By Kasra Nejat | January 17, 2018
The latest uprising in the Islamic Republic of Iran exposed an underlying sentiment that will not remain suppressed for long.
According to the opposition coalition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), at least 8,000 people were detained within the first two weeks; the regime admits to approximately half this number. Its judiciary was quick to threaten death sentences for “those most responsible.”
There is little mystery about what sort of charges will be used to justify such killings; a wide range of political offenses can result in execution in the Islamic Republic, including membership in banned organizations and the crime of mohabareh, or “enmity against God.” In fact, the latter was codified in Iranian law largely for the purpose of establishing death as the default punishment for members of the leading opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
Tehran has made every effort to suppress and destroy MEK since the advent of the Islamic Republic. The organization played a role in the 1979 revolution against the Shah, but opposed the establishment of absolute clerical rule. Since then, it has been a tireless advocate for regime change in favor of a democratic system.
In 1988, at the end of the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring all enemies of the clerical regime “at war with God.” Those who refused to disavow their loyalty to opposition groups were to be executed. As a result, political prisoners throughout the country were hauled before “death commissions” for brief interrogations to determine whether they would live or die.
In the summer of 1988 alone, approximately 30,000 dissidents were put to death, the overwhelming majority of them MEK members and associates. Thousands more have been killed since, for offenses as insubstantial as donating money to satellite news networks affiliated with the Iranian opposition.
In the wake of the 2009 uprising, as dozens of people were executed, assassinated or tortured to death, some were singled out for harsh treatment on the basis of alleged connections to the MEK. The actual role that the organization played in those protests is difficult to determine with certainty, but given the widespread popularity of the MEK, it was no doubt significant. That popularity has only grown since 2009, as has the organization’s roster of allies in foreign governments and international policy circles.
The latest protests are a prime example. Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, weighed in by placing much of the blame upon the MEK. Referring to the group by the familiar pejorative term “hypocrites,” Khamenei declared that they had been “ready for months” to instigate the mass protests which spread to more than 100 towns and cities in a matter of days.
He attributed one of the protesters’ slogans, “no to high prices” exclusively to the PMOI. People in various localities were also heard to chant “no Syria, no Iraq; I will give my life only for Iran,” signaling that they were taking their cue from the MEK in condemning Tehran’s activities in the broader Middle East.
Tens of thousands of Iranians had banded together in calling for regime change, the central demand of the MEK and its parent coalition, the NCRI, led by Maryam Rajavi. It was impossible for Khamenei or other regime authorities to deny the MEK’s role. In turn, those same authorities were forced to acknowledge their failure to stamp out Iran’s most active and wide-ranging opposition movement.
This is not to imply that the regime’s efforts to destroy the movement are over. Quite the contrary. By admitting the extent of the MEK’s influence, Khamenei has potentially set the stage for a broader crackdown. There is no telling how many Iranians could face capital punishment for merely protesting alongside the MEK.
It is, therefore, crucial that Western governments, the United Nations, and human rights organizations keep a close eye on Iran in the aftermath of the protests, and make it clear that there will be serious consequences for political violence and the suppression of the people’s will.
Now that even Khamenei has highlighted the strength of the MEK and the popularity of its calls for regime change, Western leaders should consider the implications for their Iran policy. Tehran has made every effort to portray an image of stability, while denying that it faces serious domestic threats. Now that the secret is out, the world should recognize the opportunity that the MEK and the Iranian people have to bring democracy to their country.
Kasra Nejat lives in St. Louis and is president of the Iranian American Cultural Association of Missouri.