Iran’s latest nationwide uprising has now continued for more than 80 days and has spread to at least 277 cities and towns across all of the country’s 31 provinces. At times, simultaneous protests have taken place in as many as 40 locations within the capital city. This marks the first time that all of Tehran’s districts and neighborhoods have participated in political demonstrations, and this in turn reflects the extraordinary diversity of the ongoing uprising.
Whereas some of the most significant Iranian protest movements of the 21st century have been confined to the middle class in urban population centers, the current uprising represents a pattern of growing involvement from different demographics, including poor citizens in rural areas who were long assumed to be firm supporters of the clerical regime.
Questions have swirled about the accuracy of that assumption for the past several years, especially following an uprising in November 2019 that encompassed nearly 200 localities and a range of different communities. But the true diversity of Iranian activism has perhaps never been clearer than it is today, with poor and middle-class citizens have gathered together in the streets virtually every day for the past 11 weeks, to repeat the same slogans rejecting tyranny in all its forms and specifically calling for an end to the existing theocratic dictatorship.
This unity of urban intellectuals and the more underprivileged sectors of Iranian society poses a unique challenge to the regime, especially when one considers the broader diversity within those categories. All of Iran’s major ethnic groups have been similarly represented in the protest movement. Their solidarity has been unprecedented and has conclusively undermined the regime’s strategy of diving the population against itself to limit popular mobilization against the regime.
Each living generation of Iranian citizens is represented in the uprising, as well. And although youth activism is of course nothing unusual either in Iran or anywhere else, it has been a very long time since university students have taken so prominently a leadership role in a movement for comprehensive socio-political change. More than 100 Iranian universities have been the site of multiple protests in recent weeks, despite concerted efforts by the authorities to intimidate the student population and criminalize campus gatherings.
Perhaps even more significant and more unprecedented, high school students have assumed a similar leading role in his movement. Many of them have torn up images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in their classrooms or banded together to shout down regime officials who had been dispatched to their schools to discourage dissent and activism. At least 60 persons under the age of 18 have lost their lives since the start of the uprising in mid-September, after being attacked by security forces.
Among people from all age groups, the death toll well exceeds 700, according to the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK).
It reveals the depth of the regime’s fear that it might be overthrown in the wake of so many disparate population groups banding together to chant slogans like “death to Khamenei.” Actually, the prospect of the clerical regime’s overthrow has become more imminent.
It isn’t just the diversity or the youth of the current protest movement that accounts for the seeming inevitability of regime change. It is also the fact that, contrary to some international reporting, this uprising is highly organized, with a clear sense of direction. Far beyond just keeping track of arrests and fatalities in the wake of clashes between the people and the regime, the MEK has been actively organizing and promoting demonstrations and keeping participants throughout the country informed about the clear progress they are making.
This opposition group has maintained a network of “Resistance Units” to fill these and related activities for the past eight years, during which time they have played a leading role in at least as many anti-government uprisings. Through public banners and graffiti, as well as guerilla media distribution, these Resistance Units promote coordinated protests not just as an expression of widespread grievances but as a pathway to a specific democratic outcome.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition of Iranian democratic opposition movements, with MEK as its backbone organization, has long maintained a 10-point-plan for realizing this outcome, authored by Maryam Rajavi, whom the NCRI has designated to serve as transitional president in the event of the mullahs’ overthrow. The NCRI is comprised of 500 members and 25 committees that represent a provisional coalition government that is prepared to lead the country for a period of six months pending its first-ever free and fair elections.
The 10-point plan explicitly establishes key principles for the future republic, including gender equality, religious freedom, separation of religion and state and equal protection before the law for people of all demographics. It should therefore come as no surprise to the international community that the growth in awareness of this platform has coincided with the growth in unity among Iranian activists from all walks of life.
Unfortunately, though, many Western policymakers still seem to be not only surprised by this reality but also averse to truly recognize it. In this sense, they have remained stubbornly committed to a conciliatory foreign policy strategy that assumes, where Iran is concerned, that it is better to deal with the devil you know.
That strategy has always been mistaken because it has always relied on the faulty assumption that there was no viable democratic opposition waiting in the wings. But the NCRI has been there for years, and the MEK has been fighting the clerical regime since its inception, having previously contributed to the overthrow of the Shah, which most Iranians hoped would lead them to democracy in 1979.
For those Iranians and their descendants, the current uprising is more than an expression of outrage at four decades of repression, misogyny, destruction, rampant corruption, and reactionary rule. It is an opportunity to put history right and to allow their country to take the place it deserves within the community of nations.
Western democracies in general and European democracies in particular, should immediately recognize this same potential and begin coming to terms with the very real possibility that the mullahs will be deposed, and the Iranian people will move their nation and society forward in line with one of the most frequently recurring slogans of recent weeks: “Death to the oppressor, whether it is the Shah or the Leader (Khamenei).”