For more than four decades, Iran’s theocratic dictatorship has justified its rule in part with a narrative that says it is the only viable option for the governance of an Iranian nation. Tehran has also relied on the claim that there is no significant opposition to its rule. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and State media has long sought to dismiss the leading pro-democracy Resistance group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), through a widespread demonization campaign claiming the MEK lacks support inside Iran.
But the regime provided ample reason to doubt the sincerity of that claim last year when the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei selected Ebrahim Raisi as the regime’s president.
Previously, Raisi had been one of the major instruments of the MEK’s so-called destruction, serving as one of four officials on the Tehran “death commission” in 1988, which played the leading role in a massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, mostly affiliated to the MEK. Raisi went on to contribute in other ways to the long-term suppression of dissent, and in 2019, as head of the judiciary, he oversaw key aspects of a crackdown on nationwide protests, which killed an additional 1,500 peaceful activists.
His subsequent promotion to the presidency clearly showed the regime’s commitment to more of the same repression. But by specifically promoting someone whose claim to infamy involved brutal, direct confrontation of the MEK, the supreme leader only reinforced the perception of the MEK as a much more significant force than the regime had generally been willing to admit.
Khamenei had been compelled to admit just that more than three years before Raisi was confirmed as the next president. In January 2018, Khamenei delivered a speech against a nationwide anti-government uprising – the first of several – in which he said that the MEK had “planned for months” to facilitate the unrest and promote slogans like “death to the dictator.”
Those slogans remain in regular circulation even today, and since June 2021, they have been joined by “death to Raisi” as a particular expression of defiance in the face of Khamenei’s latest efforts to elevate the regime’s most repressive elements, especially those specifically targeting the MEK. This, in turn, highlights the broad popular embrace of the MEK and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, as emblems of a viable, democratic alternative to the theocratic dictatorship.
It should be clear by now that the regime’s repressive strategy of selecting Raisi has failed. Indeed, popular unrest is as vigorous and widespread today as it was before Raisi’s selection.
Although the regime stepped up its repressive activities to project an image of strength, in fact, its vulnerability is displayed. In the current situation, domestic protests have been a nearly constant fact of life in Iran since May, when pre-planned demonstrations by teacher’s unions segued directly into protests over arbitrary cuts to food subsidies, as well as a deadly building collapse that activists highlighted as an example of the effects of the endemic corruption.
Such activities have no doubt been encouraged by the growth in public awareness of organized opposition, particularly under the banner of the MEK. The MEK has made its presence known through its network of Resistance Units’ activities. At the beginning of this year, that network was able to claim responsibility for the burning of a newly unveiled statue of the late commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ terrorist Quds Force, as well as the taking over the state media broadcast signals, which were used to repeat slogans calling for regime change and to play excerpts of speeches of Massoud and Maryam Rajavi.
The international community is taking notice of such indicators of the regime’s vulnerability and lack of public support. But there is still work to be done to guide Western policymakers toward a proper understanding of the regime’s true vulnerability and the potential for transformative change.
Of course, many such policymakers have recognized that potential for years, as evidenced by their regular participation in international conferences and rallies organized by the NCRI with the aim of highlighting the gains that its main constituent group has made inside Iranian society. Earlier this month, some of those supporters shared their messages to accompany those provided by 5,000 Resistance Units inside Iran for broadcast at the MEK’s headquarters-in-exile, Ashraf 3, in Albania.
Tony Clement, a former government Minister from Canada, said in one such message: “There is a rising tide of protests… that encourage the people of Iran to voice their opposition to the regime, and shatters the regime’s air of invincibility and intimidation, which they seek to use to denigrate the morale of people who wish to confront this regime.”
6. Fmr. #Canadian Minister @TonyclementCPC: I want to salute #ResistanceUnits in #Iran who sacrifice and take risks for themselves. Their resistance will guarantee #liberty & the downfall of this very terrible regime.#Westand4FreeIran
Excerpts of speech:pic.twitter.com/SG5Y9QOG5e
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) August 6, 2022
That strategy has unfortunately been more or less successful over much of the past 43 years, with the regime’s “air of invincibility” even appearing to convince the United States and other powerful Western nations that it would have been futile to actively oppose an entrenched Iranian leadership for which there was supposedly no viable alternative. But during that time, more and more policymakers have come to recognize the NCRI as just such an alternative.
The requisite overthrow is now closer at hand than ever before, and the Iranian people will certainly be able to reach out and claim it as long as the international community takes no action to appease, legitimize, or otherwise strengthen the clerical regime. Toward that end, all Western nations must finally dispense with any notion that that regime, which has been rocked by four years of virtually continuous protest, is invincible, stable, or an inevitable part of the future politics of the Middle East.