The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a uniquely difficult area for American and European foreign policy since the Islamist dictatorship was established in the wake of the 1979 revolution.
Throughout the past four decades, I have personally witnessed the challenges faced by policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, in terms of understanding the utterly perplexing Iranian political situation and how to respond to it.
What has compounded the problem is the geopolitical significance and importance of Iran and its impact on the region and the global order. Simply put, Iran is too big and too pressing to be ignored.
The dimensions of that problem became more evident in 2002 when the country’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), first revealed details of the regime’s secret nuclear weapons program. But by that time, other issues such as a penchant for hostage-taking and the support of various international terrorist groups had already been firmly established as demanding Western attention.
Paradoxically, even though the nuclear revelations strongly influenced international perspectives about the threats posed by the Iranian regime, they did not seem to change the false perception that Western governments could change the regime’s behavior by offering concessions. Consequently, those governments have maintained inadequate policies while ignoring the pivotal factor of the Iranian people and the role of the opposition PMOI/ MEK. Recent and ongoing developments inside the Islamic Republic have made it abundantly clear that inattention to the Iranian Resistance and what it represents is a serious missing factor in American and European approaches to Iran policy.
The same recent and ongoing developments clarify the importance of those policies not only to Western interests and the interests of regional allies, but also to the welfare and long-term governance prospects of the Iranian people themselves.
Normalizing Calls for Regime Change
As of this writing, the Islamic Republic is three weeks into what may reasonably be termed a nationwide uprising, first brought on by public outrage over the government’s decision to remove subsidies on essential foodstuffs. The impact of that decision included an immediate spike of roughly 400 percent in the price of cooking oil, and similarly catastrophic increases for chicken, eggs, dairy, bread, and pasta. Demonstrations began on May 6, primarily in Khuzestan Province, and since then they have spread to at least a dozen others. Anti-government protests continued subsequent to the collapse of a 10-story building in the city of Abadan (South-West Iran), which killed dozens and injured dozens more. The catastrophe was the direct result of rampant corruption and nepotism contributing to sub-standard construction.
The current uprising followed the same basic pattern as one that began in December 2017, continued through much of January 2018, and marked an apparent turning point in longstanding conflicts between the Iranian people and the Iranian regime. In that case, initial protests over economic conditions began in the country’s second-largest city of Mashhad, and then spread to well over 100 other localities. As they did so, they carried provocative anti-government slogans that seemingly normalized public calls for regime change.
The same slogans, including “death to the dictator” “down with Khamenei (the supreme leader), and “death to the oppressor, whether the shah or the mullahs,” have been heard in countless protests over the ensuing four and a half years. There have been at least eight protests since December 2017 that were large enough in scale to qualify as nationwide uprisings, including the most recent ones.
As with each of the prior uprisings, the ongoing demonstrations in Khuzestan and elsewhere have evolved to include calls for regime change alongside their original expressions of economic grievance. Now as then, the anti-government message was promoted in advance by “Resistance Units” affiliated with the MEK – activist collectives that are also known for acts of targeting symbols of the mullahs’ rule, as well as the public display and projection of images of leaders of the resistance, namely Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and Massoud Rajavi, the historical leader of the MEK.
Escalating Repression, Escalating Resistance
The longstanding activity of the Resistance Units underscores the fact that Iran’s regime is facing challenges not just from a loose collection of aggrieved citizens but from an organized opposition movement with a specific plan for the future of the country. This has grown increasingly unmistakable in recent months as the activities in question have become notably more sophisticated and more frequent.
On January 5, the Resistance Units burned a statue of Qassem Soleimani, the eliminated commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force in the provincial capital of Shahr-e kord in western Iran just a few hours after the unveiling.
Soleimani was killed by a US drone strike in Iraq two years earlier. Iran had attempted to retaliate against the killing by launching a volley of missiles at Iraqi military bases housing US forces, but in the pursuing hours, the IRGC shot down a commercial Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 people onboard. After the regime tried unsuccessfully to cover up the incident, protests began to emerge on university campuses and in public spaces spanning at least a dozen provinces.
As with prior demonstrations against the state of the economy, the targeted public condemnation of the January 2020 missile strike, soon turned political against the regime. This was made all the more remarkable by the fact that the protests came only two months after another nationwide uprising during which the IRGC was the foremost perpetrator of a nearly unprecedented crackdown on dissent.
The November 2019 uprising was sparked by the government’s decision to deliberately raise gasoline prices, for an already beleaguered population. Protests immediately spread to some 200 cities in all 31 provinces. The outraged population only targeted government centers and repressive centers and the slogans of the protesters throughout Iran were almost identical, targeting the regime in its entirety. All that indicated the role of an organized resistance in leading the protests. In the face of dramatic public outrage at that time, authorities cut off internet access for much of the country, in an effort to simultaneously impede organizing efforts and slow the spread of news regarding mass shootings and mass arrests.
The November 2019 crackdown stands out as an example of the regime’s willingness to utilize broad-ranging political violence to maintain its hold on power.
In that case, approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed by gunmen who were mostly members of the IRGC. This figure was initially reported by the MEK and its affiliates and was later confirmed by a Reuters’ report that cited multiple sources from inside the Ministry of Interior. Additionally, thousands of participants in that uprising were arrested alongside other known activists, and many were subjected to a campaign of systematic torture that progressed for months and was detailed in an Amnesty International report titled “Trampling Humanity”.
The regime’s response to the November 2019 uprising was a dramatic escalation from its response to the initial uprising in January 2018, which nevertheless killed dozens and resulted in lengthy prison sentences for many others. The escalation was surely related to the narratives that emerged from regime officials and state media outlets after calls for regime change fully entered the mainstream.
Regime Propaganda Collapsing
According to no less an authority than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the initial uprising was largely attributable to the MEK, which had “planned for months” to facilitate simultaneous protests in all major cities. In fact, Khamenei ultimately blamed the uprising on a “triangle of enemies” comprised of the MEK, Western governments, and Iran’s regional adversaries. This is ironic in light of the fact that the MEK is hardly mentioned in Western discussions of Iran policy, much less included in the strategies that emerge from those discussions.
This is not to say that the MEK is without support in the West. It has many high-profile backers in the fields of parliamentarians, government, security, intelligence, and academia, but their support has yet to translate into comparable attention from the actual leadership of the United States, the European Union, or its member states. This fact only makes Khamenei’s statements about recent uprisings more ironic, insofar as those statements threaten to undermine his own regime’s success in downplaying the power and influence of the MEK.
When the supreme leader and his subordinates began warning about the power and influence of an organized Resistance movement, they contradicted their own preexisting narratives which claimed no such movement existed. Iranian state media had long dismissed the MEK as a “cult” and a “grouplet” lacking any meaningful support among the general public. But of course, this description cannot be reconciled with the regime’s more recent acknowledgement that vast swaths of the national population have followed the MEK’s lead in staging multiple nationwide uprisings.
The eight uprisings which have taken place over the past four and a half years are notable not only for their scale or for the fact that they were invariably preceded by public appeals from MEK Resistance Units, but also for their geographic and demographic diversity. This sets them apart from prior large-scale protests like the 2009 protests, which were dominated by middle-class activists in Tehran. Thus, it also undermines longstanding assumptions that poor, rural Iranians represent a stronghold of support for the theocratic regime.
Those assumptions have arguably held back Western policymakers from exploring their full range of options for confronting the Iranian regime or engaging with the Iranian people. Tehran amplified that effect through its decades-long campaign to both downplay and demonize the MEK and any other pro-democracy voices that sought international support for their efforts to overthrow the clerical regime and establish a system of self-governance for the Iranian people.
Attacks on the MEK are incessant within Iranian state media, and many of those attacks have bled into the international press. Between March 2019 and March 2020, the regime broadcast more than 300 movies and documentary series on the MEK, and within that same period, two separate court rulings in Germany ordered news outlets to pay damages and revise articles because it was determined that their claims about the MEK could ultimately be traced back to Iranian intelligence.
The cases involving Der Spiegel and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung were unfortunately not unique, because the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security has spent a considerable amount of time developing a network of friendly journalists, sometimes even directing its own agents to ply their trade in the guise of academic or journalistic roles.
Aspects of this disinformation campaign were revealed in a particularly intimate fashion in February 2021 when an individual by the name of Hadi Sani-Kani sent a letter to officials with the United Nations detailing how he had collaborated with the Ministry in writing false stories about the MEK after defecting from the group.
One of the top priorities of the Iranian regime’s diplomatic apparatus has been neutralizing and marginalizing the MEK on the international scene.
The Wall Street Journal revealed on May 8, 2008, “Iranian officials have urged suppression of the MEK in negotiations with Western governments over Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues, according to several diplomats who were involved in those talks.”
With the progress that the MEK has made in recent years, the Iranian authorities decided to decapitate the opposition at any cost and as such planned the bombing of the massive international gathering in support of the Iranian Resistance in Paris on June 30, 2018.
The decision by the Supreme National Security Council (the highest decision-making body in Tehran on national security matters) was relegated to the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Foreign Ministry that were chosen to carry out the operation. Assadollah Assadi, Tehran’s Third Counselor in Vienna who was a veteran MOIS officer and coordinator of the MOIS activities in Europe, was assigned to carry out the operation. Assadi brought the highly sophisticated bomb from Tehran on a commercial flight to Vienna and subsequently handed it over to two of his agents in Luxembourg on June 28, 2018.
Thanks to the vigilance and close cooperation of security services of several European countries – including Belgium, France, and Germany – the plot was foiled.
The couple, Iranians with Belgium citizenship, were arrested in Brussels on June 30 on their way to the gathering in the suburbs of Paris. The bomb was in the trunk of their car. Another agent, who was also Iranian with Belgium citizenship, was arrested at the venue of the major gathering the same evening. Assadi, who was overseeing the operation while on “holiday” in Germany, was arrested near the Austrian border on July 1.
Some 100,000 people including thousands of European citizens and hundreds of dignitaries took part in the rally. (I headed the Italian delegation). The primary target was Maryam Rajavi. If the plot was not foiled, it could have been one of the deadliest terror cases in the recent history of Europe.
Following more than two years of investigation, Belgian investigators and the court concluded that this was the work of a state. Assadi was sentenced to the maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and his three agents were sentenced to 17 and 18 years of imprisonment.
At the first glance, it defies logic that Tehran assigned one of its Europe-based diplomats to carry out the operation at a time when Tehran was seeking Europe’s assistance to break the sanctions. It is common sense that if the operation was successful, it would have at least short-term diplomatic backlash for Tehran. But remarks from then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on July 1, 2018, revealed that Tehran had hoped to depict this as an inside job and a false flag operation. Tehran’s calculation was that given the surge in the activities of the opposition, a serious blow to the organized resistance and its leader would have outweighed the short-term diplomatic loss.
The timing of the planned attack was very telling. It was only a few months after the 2018 uprising in which Khamenei had explicitly underscored the role of the MEK and several regime’s senior officials, including IRGC Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, had vowed that the MEK would receive a serious blow where it was least expected.
For supporters of the MEK, such stories are confirmation of the Iranian regime’s often single-minded focus on that group as a threat to its hold on power.
But the terror and demonization campaign provide less vivid examples of that phenomenon than the regime’s various crackdowns on dissent, dating back to the earliest days of the Islamic Republic.
Longstanding Commitment to Violent Repression
While shocking in its own right, the sheer scale of the November 2019 crackdown came as little surprise to persons familiar with the regime’s repressive history. Its fear of the MEK was never more apparent than in 1988, at the end of eight-year Iran-Iraq War, when the regime’s weakened state made it especially vulnerable to a surge of popular dissent.
That year, the regime’s founder and first supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa declaring all members of the MEK guilty of “enmity against God”, a capital offense. As a result, “death commissions” were empaneled in prisons across the country to interrogate political prisoners over their views and affiliations. Those who failed to disavow the MEK or prove their loyalty to the regime were summarily executed and typically buried in secret mass graves.
It is estimated that some 30,000 political prisoners were killed in this fashion, easily qualifying the massacre as a crime against humanity. One perpetrator of that crime, a former official at Gohardasht Prison named Hamid Noury, is currently awaiting a verdict following his prosecution in a Swedish court, but apart from this, no official involved in the massacre has faced meaningful consequences.
Quite to the contrary, some of the leading perpetrators have steadily risen through the ranks of the Iranian regime over the past three decades, thereby reinforcing the regime’s vendetta against MEK activists. The severity of the November 2019 crackdown is perhaps attributable in part to this phenomenon. At the time, the nation’s judiciary was led by Ebrahim Raisi, who therefore oversaw the torture campaign that followed the IRGC’s mass shootings. In 1988, Raisi was one of four officials to serve on the Tehran death commission, which was responsible for the largest single share of the 30,000 executions.
Raisi’s role in the 2019 crackdown soon proved to be a stepping stone toward even greater power over domestic affairs.
In June 2021, Khamenei installed Raisi as president of the Islamic Republic following a tightly controlled election in which he was the only viable candidate to appear on the ballot. This was a strategic decision by Khamenei which entailed axing even some of the most loyal figures and factions of the regime that had the least rift with the supreme leader.
By appointing Raisi, Khamenei had chosen to impose an even more repressive environment throughout the country, step up support for terror groups in the region, intensify belligerence in the region, and further defy the international community on the nuclear program. Several Iran observers pointed to a roughly 40 percent increase in the rate of executions during the months immediately following Raisi’s “election”.
In light of Raisi’s reputation as the “butcher of 1988”, his presidential appointment makes the most sense if understood as a reaction to the growing discontent. Actually, following the November 2019 uprising, which pushed the regime to the precipice of being overthrown, Khamenei made it abundantly clear that his main priority is to stem the growing tide.
At the same time, these phenomena are only underscored by the circumstances that surrounded that appointment and effectively deprived both the Raisi administration and the entire regime of any claim to legitimacy.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently commented upon this situation while visiting Ashraf 3, the community established by the MEK in Albania following the relocation of 3,000 of their members from Camp Liberty in Iraq. In his remarks to residents, Pompeo also addressed Raisi’s repressive mandate and his role in undermining that mandate by stoking the people’s economic discontent.
“Raisi is not the president of the people of Iran,” Pompeo said. “He is the president of the Ayatollah. His mission is clear: inflict pain, frighten, continue to loot and plunder. But Raisi has already failed. He has failed to crush uprisings in Iran or break the noble spirit of dissent within the Iranian people.”
That failure is more specifically a failure to tamp down public awareness of the MEK as a viable alternative to the theocratic regime. Since Raisi’s appointment, that awareness has spread via the traditional efforts of MEK affiliated Resistance Units.
On January 27, the Resistance Units interrupted the broadcast of 25 Iranian state TV and Radio channels, showing crossed-out images of Supreme Leader Khamenei, pictures of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi and excerpts of their speeches.
Since then they have brought down several government ministry websites, and have used public address systems at busy public markets. Each of these outlets has played host, in recent months, to the now-familiar call for “death to the dictator”, and excerpts of speeches from both Mrs. and Mr. Rajavi.
It may be possible to say that activities by the organized resistance movement have escalated at a faster pace than the regime’s efforts to suppress them. In any event, it is reasonable to conclude that the MEK represents an increasingly salient threat to the clerical regime’s hold on power, and thus an aspect of Iranian affairs that European and American policymakers must consider.
Resolving a False Dilemma
Mike Pence, the former US Vice President said on October 28 in Washington “One of the biggest lies the ruling regime has sold the world is that there’s no alternative to the status quo. But there is an alternative – a well-organized, fully prepared, perfectly qualified and popularly supported alternative called the MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq). The MEK is committed to democracy, human rights and freedom for every citizen of Iran, and it’s led by an extraordinary woman. Mrs. Rajavi is an inspiration to the world. Her Ten-Point Plan for the Future of Iran will ensure freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom for every Iranian to choose their elected leaders.”
Mrs. Rajavi’s plan also calls for secular governance, safeguards on the rights of women and minorities, and disavowal of the belligerent foreign policy that is so essential to the current regime’s identity. Although Western policymakers have frequently expressed optimism about the possible softening of that identity, the overall trend has actually been in the opposite direction, especially in recent years.
On May 25, in a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in an exchange with the Chairman of the Committee, Democratic Senator, Bob Menendez, United States Special Representative for Iran Robert Malley acknowledged that Tehran’s conduct grew worse in areas such as missile proliferation and support of international terrorism during the period when the 2015 Iran nuclear deal was still in effect. But some aspects of the regime’s conduct also worsened after then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018.
What may be needed, therefore, is an altogether new strategy in line with the growing new reality on the ground – one that recognizes regime change by the Iranians as a more viable solution to problems emanating from Tehran, and one that formally acknowledges the forces pushing for that outcome from inside the Islamic Republic.
No such strategy has been forthcoming in the past four decades, because Western policymakers have overwhelmingly been caught in a false dilemma, believing that their only options were to accept the current composition of the Iranian government or to remove it by force of arms and accept the chaos that comes of leaving a country leaderless.
But there is a clear lesson to be taken from the eight uprisings against the regime of the last four and a half years: the Islamic Republic of Iran is now ripe for a regime change.
To achieve this goal, it is needed a no longer deferrable commitment by EU and US institutions in order to assure a Transatlantic stance that openly supports and legitimizes the organized opposition movement now leading the country’s transition to democracy.