Last Tuesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran hosted an online conference to mark the one-year anniversary of a major activist uprising led by “Resistance units” associated with the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). The uprising featured explicit calls for regime change in more than 190 cities and towns, and the conference sought to demonstrate that the resulting government repression has done little to diminish the conviction on display among the country’s people.
Some participants in that conference compared Iranian people’s resilience to that of other peoples who have triumphed over tyrannical regime’s in the past. Among them was Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, who said “the horrifying crisis that the people of Iran have had to endure reminds me of my grandparents’ struggle during the apartheid era in South Africa.”
She was referring not only to the killings and violent arrests that were being commemorated by Tuesday’s conference, but also to an underlying pattern of repression that has led to the MEK listing more than 120,000 individuals as martyrs to the cause of unseating the theocracy and establishing a democratic system in its place. Roughly a quarter of this number were killed in a period of just several months in 1988, when regime authorities systematically executed political prisoners who remained loyal to the MEK.
Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela, human rights activist and grand-daughter of 🇿🇦's late President Nelson Mandela: The people of Iran reject tyranny and demand freedom. They have turned to the international community to boycott the regime. #WeStand4FreeIran https://t.co/w2To7bsof6
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) November 10, 2020
The massacre set an early benchmark for the sort of brutality that the Iranian regime would be willing to utilize as part of its effort to stamp out dissent. But ultimately, it also provided an early case study in the people’s resistance to such repression. The massacre primarily targeted the MEK, and afterwards the regime simply claimed victory and began portraying the opposition as the disorganized remnants of a “cult.” In fact, the MEK not only survived the massacre but went on to steadily gain in popularity and organizational strength, as evidenced by its leadership of the November 2019 uprising and another, similar uprising in January 2018.
Incidents such as these are highly symbolic for supporters of the Iranian Resistance. But they also serve to remind those supporters of the potential for regime authorities to creep closer to the extremes of repression that they had put on display in 1988. Last year’s uprising resulted in one of the most severe short-term crackdowns on dissent that Iran has ever seen. In the space of only about a week, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) oversaw assaults on crowds of protesters which left an estimated 1,500 people dead.
According to hospital records and eyewitness reports assembled by the MEK, 4,000 other peaceful protesters and bystanders experienced significant injuries, and 12,000 individuals were arrested. In September, Amnesty International released a report that detailed some of the torture that these arrestees had experienced and were still experiencing. Examples include beatings, floggings, electric shocks, stress positions, sexual violence, and denial of access to medical treatment. This latter tactic is especially concerning at a time when Covid-19 is reportedly raging unchecked through Iran’s criminal justice system.
Around the time of the Amnesty Report, Tehran openly demonstrated its disregard for international concerns over human rights, by carrying out the execution of a popular athlete who had become the subject of international appeals for clemency and re-examination of his spurious and politically motivated case. Unfortunately, since then there has been little indication that the international community intends to hold Iran’s government accountable for this or other human rights violations. And that inaction was justifiably lambasted in numerous speeches at last Tuesday’s conference.
Figures like Dlamini-Mandela observed that Tehran had apparently been granted impunity on so many occasions that “crimes against humanity… have become normalized in Iran.” Ingrid Betancourt, a former Colombian lawmaker, credited Western powers and the rest of the international community with condemning incidents like the killings that followed last November’s uprisings. But she immediately added that “denouncing is not enough” anymore, before outlining some specific measures the international community might adopt to put more pressure on the Iranian regime and keep it from massacring its own people in the face of dissent.
Supporters of the Iranian Resistance seemingly agreed that this sort of intervention, whether economic or diplomatic in nature, would not strictly be necessary for the success of the people’s push for democracy. Sanctions and embassy closures would go a long way toward paving the road to that outcome, and here Dlamini-Mandela compared prospective actions on Iran with the actions democratic nations actually did take against apartheid South Africa prior to 1994.
“Similar to South Africans, the people of Iran have turned to the international community to boycott the regime, and to engage in actions that legitimize commercial and political relation with the oppressive regime,” she said.
But Dlamini-Mandela also indicated that the long struggles of both peoples had earned them the greater share of the credit for progress in their own countries. “The apartheid regime was unable to diminish the dignity and dream of an equal future of millions and millions of South Africans,” she observed, reaffirming the belief that whatever position the international community took, the Iranians would surely rebound from last year’s crackdown, just as they have rebounded from countless crackdowns in the past.
With Iran as with South Africa, the international community will not determine the outcome of the fight for justice, but it may determine how much blood is spilled in the interim. Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may constrain the regime’s capacity for suppressing dissent whenever the people decide to rise up and demand regime change again. And when that happens, Western powers will be in a position to decide, once and for all, whether they will stand on the right side of history, or whether they will turn a blind eye to injustice as they have done in the face of far too many Iranian crimes against humanity.