Over the past several days, fires have been reported at no fewer than eight sites associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or its civilian militia, the Basij. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) has attributed those incidents to rebellion youths and has posted videos of some of the fires being set. Those same activists have also burned public banners images celebrating the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, and the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
These attacks on symbols of the regime’s authority come after activities that focused on spreading MEK messages via graffiti. Many of these messages focused on the anniversary of the regime’s massacre of political prisoners, which began with the establishment of “death commissions” on July 19, 1988, then proceeded through several months of interrogations and hangings.
The death commissions primarily targeted the MEK, demanding that known or suspected members disavow the group and swear loyalty to the theocratic dictatorship. It has been reported that something like 95 percent of people refused this ultimatum, proudly declaring their commitment to the MEK’s democratic platform, even knowing it could cost them their lives. The mullahs might have recognized what this implied about the resilience of the underlying movement, but they still made every effort to destroy the organization in one fell swoop.
Before the end of 1988, over 30,000 political prisoners had been hanged, with most being interred in secret mass graves. The killings were positively indiscriminate, including men who had already served out their designated prison sentences, as well as some teenagers and pregnant women. These facts had long been reported by the MEK and its affiliates, but they were confirmed for a much larger audience in 2016 with the release of a contemporary audio recording in which one regime official, Ali Hossein Montazeri, broke away from his colleagues and condemned the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.”
Since then, a longstanding veil of silence has been lifted on the history of the massacre. But rather than acknowledging wrongdoing, much less offering to make amends, participants in the death commissions have actively defended their actions. Some, like former Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, have even gone so far as to say that they are proud of having carried out “God’s command” of death for the MEK.
This language closely echoes that of Khomeini’s fatwa, which set the massacre in motion. Ahead of a begrudging ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, the regime supreme leader recognized that his regime was exceptionally vulnerable, and so he sought to erase all sources of organized dissent. Toward that end, his fatwa declared opponents of the theocratic system, like the MEK, to be inherently guilty of waging war against God himself. Thus, all such individuals were deemed worthy of execution, regardless of any actual details about their conduct and activities.
The massacre may have succeeded in driving much of the support for the MEK underground, but it certainly did not succeed in destroying the organization. Quite to the contrary, the MEK has only grained in both popularity and organizational strength ever since then. It now stands at the head of the coalition the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which attracts as many as 100,000 Iranian expatriates to an annual rally in support of regime change.
Such actions on the international stage are just a supplement to the domestic activism of the MEK’s resistance units, which were prominently celebrated in the latest version of the international rally, a wide-ranging video conference titled the Free Iran Global Summit. Participants in that summit, including hundreds of American and European dignitaries, made efforts to bring broader international attention to the escalating conflict between Iran’s regime and its people and to highlight the implications for Western approaches to dealing with that regime.
For much of the past 40 years, policymakers have been subject to undue influence from Iranian propaganda. A great deal of this propaganda has been dedicated to portraying the Iranian Resistance as a movement with little to no support inside the country. But this narrative is plainly undermined by the long history of resistance unit activities. The latest activities of MEK resistance units are indicative of the fact that this history is still unfolding, and that MEK supporters now appear more confident than ever in their ability to confront the clerical regime directly, and triumph.
Some of that confidence stems from the ever-growing body of support that the Resistance enjoys throughout the world. The Free Iran Global Summit brought that support into the light once again. But the greatest sign of an approaching victory for the MEK comes in the form of two nationwide uprisings that shook the regime to its core and prompted leading authorities to acknowledge, for the first time since 1988, that there is still a viable and influential alternative to the theocratic establishment.
While the first of those uprisings was underway in January 2018, the regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei delivered a speech in which he attributed its rapid spread and anti-government message to months of planning by the MEK. MEK was given credit for even more widespread protests in November 2019, and the regime’s fear of overthrow prompted what may have been the greatest crackdown on dissent in three decades. In a matter of only days, security forces and the IRGC fatally shot approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters. Thousands of others were arrested, and many remain at risk of execution.
This only adds to the significance of the resistance units’ latest shows of defiance. In the face of such unrestrained political violence, even the painting of graffiti takes on the appearance of a revolutionary act. By burning the regime’s bases of repression and the images of its leaders, the MEK is now making it clear that the activist community is every bit as resilient as it was in 1988.
If at the time, the international community had paid appropriate attention to the killings and made efforts to hold the regime to account, there is no telling how much more ineffectual its crackdown on dissent would have been. Now, the world has another chance to confront Tehran’s human rights abuses and give the Resistance a leg up in its fight for a democratic future in Iran. Let us not squander it by turning a blind eye to that fight once again.