Western Leaders Must Join Iranian Activists in Recognizing Their Movement’s Potential
Earlier this week, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK) reported that members of its “resistance units” had assembled at the gravesite of world champion wrestler and civil activist, Gholamreza Takhti, in order to pay respects to all those who were killed one year earlier in a nationwide protests against Iran’s theocratic government.
Thousands of protesters were arrested in January of last year as they participated in interconnected protests in more than 140 Iranian cities and towns, often chanting virtually unprecedented slogans such as “death to the dictator.” At least 14 of the detainees were tortured to death, and about 50 individuals were killed in the streets as protesters clashed with Iran’s repressive authorities.
The above gathering was by no means the only event of its kind. Resistance units have also been credited with placing posters in public places throughout Tehran and other cities, identifying martyrs by name and reiterating the slogans associated with their cause. These same slogans remained in use throughout 2018 as Iranian activists continued to gather in various localities for smaller scale re-creations of the initial uprising.
In March, Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the PMOI’s parent coalition, issued a statement predicting that the January demonstrations had been the spark to set off a “year full of uprisings,” which would lead the Iranian people toward “final victory” over the clerical regime. The ongoing efforts of PMOI resistance units speak to the fact that this wasn’t just speculation or wishful thinking. Mrs. Rajavi was then uniquely aware of the organization’s plans and the effort it had put forth to preserve the mainstream message of regime change.
Last year’s uprising marked a dramatic turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic. This was evidenced, for example, by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s decision to reverse course on regime propaganda while the uprising was at its peak. In order to explain the extent of the unrest and the regime’s difficulty in managing or suppressing it, Khamenei acknowledged that the PMOI had planned for months to give life to the protests and inspire their most provocative slogans.
This admission clearly contradicted Khamenei’s incessant earlier claims that the PMOI was nothing more than a marginal group, lacking in popular support among Iran’s domestic population and incapable of affecting change on a large scale. Today, it is clear that nothing could be further from the truth. The PMOI spearheaded what may be the greatest challenge to the regime since its inception, and that challenge continues to escalate even now.
Over the past year, the uprising has been connected to an array of student demonstrations, labor strikes, and other protests that appeared at first to be focused on specific issues but ultimately took on the same political tone as the protests of one year ago. Indeed, the very first protest that would morph into the January uprising took place in the city of Mashhad on December 28 and was focused on the financial hardships of ordinary residents. The public’s awareness of these circumstances was reflected, for instance, in chants like, “forget about Syria; think of us.” The regime has reportedly spent billions of dollars on its defense of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, even as currency devaluation and rising commodity prices caused levels of poverty and unemployment to skyrocket, encompassing the vast majority of the population.
The PMOI has recorded related instances of this and related slogans at some of the most recent demonstrations to be organized by impoverished populations and persons whose livelihoods are threatened by the regime’s chronic inattention to public welfare. There seems to be little doubt that such slogans are fueling persistent activism throughout the Islamic Republic. But what is much less clear is whether the international community will prove similarly responsive.
The Iranian regime’s insistence on privileging regional influence over productive domestic policies is a clear threat to Iran’s neighbors and by extension, to the interests of Western democracies. As long as that regime remains in place, the footprint of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will deepen all across the Middle East, and can affect the situation in the West, where foreign supporters of the PMOI were targeted several times over the past year.
This situation demands international attention, particularly in the form of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation aimed at limiting the regime’s ability to project force beyond its borders and to crack down on dissent inside them. Just as important is the fact that the ongoing efforts of PMOI resistance units and other Iranian activists represent a virtually unparalleled opportunity for foreign adversaries of the Islamic Republic.
As long as the one-year-old protest movement remains active, the regime will be in an unusually vulnerable state. And in the event that the movement receives earnest and sustained support from the international community, it may soon be able to achieve the long-sought goal of regime change, thereby validating the predictions of the PMOI and NCRI while leaving no doubt whatsoever that the suffering and death among Iran’s activist community was never in vain.