By Majid Rafizadeh
March 28, 2018
For many of Iran’s democratic activists and for much of the expatriate community, there was a growing sense of optimism as they celebrated the Iranian new year last week. Specifically, there are signs that the coming year could herald an era of freedom from the theocratic regime that has been ruling the country for 39 long years.
That optimism is being built, in large part, on the foundation of mass protests that quickly spread throughout the country in late December and January. Every major town and city was affected, and the movement represented an expansion of pro-democratic actions to demographics that were once thought to be inert and either disinterested in politics or even supportive of the clerical regime.
The uprising conclusively debunked that myth. Not only did farmers and the rural poor participate in the demonstrations, they also helped to popularize much bolder slogans than those which characterized the urban middle class movement in 2009. Protesters in the past few months have risked execution by chanting “death to the dictator” and telling both factions of the Iranian political establishment that “the game is over.” And some did indeed pay the ultimate price, with approximately 50 people having been killed in the streets by security forces, with several others tortured to death while in police custody.
But, as many experts have observed, these acts of repression only serve to make a renewed uprising more likely, and more imminent. Iran’s pro-democratic resistance movement continues to drive protests and global outreach aimed at exposing the government’s abuses, securing the release of political prisoners, and keeping alive the promise of regime change. Consequently, the clerical establishment is feeling the heat, and its chances of suppressing the next mass uprising seem increasingly slight.
Insofar as the demonstrations in December and January gave rise to explicit calls for a change of government, they also gave voice to popular support for the resistance movement, as led by the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). In the face of that challenge, the regime’s violently repressive response was highly predictable. What was surprising, however, was its uncharacteristic admission of vulnerability when Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the leading role that the PMOI had played in planning and carrying out the nationwide protests.
The relevant statement on January 9 exposed a kind of anxiety that remains pronounced in the regime’s establishment to this day. On March 11, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, admitted that Khamenei’s main concerns included the persistence of domestic unrest and the internal situation of the IRGC in the days and months ahead. Although funding for the hardline paramilitary group has been greatly expanded in recent years, even during the tenure of the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani, the IRGC and other repressive forces have proven incapable of keeping ahead of popular demands for change.
Even before January’s uprising, thousands of protests and other instances of activism were recorded throughout the Islamic Republic over the past year. Since then, there has been a series of long, confrontational labor protests, and bold calls by the PMOI for mass gatherings in the run up to the new year celebration of Nowruz.
In her new year message, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), Maryam Rajavi, gave voice to the growing recognition of the regime’s vulnerability and the chances of a democratic transformation of Iranian society. Rajavi said: “Last year ended with the season of uprising, and the coming year can and must be turned into a year full of uprisings. And this is going to be an uprising until victory.” According to Rajavi: “The critical situation of the mullahs’ regime is a product of the Iranian people’s historic resistance. The Iranian people have never accepted this regime. The time is up for protecting this decadent regime and the uprising will continue until final victory.”
The NCRI president called attention to Khamenei’s admission that “the force inciting protests in Iran is the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran.”
Meanwhile, the optimism has been spreading across the globe, not only among Iranian expatriates but also among their supporters in Western policy circles. The PMOI has a large and growing network of non-partisan supporters, and this fact testifies to the real threat the organization and its affiliates pose to the clerical regime. A number of those supporters attended a major event in Tirana, Albania, that was attended by thousands of PMOI members on the occasion of Nowruz. Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and advisor to the US president on cyber security, said in a speech at that event: “You are the vision for the future of Iran. You are Madame Rajavi. I have a very simple message for the Iranian regime. Their future is in hell.” He added: “The right policy on Iran by any decent government in the world is regime change in Iran.”
It remains only for Western governments as a whole to set policy in accordance with these sentiments.
It is all but certain that the Iranian people will rise up again in opposition to the clerical regime. The international community must be ready to stand on the side of the Iranian people and the resistance and to make certain that those people retain access to the internet and social media, which were so instrumental in the astonishingly rapid and expansive spread of the January uprising. This will in turn make it easier for the world to recognize the abuses that the regime visits upon its restive population, and to hold Iranian officials accountable.
With this type of support from the free world, the Iranian people and the organized resistance movement could soon have an unprecedented opportunity to realize the promise that is inherent in the literal translation of Nowruz: A “new day” for an ancient civilization — one that has long been ready to enter an age of secular democracy and civic freedom.