On July 17, advocates for democracy in Iran will be holding a series of gatherings across five continents, which will be simultaneously broadcast under the title, “Free Iran Global Summit.” The event, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), takes the place of the centralized rally that had previously been held for 15 consecutive years near the coalition’s headquarters in France. The change in format was made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic, but the organizers anticipate that the emphasis on remote participation will actually increase the overall numbers.
Even when participation involved traveling to France, the rallies in support of regime change tended to attract as many as 100,000 Iranian expatriates from around the world. Hundreds of high-profile political dignitaries were also a regular feature of the gatherings. And many of the same personalities will address the global summit remotely from Washington, Paris, Berlin, and other world capitals.
As participation in the newly restructured event is poised to increase, the same can be said of the Iranian regime’s anxiety over so many pro-democracy voices assembling on the same day, to promote the same agenda. Tehran’s backlash against the prior gatherings had become more transparent in recent years.
The arrival of summer could always be expected to prompt Iranian authorities to direct more scrutiny at the domestic activist community, especially persons associated with the NCRI and, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). But by 2018, the regime was no longer content to rely on casual repression and home, and thus set its sights on the Free Iran rally itself.
In June of that year, European authorities apprehended an Iranian-Belgian couple at the border with France, as they were attempting to travel to the site of the rally. Five-hundred grams of the high-explosive TATP was found in their vehicle, and it was soon revealed that they had been provided with bomb-making materials by a high-ranking Iranian diplomat who was then stationed in Austria.
The diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was arrested sometime after the couple, and all three are imminently expected to go on trial in Belgium.
The French bomb plot was only one of several to be reported in 2018, at a time when domestic repression was also accelerating in response to a nationwide uprising and rising levels of public support for the MEK. Since then, Iran has already seen another nationwide uprising, plus countless smaller-scale protest movements. And warnings about the growing prevalence of MEK influence has become a familiar feature of the regime’s internal dialogue.
Now, Iranian authorities are stepping up their campaign of repression against the MEK, just in time for the July 17 summit. In recent days, multiple reports have emerged pointing to harassment, arrest, and prosecution of existing political prisoners’ family members and other associates. Such actions are fairly common practices whereby the regime strives both to criminalize contact with the activist community and put pressure on those who might still be engaging in activism from behind bars, or planning to return to political activities after their release.
The international community must pay attention to this phenomenon. In the first place, it represents a clear violation of the basic rights of free speech and free association. And in the second place, it could set the stage for even worse human rights abuses as the population of political prisoners continues to swell. It would be foolish for any civilized government or human rights advocate to underestimate the sorts of things the regime might be willing to do in order to suppress dissent at what appears to be a crucial historical moment.
In the summer of 1988, the clerical regime massacred over 30,000 political prisoners in a matter of few months. No one has ever been held accountable for the 1988 massacre, though the NCRI has repeatedly appealed to the international community for a UN-led inquiry, with an eye toward prosecuting perpetrators in the International Criminal Court. Now, the same organization is calling for a more timely investigation into the current wave of politically-motivated arrests, which could conceivably result in large numbers of deaths, either from outright execution or from torture and enforced disappearance behind the walls of Iran’s notorious prison facilities.
Western nations have a moral duty to keep their attention fixed on this situation. But that attention could also serve their self-interest since a surge of domestic repression in Iran could easily go hand-in-hand with new terrorist plots beyond Iran’s borders. As once Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of NCRI said: “The Iranian regime’s representations are epicenters for espionage and terrorism. Most regime diplomats are either Intelligence Ministry agents or IRGC officers or have received training on terrorism and espionage to serve that purpose. With the Iranian people calling for the mullahs’ overthrow in the streets, it is particularly important to adopt a decisive policy vis-à-vis the regime’s terrorism and shut down its embassies in other countries.”