By Jubin Katiraie
Iranian regime’s leaders know that they can no longer silence protests among their population. For years now, there has been an upward trend in unrest which has resisted all of the regime’s efforts at suppression.
In the last days of December 2017, protests against the regime’s economic mismanagement sparked a nationwide uprising, which lasted through much of January 2018. The movement popularized anti-government slogans that had previously been almost unheard of. This is not to say that the sentiment behind chants of “death to the dictator” was new. But threats of retaliation tended to outweigh the perceived benefits of clearly expressing support for regime change.
Something changed in the run-up to 2018, and it has shown no sign of changing back in the ensuing two and a half years. In fact, Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described 2018 as a “year full of uprisings,” on account of the countless scattered protests and labor strikes that grew out of the uprising and kept its overall message alive. That message would return to nationwide prominence before the end of the following year when a hike in the government-set price of gasoline added to the public’s economic grievances and sparked another mass uprising.
Already spooked by the prior incident, regime authorities reacted with much greater violence this time around. While the 2018 uprising had resulted in the deaths of several dozen protesters alongside thousands of arrests, its successor in November 2019 prompted security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to open fire on crowds with live ammunition, killing an estimated 1,500 people.
Arrests surely ran into the tens of thousands, spanning every major Iranian city and town. Prosecution of those arrestees continues to this day, and activists are still being ordered to begin long prison sentences, even as Tehran claims to have released as many as 100,000 inmates as part of an effort to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Iran’s coronavirus outbreak is undoubtedly the worst in the Middle East, and regime’s President Hassan Rouhani recently acknowledged that in just one prison, 100 out of 120 detainees became infected before authorities even recognized that the virus had been introduced.
The regime’s effort to plead ignorance, in that case, is questionable, to say the least. Activists and dissidents have expressed concern that Tehran may actually be taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to retaliate against political prisoners while maintaining plausible deniability about their fates. In March, a letter from detainees of Greater Tehran Penitentiary noted that they had seen little evidence to support the judiciary’s claims about mass furloughs, though many prisoners had effectively disappeared in absence of formal transfer orders.
That letter served to announce a coordinated hunger strike to protest the neglect of its signers’ concerns over the spreading illness. And when the hunger strike failed to compel a change in the judiciary’s policies, inmates in several Iranian prisons resorted to riots and attempted breakouts in an effort to address the concerns on their own. Amnesty International confirmed that at least 36 inmates were killed in those incidents, though local reports suggest that the number could be much higher.
Other reports indicate that among those who escaped prison, many were summarily executed upon recapture. They are by no means the only people to suffer this fate in recent weeks. Iran has long maintained its record as the country with the higher per-capita rate of executions, and since the immediate aftermath of the revolution, there have been a number of dramatic spikes in implementation of the death penalty. The NCRI has alleged in recent statements that one of those spikes is emerging right now, as Tehran struggles to subdue dissent and unrest during a public health crisis, and in the wake of two nationwide uprisings.
Since November, there have been multiple reports of participants in the uprising being sentenced to death. In some cases, the judiciary has pointed to supposed affiliation with the MEK as justification for the extreme sentence. This primary constituent of the NCRI coalition has lately been acknowledged by the regime’s Supreme Leader and other major officials as the leading threat to the theocratic dictatorship.
During the 2018 uprising, Ali Khamenei declared that MEK activists had “planned for months” to organize pubic demonstrations and popularize anti-government slogans. And just last Sunday, he delivered a speech to hand full of students during which he called upon the regime’s militia to “deal with them explicitly and strongly” and to help prevent “Resistance Units” from exploiting the MEK’s growing popularity among the youth in order to undermine the foundations of the theocratic system.
Fellow hardliner officials and Revolutionary Guard officers had issued similar advice and warnings in preceding months. These recurring references to the MEK are especially noteworthy because, for much of the regime’s 41-year history, any acknowledgment of the MEK was considered taboo. And on those rare occasions when officials were made to answer questions about the MEK, they tended to refer to it as an insignificant group, a “cult,” and a shrinking upstart that posed no real threat to the clerical regime.
Now, the MEK warrants mention by the regime’s ultimate authority, in the context of a speech that implored his supporters to help manufacture an image of that regime’s stability and freedom from internal threats. “Do not allow your protests to be viewed as protests against the Islamic system,” he begged of the youth, no doubt aware of that appeal’s futility. Opposition to the theocratic system has been the unmistakable message of nearly every protest since the first collective utterance of “death to the dictator.”
Khamenei’s remarks betray a change of strategy that presumably stems from the persistence of public activism even after the murder of 1,500 protesters in November 2019. Just two months after that uprising, university students were back in the streets, taking a lead role in condemning the regime’s incompetence and deception following a missile strike that killed 176 people onboard Ukraine Airlines Flight 752. And although the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of Iranians indoors soon thereafter, regime officials and hardline political analysts have been warning that poor management of that crisis will only spark more unrest in its aftermath.
Opposition groups like the MEK will see to this, and the regime cannot expect to suppress their activities very effectively, or for very long. Each new round of political violence only fuels the anti-government movement and underscores the justness of its cause. And while the Supreme Leader can no longer hide from the escalating threat to his hold on power, he can still attempt to hide it from the outside world, in hopes that a lack of foreign support for the Iranian Resistance might weaken its resolve over time.
The Iranian people’s perseverance in the face of violent repression and fatal neglect suggests that this isn’t very likely. But why should democratic nations take the chance, when it is so clear that the entire world would benefit from the Iranian regime’s overthrow at the hands of its own people? When even Khamenei recognizes how likely that outcome is, the international community should take the opportunity to push for it.