Iran has undergone two nationwide uprisings in less than three years. And in that time, there have also been numerous other large-scale protest movements, many of which conveyed the same provocative message as the uprisings. Activists have been telling leaders from both factions of the Iranian regime that “the game is over” and the people are demanding an alternative that better represents them.
The November uprising encompassed an estimated 300 Iranian cities and towns, reviving on an even grander scale the slogans that defined the previous uprising in December 2017 and January 2018. It also resulted in much more severe backlash from the regime authorities. Whereas the earlier nationwide protests led to reports of dozens of deaths, including several incidences of people being fatally tortured in prison, the death toll in November 2019 climbed into the hundreds after only a few days.
According to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters were shot dead during the uprising. This does not even take into account those who may have died subsequently from untreated wounds after being violently arrested and sometimes dragged straight out of hospital beds. The prosecution is still pending for many of the thousands of arrests associated with the uprising, and among trials that have already taken place, several resulted in death sentences.
Such brutal repression is surely motivated not just by the sheer scale of the uprisings, but also by the fact that the MEK is more than just a whistleblower regarding the killings and arrests. The MEK is also primarily responsible for the protests reaching a national scale and featuring explicit calls for regime change in Tehran. This fact was acknowledged by no less an authority than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in response to the first uprising in early January 2018.
Khamenei credited the MEK with planning for months to facilitate and lead protests throughout Iran. And in the two and a half years since then, he has made something of a habit of warning his subordinates within the regime about the potential for the MEK to take the lead in future surges of domestic unrest. Last April, for instance, he urged student members of the Basij civilian militia to help counter the MEK’s influence on university campuses, lest student organizers come to be recognized internationally as advocates for a complete change of government.
What is particularly remarkable about such statements from Khamenei and others is the fact that they undermine propaganda narratives that the regime has been developing and promoting virtually since the advent of the Islamic Republic. This is not to say that the authorities are relinquishing that propaganda, much less openly acknowledging the truth about the MEK’s platform or domestic influence. In fact, the regime’s supreme leader attempted to partially walk back his initial remarks about the MEK in 2018 by suggesting that their role in the uprising, though substantial, was ultimately directed by a broad network of foreign adversaries including the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Such specific claims are sure to be disregarded by those adversaries themselves, who know full well that the MEK has never sought direct assistance from foreign entities, but has always insisted that Iran’s future must be determined by the Iranian people themselves. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that the failure of this regime talking point will prompt Western policymakers and analysts to apply enough scrutiny to other aspects of the propaganda campaign that Tehran is always directing against the MEK.
Over the years, the Iranian regime has dedicated incredible quantities of money and political energy into that campaign, both within its own territory and throughout the world. In the year 2016 alone, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security published 14 different books aimed specifically at defaming and demonizing the leading voice for Iranian democracy. And during an overlapping 12-month period, state media outlets aired a staggering 332 movies and television series with the same goal.
The regime’s ongoing strategy for spreading disinformation about the MEK also includes the publication of a monthly magazine and the maintenance of at least 13 websites that represent a conduit for direct foreign access to the same disinformation. But in most cases, the regime relies on more insidious means for the spread of propaganda beyond its borders. These were variously highlighted in July at a virtual conference organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Among dozens of other speakers from over 100 countries, there were many American and European policymakers featured in that conference who expressed shame that their own governments and news networks had fallen victim to the disinformation campaign. Former US Senator Robert Torricelli called attention to a situation in which the global media apparatus operates under a “shadow of public relations firms, operatives, and companies that are disseminating false information” on behalf of the Iranian regime.
Often, deliberate disinformation is unwittingly picked up by Western reporters, who may occasionally cite spurious websites with likely connections to Iranian intelligence in order to justify publishing injurious claims about the MEK in more reputable publications. These in turn may lead to more seemingly credible repetitions of the same claims. It is a cycle of disinformation that has been ongoing since the early days of the regime, and in many cases, it is a cycle that continues until false claims are successfully challenged in court, as in the case of an article that appeared in Der Spiegel last year, parts of which were ordered removed by a German court.
Unfortunately, neither the MEK nor its large and growing roster of international supporters can count on these sorts of legal challenges to root out all of the disinformation that has been self-perpetuating for the better part of 40 years. What would be much more effective would be broader recognition of the ways in which Tehran benefits from delegitimizing the leading Iranian opposition group, especially under present circumstances.
In the wake of two nationwide uprisings, the MEK plainly poses an even greater existential threat to the theocratic regime than it has in the past. Substantial foreign support for that movement would mean the end of the mullahs’ hold on power. But that support has been absent in the past because Iran has managed to convince most Western leaders that there is no viable alternative to the existing regime.
That is a talking point that is extremely difficult to maintain in the face of so much unrest among the Iranian people. But the mullahs will fight tooth and nail to do so. Everyone who believes in a free and democratic future for Iran should fight equally hard against it.