly hardline president as part of its strategy for shoring up the theocratic system’s defenses. Because these developments are specific to Iran’s domestic affairs, Western policymakers find it comparatively easy to ignore them. But the same cannot be said of the destruction at Natanz. Its international significance is unmistakable, and it has the potential to serve as a wake-up call regarding the Iranian regime’s underlying vulnerability.
That, in turn, should prompt the European Union, its member states, and its allies to reconsider their approach to Iran policy and their outlook on what can be achieved through coordinated pressure on the regime. For the better part of four decades, it was assumed that the theocratic dictatorship had a firm grip on power and that gradual change at the hands of regime insiders was the best that anyone could expect. Recent and ongoing public unrest should make it clear that this is not the case, and the Natanz attack should make it equally clear that Tehran is in no position to stave off simultaneous pressures from at home and abroad.
Before the dust has settled from the Natanz attack, the international community should make it clear to Tehran that any future attempts at force-projection will be doomed to failure. If Western signatories of the JCPOA insist on continuing their negotiations over the future of the agreement, they must at least do so from a position of strength, holding the line on sanction relief and demanding that Tehran halt its human rights violations and its support of terrorism, as well as restoring full compliance with the restrictions on its nuclear program.