Since early 2018, Iranian regime officials and Iranian state media have been forced to be upfront about the challenges they face from the country’s organized, pro-democracy opposition group. The past three years mark a significant departure from over three decades of earlier propaganda and demonizing campaign, which sought to portray the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) as a disorganized and unpopular cult that could never pose a meaningful threat to the theocratic system.
On Tuesday, the state-run Student News Network, SNN, described the MEK as “the sworn enemy of the system and the revolution” and said that it was responsible for an “explosion in the hearts and minds of the youth,” which will have more serious and long-lasting effects than the recent physical explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility.
“The incident of destruction in Natanz was significant and thought-provoking. But we must be aware that much bigger destruction is going on, which, unfortunately, many are ignoring. It seems that the alarm bells that should be sounded for more significant and more dangerous negligence are still off. Neglecting the destruction of the youth’s minds, consciences, and psyches by the sworn enemy of the system and the revolution, namely the Mujahedin-e Khalq – MEK, especially through cyberspace.”
In this respect, the article primarily refers to the MEK’s active presence in cyberspace and on Iranian social media. The SNN article also expressed the regime’s fear from MEK’s Resistance Units and wrote, “Why don’t we see the MEK rebellion units burning every night, destroying and burning sensitive security centers? Do we not see that every day they try to expand the rule of social dissatisfaction? Do we not see how young people are dragged from behind the desks, classrooms, and universities to the battlefield of danger, danger, and insurrection, and turn them into insurgents who, with a one-dimensional look at problems and issues, see the way out as confrontation with the system …?”
This really signifies that Iranian officials and state media outlets acknowledge that those Resistance Units are active all throughout the country, more than three years after the incident that prompted the regime to acknowledge their presence in the first place.
That incident was an all but unprecedented nationwide uprising, which began in the city of Mashhad with a focus on economic grievances, then steadily grew to encompass more than 100 localities while adopting explicit calls for regime change. Faced with slogans that condemned him personally but also rejected both the “hardline” and “reformist” political factions as two sides of the same coin, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei could not help but recognize the echo of a platform long advanced by the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
The NCRI has been recognized as a viable alternative government, which is prepared to lead Iran through a transitional period following the mullahs’ overthrow, and set the stage for the country’s first free and fair elections. Its prospective leader, Maryam Rajavi, has outlined a 10-point plan for the country’s future, which codifies the separation of religion from the state, legal safeguards for the rights of women and minorities, and abandonment of belligerent foreign policy initiatives like the current regime’s nuclear program.
The January 2018 uprising certainly showcased popular support for this comprehensive reconstruction of Iran’s government. But the sheer scale of that uprising was no doubt driven by more basic grievances regarding such things as systemic government corruption and its impact on the worsening economic conditions of Iran’s civilian population. Since the uprising was brought under control in the wake of thousands of arrests, this decline has only accelerated, and new issues have emerged as drivers of anti-government sentiment.
Chief among these is the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Iran much harder than any other country in the Middle East and most countries throughout the world. The Iranian Health Ministry estimates that around 70,000 people have died from Covid-19 since February 2020, but independent analysis collected by the NCRI indicates that outbreaks of the disease began as much as two months earlier than the government acknowledged and that fatalities have now amounted to more than 260,000.
The severity of this and other crises is certainly due to rampant government mismanagement and corruption. The NCRI has continuously stated that Khamenei recognized the onset of the pandemic as the best opportunity to keep a lid on popular unrest.
After the initial uprising was brought to heel, Mrs. Rajavi delivered a speech in which she urged the activist community to turn the subsequent Iranian calendar year into a “year full of uprisings.” Countless semi-connected protests and labor strikes gave the impression that Iranians were keen to respond. But it also bears mentioning that this was the continuation of a trend that had already been set in motion. Iranian regime’s Interior Ministry acknowledged in January 2018 that the preceding four years had seen a total of around 43,000 large public gatherings, or roughly 30 per day.
In any event, scattered pockets of unrest in late 2018 and early 2019 helped to keep provocative slogans like “death to the dictator” in mainstream circulation, thereby setting the stage for another uprising in November 2019. This time, the number of participating localities grew to nearly 200 as the entire population reacted spontaneously to an increase in government-set gas prices, which seemed to broadcast the regime’s indifference to its people’s suffering.
That indifference turned to outright malice almost immediately after the uprising began, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps led the way in opening fire on crowds of protesters. Approximately 1,500 people were killed, and more than 12,000 were arrested. Many of those arrestees were subjected to torture for months afterward, as detailed in an Amnesty International report titled Trampling Humanity. Yet while that torture was still ongoing, Iranian students and other activists came out into the street en masse once again in January 2020, after it was revealed that authorities had attempted to cover up an IRGC missile strike that brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran.
That third uprising took direct aim at the regime’s hardline paramilitary and even at the terrorist commander of its foreign special operations division, the Quds Force. Publicly displayed images of Qassem Soleimani were burned, and protesters condemned the regime’s prior efforts to foster foreign conflict, chanting phrases like, “The enemy is here; they lie and say it is America.” All of this leads to the reasonable conclusion that conflict between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime was escalating long before the coronavirus pandemic and that the regime is now fearful of this trend continuing and the leading role of the MEK in it.
Tuesday’s SNN article, therefore, served as an opportunity for state media to get ahead of the inevitable outpouring of grievances and to suggest that it will not reflect the true state of Iranian society but rather the results of MEK manipulation. “Every day, [the opposition] magnifies the real problems of the society and incites the youth to chaos and destruction,” the article claimed. But if this were true, it would mean that the MEK has been “magnifying” public perceptions of the country’s problems for at least three years and likely much longer than that.
If the regime truly believes that the opposition is that powerful, then it cannot possibly expect to win in any forthcoming confrontation. Then again, the same is true if the SNN article is lying and the MEK’s description of Iran’s social and economic problems is broadly accurate. In either case, the regime’s prospects look dire, and the Iranian people have both the motive and the organized backing to throw off their oppressors once and for all.