Domestic unrest has been a feature of public life in Iran since the inception of its theocratic regime. But it is only in recent years that such unrest has come to entail consistent advocacy for regime change. The trend began in earnest at the end of 2017, when a protest over the state of the economy began spreading from the city of Mashhad to more than 100 other localities while also taking on provocative, anti-government slogans such as “death to the dictator”.
As that initial uprising continued through much of January 2018, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made public statements attributing its scale and tone to the organizing efforts of a pro-democracy opposition movement that his regime had long attempted to write off: the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Iranian authorities had previously sought to destroy that organization, making it the main target of a massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. In acknowledging its influence 30 years later, Khamenei implicitly directed his subordinates to pursue a similar crackdown on dissent. Thus, when an even larger uprising broke out across nearly 200 cities and towns in November 2019, the authorities promptly opened fire on crowds of protesters, killing 1,500 in a matter of only days, before initiating a campaign of systematic torture against many of those who were arrested in the clashes.
Remarkably, this did not halt the trend toward more large-scale protests and public calls for regime change. Less than two months after the 2019 uprising, activists took to the streets once again in response to the regime’s attempted cover-up of a missile strike that brought down a commercial airliner near Tehran in January 2020. Many participants in those demonstrations set their sights squarely on the entity responsible for the strike, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, even though it was also the primary perpetrator of mass shootings the prior November.
That January, and throughout the ensuing year, protests continued to meet with violence and repression, but those responses proved no more effective. In 2021, the Iranian resistance recorded one major protest against the entire theocratic regime each four months. In June of that year, the vast majority of the Iranian public refused to participate in the sham presidential election that led to the installation of a leading perpetrator of the 1988 massacre, Ebrahim Raisi. The electoral boycott was aggressively promoted by PMOI-affiliated “Resistance Units”, with the accompanying message that Iranians should “vote for regime change”.
Since the start of this year, those Resistance Units have expanded their tactics and their reach, setting fire to a statue of the late paramilitary commander Qassem Soleimani less than a day after it was unveiled, and hijacking public address systems and state media broadcast signals to share speeches by the leaders of the resistance and to repeat the call for “death to the dictator”. Meanwhile, worsening domestic crises have helped that message to gain additional traction among the general public.
In May alone, massive protests emerged in response to the regime’s refusal to raise poverty-level wages for teachers and other government employees, its decision to cut food subsidies and spark sharp increases in the price of staple commodities, and the perceived role of government corruption in a building collapse in the city of Abadan which killed more than 40 people. In each case, angry protesters have been heard to chant slogans against the entire regime as well as the specific officials involved with the issues in question.
Other common features of Iranian protests over the past five years include the involvement of people from all walks of life, particularly poor and rural communities that were once perceived to be strongholds of support for the clerical regime. Conversely, women have also played a strong role in the protests.
The National Council of Resistance of Iran has elected Mrs. Maryam Rajavi as the president-elect of the Iranian resistance. Her prospective leadership poses such a threat to the existing regime that in 2018, Tehran directed one of its high-ranking diplomats at the regime’s embassy in Vienna to oversee a plot to kill her and many more, with a highly explosive device and spark chaos at the NCRI’s annual gathering near Paris.
Fortunately, that plot was foiled through the joint efforts of European law enforcement agencies. But given that the target event was attended by around 100,000 Iranian expatriates and hundreds of political dignitaries from Europe and the US, the attempted bombing stands as a reminder of what Tehran is willing to risk in order to suppress the trend toward increasingly organized opposition that has been developing through the past five years.
Investigations into the 2018 bomb plot established that it had originated at the highest levels of the Iranian regime.
In light of this trend, the international community should recognize what Iranian people and their resistance have long understood: Improvements in the lives of ordinary Iranians can only come about through regime change, and specifically through change that reflects Mrs. Maryam Rajavi’s 10-point plan for Iran’s democratic future.
Although Iranian state media have at times attempted to muddy the world’s understanding of the current opposition movement by suggesting that some participants desire a return to the pre-revolution monarchy, the reality is that this is something the recent uprisings have explicitly rejected. As well as calling for death to the current dictator, countless participants in those uprisings have chanted, “No to tyranny, no to the mullahs no to Shah”.
Thus, the international community should also understand that there is a clear endpoint for the emerging process of regime change, and one that warrants support from all the world’s modern, secular democracies. Indeed, support for the PMOI and Mrs. Rajavi’s 10-point plan has been growing steadily among Western policymakers with a wide range of political affiliations. Yet that support has yet to translate into actual government policy that reflects an awareness of Iran’s growing protest movement, or an understanding of its true potential. It is time for that to change.
Hossein Abedini is the deputy director of the UK office and a member of the Parliament in exile of the Iranian resistance (NCRI) and belongs to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Mr. Abedini was seriously wounded by the death squads of the Iranian regime in Turkey in March 1990 and is one the few survivors of the terrorism of the Iranian regime.