Protests have been taking place continuously across the Islamic Republic of Iran for more than 80 days. The latest reports from independent news sources and the principal opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), indicate that demonstrations have spread to at least 277 localities in all 31 Iranian provinces, with major cities like Tehran seeing simultaneous participation across districts and communities.
The MEK also reports that nearly 700 protesters have been killed since the uprising began in mid-September following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the so-called “morality police.” Nevertheless, the violent repression seems not to have impeded the people’s calls for change, much less prevent protestors from expanding their message beyond the initial focus on forced veiling and related women’s rights issues.
The nationwide uprising is now an unmistakable call for total regime change. Its ambition is reflected in slogans like “death to the dictator” and “death to the oppressor, be it the Shah or the leader” – the latter phrase underscoring the citizenry’s categorical rejection of all forms of dictatorship, and its unwillingness to return to the more secular tyranny of the Shah.
The current protest movement is, in fact, a push to reestablish the democratic aspirations that initially motivated broad public support for the 1979 revolution prior to it being co-opted by Ayatollah Khomeini. Since establishing a system of absolute clerical rule with himself at the top, he and his successor, Ali Khamenei, have presided over the implementation of a political system that is repressive, cruel, corrupt, and unjust. That together they have presided over the killing of upwards of 120,000 pro-democracy dissidents over the course of four decades should herald the West’s attention.
Most of the targets of the regime’s violence have been members of the MEK – a group that has maintained and expanded an extensive underground network of activists and intelligence sources committed to promoting a democratic alternative and countering the regime’s influence operations at home and abroad. Since 2014, the group has overseen significant efforts to facilitate large-scale uprisings like the one that is occurring at this moment.
In 2021, approximately 1,000 members of the MEK’s “Resistance Units” conveyed video messages to an international gathering of Iranian expatriates and global policymakers that were hosted at the MEK’s residence in Albania, Ashraf 3. One year later, the annual event featured five times as many video messages, an indication of the organization’s meteoric rise.
This was hardly surprising to close observers of Iranian affairs, particularly those tracking the anti-government protests that have swept the country since the end of 2017.
The first such uprising reflected the emerging efforts of the opposition’s Resistance Units – a fact that was implicitly acknowledged by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, when he delivered a speech in January 2018 that attempted to explain away the uncommonly provocative anti-regime slogans that had entered the mainstream discourse a month earlier.
Khamenei declared that the messaging was the result of months of planning by the MEK. The speech was intended to suggest that by virtue of being organized in advance, the uprising did not reflect genuine popular sentiment. But his remarks had the opposite effect when they confirmed the public’s embrace of the MEK’s calls for regime change and its underlying pro-democracy platform.
At the time, support for the group’s Ten-Point Plan had found an outlet in contemporaneous protests across more than 100 cities and towns. In November 2019, the number nearly doubled with the spontaneous outbreak of another uprising following sharp increases in government-set gasoline prices.
Today, active participation in the movement against the regime has grown even further, and not just in terms of its geographic reach. Reports from ongoing protests underscore the fact that they involve a wide range of ethnic and demographic groups, religious communities, and social classes.
For the first time, high school students have assumed a prominent role in the nationwide unrest, especially girls and young women who have lived their whole lives amidst a culture of forced veiling inconsistent with the peer reference groups they encounter online in democratic societies around the globe. Simply put, the gap between what is and what ought to be is too great to bear.
Tragically, extensive youth participation in this uprising has resulted in at least 60 people under the age of 18 being among those killed by the regime’s security forces. But public awareness of these killings has sparked renewed outrage, making it unlikely that the government will be able to reclaim control over the restive population.
Still, it’s not without trying.
Indeed, Tehran has made repeated efforts to force compliance through violence and intimidation, but each escalation has been met with comparable resistance from ordinary citizens. Last month, the judiciary announced its first death sentences for demonstrators, along with a series of indictments that point to the possibility of many more. In a rare special session, the United Nations Human Rights Commission described the situation in Iran as a “full-fledged human rights crisis.”
This is just part of the story. The tragedy of the current death toll notwithstanding, casualties are less than half the number of those killed in a matter of just days during the November 2019 uprising. The difference is not a function of restraint on the part of Iranian authorities, but greater resistance and coordination among Iranian protesters. Security forces have been stretched to the breaking point with regime officials going so far as to acknowledge that dozens of agents have been killed in clashes with the public.
There is reason to believe that the uprising remains in full swing and will grow in the wake of the latest memorials to the government’s victims. It is therefore imperative that the international community emphasize that the Iranian people retain the right to defend themselves, and are free to pursue a change of government – particularly if it involves the realization of a secular, democratic future defined by free elections and equal protections for every Iranian before the law.
Western governments can take an active role in supporting these efforts by engaging entities capable of building a free republic and therein denying legitimacy to the outgoing theocratic dictatorship.
There is a parliament-in-exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that is prepared to assume the role of a provisional coalition government and to oversee elections within the country’s first six months after liberation. These provisional authorities stand prepared to meet with foreign leaders and policy officials to discuss plans for a democratic Iran and its place in the community of nations. The Islamic Republic has regrettably never deserved such inclusion.
With the mullahs struggling to maintain their hold on power, Western nations should support the people’s will by further isolating the regime, closing Iranian embassies, and halting diplomatic relations. The clerical regime may have once seemed an immovable fixture of the Middle East landscape, but this isn’t the case any longer.