From July 17 to July 20, the leading advocates for democratic government in Iran participated in a wide-ranging online conference called the Free Iran Global Summit. The event was organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran in place of the international rally it had hosted each summer for 15 years before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The revised format featured many of the same participants as in recent years, who joined the live video stream from 30,000 locations spanning more than 100 countries.
The speeches that made up each of the event’s three sessions were delivered by a wide range of personalities including former Iranian political prisoners, family members of activists who were killed by regime authorities, and political supporters of the Iranian Resistance who have served or are serving professional roles in the fields of intelligence, military, diplomacy, and foreign policy scholarship.
Those supporters represent various different political affiliations within each of their countries, and their speeches to the Free Iran summit underscored the common appeal that politically diverse groups have found in the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) and the NCRI. American diplomat and national security advisor Lincoln Bloomfield spoke for the overall body of supporters when he summarized the findings of an inquiry he had had conducted into the MEK before coming to the conclusion that it represents the best and most viable alternative to Iran’s current theocratic regime.
Bloomfield stated that the main takeaway from his thorough study of the group was that the MEK “was advocating democracy and freedom of assembly, freedom of speech,” and a moderate form of Islam that stands in stark contrast to the mullahs’ “grotesque abuse of religious faith to support political tyranny.” This description has been more or less repeated by leading Iranian officials, albeit with a decidedly different tone.
In a speech to student members of the Basij civilian militia in April, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that the MEK could gain a foothold in any forthcoming university protests and guide the message toward an endorsement of regime change. While urging hardliners to interfere in any such unrest as part of an effort to keep the MEK at bay, Khamenei condemned the organization for “rejecting the foundations” of the Islamic revolution.
This language suggests that if permitted to directly challenge the theocratic system, the MEK could undermine the foundational principles of the regime which justify domestic repression and foreign terrorism as tools for the defense and export of violent fundamentalism. And lest anyone accuse the regime’s detractors as being hyperbolic about its aims, it should be noted that this project of spreading the revolution beyond Iran’s borders is written directly into the regime’s constitution.
This is the very thing that the MEK rejects and has rejected since the earliest days of the Islamic Republic. The MEK rejected regime’s constitution that was put into place by the regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini.
The MEK never ceased to lead the challenges to the theocratic system, even after its members became the main targets in a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Popular support continued to grow in spite of the vilest repression, and the MEK continued to direct “resistance units” inside Iran while also working in the context of a larger coalition, the NCRI, in appeals for a change in foreign government’s policies toward the regime.
Sadly, those appeals have been somewhat slow to gain traction among heads of state and whole legislative bodies. But they have made more and more Western policymakers aware of the MEK’s status as the leading voice for Iranian democracy. This growth in awareness was evident at the Free Iran Global Summit, as it has been evident at a number of previous gatherings at the NCRI’s French headquarters and the residence-in-exile for MEK members in Albania, known as Ashraf 3.
The establishment of that latter compound, beginning in 2016, was a significant blow to the Iranian regime’s campaign against the MEK. For many years beforehand, the residents of Ashraf 3 had been living in Iraq, but as Iranian influence over Iraqi government officials and militias grew, that community came under serious threat, leading to its temporary relocation to Camp Liberty, and ultimately its permanent relocation to Albania.
Tehran bitterly opposed the move, in part because a stable foreign base of operations for the MEK was sure to undermine longstanding regime propaganda that portrayed the opposition as marginal, lacking in support within Iran, and incapable of organizing a movement to seriously challenge the mullahs. And indeed, less than two years after Ashraf 3 began to take shape, the MEK proved itself as a force to be reckoned with in Iranian affairs.
Khamenei had good reason to warn the Basij about MEK influence over student protests. The Resistance had already demonstrated its influence over a much more wide-ranging activist community, and the clerical regime was still suffering from the fallout by the time of the supreme leader’s speech. During an earlier speech in January 2018, Khamenei said of a then-ongoing nationwide uprising that the MEK had “planned for months” to facilitate countless demonstrations while popularizing unusually provocative anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator.”
Maryam Rajavi, the NCRI’s President-elect, also credited the MEK with keeping those slogans alive through a “year full of uprisings” scattered across Iran throughout 2018. Then, in November 2019, the MEK did it all over again by helping to organize and guide another nationwide uprising, which proved to be something like 30 percent larger than January 2018, spanning approximately 200 Iranian cities and towns.
Although Iranian security forces responded to the latter uprising by fatally shooting an estimated 1,500 peaceful protesters, the greater portion of its consequences are most likely being borne by Iranian authorities, who now find themselves under greater international scrutiny without having even succeeded in stamping out the protest movement.
Further, protests took place across several provinces in January 2020, and hardline officials and think tanks have made a habit of warning about even greater unrest on the horizon, perhaps in the immediate aftermath of Iran’s tragically mismanaged coronavirus outbreak. When those warnings prove justified, Western lawmakers and policy experts should be expected to endorse the MEK in greater numbers than ever before.
With unrest now an almost constant fact of life Iran, it is increasingly clear that the MEK represents more than just hope for democratic governance and respect for human rights in Iran. It also represents the very real prospect of the mullahs being overthrown by their own people, resulting in immediate benefit for global security.