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Ahead of EU ministerial meeting, lawmakers offer support for Iranian protesters’ right to resist

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Ambassadors from the European Union’s 27 members sent a unanimous signal on October 12 after coming to an agreement on a plan to impose new sanctions on at least 15 Iranian individuals and entities, as penalties for a worsening pattern of repression following the outbreak of nationwide protests in September.

The new round of sanctions is expected to be formalized on October 17, when the EU’s Council of Ministers holds its scheduled meeting in Luxembourg.

More than 170 members of the European Parliament signed a statement highlighting the seriousness of the present situation in the Islamic Republic and outlined further measures that the EU might undertake to support the Iranian people in their struggle against repressive authorities.

The statement was spearheaded by the Friends of a Free Iran, an interparliamentary group comprised of lawmakers with a wide range of political orientations. Its members have long expressed support for organized opposition to the Iranian regime, specifically for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), an entity that was established in the 1960s and helped to overthrow the Shah in 1979 before becoming the leading voice for the democratic resistance to the Islamic Republic following the Iranian Revolution.

Recognizing the role of MEK-affiliated “Resistance Units” in the uprising currently sweeping the nation, the statement declared that “the prospect of change in Iran has never been this accessible.” This message was conveyed to the president of the Council of Ministers and to the foreign ministers of all EU member states, and urged them to “recognize the right of the Iranian people to defend themselves and to overthrow this regime and to establish a free and democratic Iran.”

Although the current uprising was sparked by protests over a specific incident, namely the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of Tehran’s “morality police,” it quickly assumed broad political messaging and began to convey the popular desire for regime change. 

Amini was arrested by the morality police on September 13 after being accused of wearing her mandatory head covering too loosely. She fell into a coma after being taken for reeducation and died three days later. Authorities attempted to blame the incident on preexisting medical issues that caused a heart attack, but her family insists that she was in perfect health and that her body showed signs of abuse which the authorities attempted to conceal. Other eyewitnesses have affirmed that she was violently attacked upon her arrest and while being transported to a police station.

Women and teenage girls have assumed a prominent leadership role in the ongoing uprising. This has evidently helped to make the unrest uniquely difficult to suppress, as reports continue to accumulate of protesters fighting back with only stones and bare fists against heavily-armed security forces.

Their hesitancy is likely amplified by an awareness that video from the uprising is still spreading through social media, despite the regime’s attempts to systematically block internet access. As the statement by 170 MEPs noted, “By disrupting and disconnecting the Internet in large parts of Iran, the regime is trying to prevent the transmission and dissemination of news and images of protests, the true dimensions of the uprising, and finally revelations regarding the scope of its massacre and suppression.”

With this in mind, the statement went on to identify the provision of “free and unhindered access to the internet” as one of five key recommendations for how the EU and its member states might help the Iranian people at this time. Prospects for that assistance improved shortly after the outbreak of protests when the United States Treasury Department announced that it was revising its sanctions to allow for the export to Iran of civilian-use telecommunications equipment.

Further recommendations from the MEPs include the same policy shifts that they have suggested on various other occasions, and not just during times of nationwide unrest. The recent statement once again emphasized the importance of referring the dossier on Iranian human rights abuses and crimes against humanity to the United Nations Security Council, with the expectation that perpetrators will be prosecuted in an international court.

While the statement specifically urged policymakers to “condemn the killing of demonstrators” in the current uprising and to “stop this repression,” it also recalled attention to unresolved past crimes including the killing of 1,500 participants in the November 2019 uprising and the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, which reportedly claimed 30,000 victims, of which roughly 90 percent were members and supporters of the MEK.

Both of those incidents are closely associated with Iran’s current president, Ebrahim Raisi, who was a member of Tehran’s four-person death commission during the 1988 massacre and head of the Iranian judiciary at the time of the 2019 crackdown. The recent statement mentions Raisi by name when recommending that the EU “impose punitive measures on those responsible for the latest deadly crackdown and [on the] regime’s leaders.”

When Raisi was appointed as president last year, Amnesty International Director General Agnes Callamard described it as a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.” Recognition of that impunity underlies the call for European governments to “make any relations with Iran contingent upon the halt of executions, domestic repression and crackdown on protests.”

Finally, the EU lawmakers’ statement emphasizes the symbolic importance of recognizing “the Iranian people’s democratic aspirations, their organized resistance movement and their right to establish a free, democratic and secular Iran.”

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