By Hamid Enayat
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of countless events that were scheduled to take place this summer. Other events have scaled down and altered their format in order to comply with social distancing protocols and minimize risk to participants. Only one that I’m aware of has responded to the challenge by actually scaling up from numbers that were already impressive in previous years.
Since 2004, the National Council of Resistance of Iran has been holding a gathering each summer to highlight the activities of Iranian pro-democracy activists while urging the international community adopt more assertive policies toward the repressive and deeply unpopular Iranian regime. In recent years, this gathering-together of an international expatriate community has come to involve upwards of 100,000 participants. Its profile has also risen with Western policy circles and among advocates for human rights and democracy throughout the world.
Typically, hundreds of political dignitaries travel to the venue near Paris where the rally is hosted. In 2019, many of the same personalities traveled instead to Albania, where the usual message of support for regime change was supplemented with a celebration of the completion of a local compound housing more than 2,000 members of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The establishment of that compound, Ashraf-3, was regarded as a significant defeat of the Iranian regime’s plans to stamp out organized opposition. From the 1980s until the end of the US occupation of Iraq, the PMOI leadership had been residing in a self-built community called Camp Ashraf. After coming under repeated attack by Iran-backed forces, the community was temporarily moved to the former US military base of Camp Liberty, before finally concluding its evacuation from Iraq in 2017.
Ashraf-3 now stands alongside the NCRI’s French headquarters as another stable base of operations for Resistance activists as they work to help coordinate activities inside the Islamic Republic while also urging the international community to adopt policies that demonstrate support for a democratic alternative to the existing regime. The symbolism of this expansion is, of course, something that the NCRI would like to continue emphasizing even during the pandemic. And their plans for this week demonstrate a clear commitment to so doing.
Friday’s “Free Iran Global Summit” will have every bit as much of an international reach as its predecessors. But in the interest of keeping participants safe, it will achieve this by connecting a series of smaller-scale gatherings at historic sites in Paris, Berlin, Washington D.C., and other world capitals. Between these rallies and private Zoom connections, the summit will bring together approximately 30,000 individual locations across 102 countries. Many political dignitaries who visited Albania last year will also deliver speeches on Friday.
Naturally, Ashraf-3 will itself be a major contributor to the global summit. The wide range of remote connections to that locations may help to underscore the role that it now plays throughout the year, and not just on special occasions that celebrate the prior gains made by the Resistance inside Iran. This symbolism is unlikely to be lost on the Iranian regime, which has begun to issue regular warnings to its supporters about the growing sociopolitical influence of the PMOI.
In 2018, Iranian operatives attempted to launch attacks both on the new compound in Albania and on the Iran Freedom rally in France. Both plots were thwarted by European authorities, but they underscored the desperation guiding the regime’s efforts to crush its opposition. This, in turn, highlighted the significance of large-scale protests in Iran, as well as their connection to an increasingly secure and highly-organized community of exiled dissidents.
The regime’s terror plots emerged in the wake of a nationwide uprising that was already in full swing at the start of 2018. It lasted through much of that January and helped to popularize slogans like “death to the dictator” which persist to this day. In response to the unrest, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that the PMOI had “planned for months” to facilitate the uprising. And although he attempted to dismiss that organization as a tool of foreign influence, this rhetoric could not diminish the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iranians in more than 150 localities chose to participate in demonstrations that endorsed the platform of the Iranian Resistance.
If there was any doubt about the sincerity of that embrace, it was surely destroyed in November 2019, when an even greater share of the population adopted the same anti-government slogans, in approximately 200 cities and towns. And even after the regime put down this movement by killing upwards of 1,500 peaceful protesters, it was no more than two months before demonstrations revved up across multiple provinces once again.
The NCRI is keen to show that this momentum has not been lost to the coronavirus pandemic. And judging from early reports about participation in the all-day Free Iran Global Summit, huge numbers of its supporters share this goal. In regions where they are able to do so, Iranian expatriates will be gathering in numbers large enough to clearly capture the spirit of the prior years’ international rallies. And when linked together online, these separate gatherings will likely well exceed the 100,000 that had previously traveled to France and Albania.
Organizing the various constituent events was no small feat, especially in the face of limitations imposed by the pandemic. It takes substantial incentive for an organization to scale up its usual activities under these circumstances. The NCRI has all the necessary incentive, and then some. The past three years have been marked by major advances in the push for Iranian democracy and civil liberties, and Friday’s summit aims to make it clear that, if anything, the clerical regime will emerge from the pandemic even more vulnerable than it was beforehand.
The PMOI’s intelligence network estimates that over 70,000 Iranian citizens have died from coronavirus, while Tehran will acknowledge only about a sixth of them. But despite this denial, internal discussions among Iranian officials indicate that the regime is anticipating even more intense uprisings in the aftermath of this crisis. Friday’s event is, therefore, an opportunity for policymakers in more than 100 countries to contemplate how they will react when that happens, and whether or not they will stand in support of the Iranian people and the democratic Resistance.