By Hamid Enayat
Advocates for Iranian democracy recognized a milestone in their movement last Saturday, when supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran held an online conference to mark an occasion that has come to be known as the Day of Martyrs and Political Prisoners. Among dissidents and expatriates, June 20 is recognized as the anniversary of the first major uprising against the theocratic regime, which took place all the way back in 1981.
The recent teleconference commemorating that event was streamed live to roughly 2,000 locations throughout the world. The significance of the 39th anniversary was seemingly elevated by widespread conviction that the 40th anniversary will be celebrated openly in Tehran, in the wake of regime change. Confidence in this outcome stems from a number of factors. The current regime appears overmatched by an escalating series of domestic and regional crises, and these threaten to amplify a protest movement that has its roots in the original uprising.
Opposition to Ayatollah Khomenei’s system of absolute rule emerged almost immediately following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Many of those who had helped to oust Shah Pahlavi had done so on the expectation that it would lead to democratic governance. Among them was the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, MEK, then led by Massoud Rajavi, who had been quick to call out Khomeini for co-opting a popular movement and turning it toward his own ends.
The growing opposition reached a crescendo on June 20 when approximately half a million supporters of the PMOI began marching toward the parliament building in Iran. But before they could reach their destination, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps cornered the protesters and opened fire, killing hundreds on the spot. Thousands of others were taken into custody, only to die later as a result of torture or politically motivated execution.
The early clash between Iranian activists and the IRGC set the stage for a long series of similar incidents, which are still ongoing. The latest of these actually exceeded the 1981 uprising in terms of its immediate impact. In less than a week during November 2019, an estimated 1,500 protesters were shot dead in various locations throughout the country. Thousands of others were arrested in the aftermath, and it remains to be seen what the long-term human cost of that uprising may be.
Arrestees are still being tried and sentenced for their participation in peaceful demonstrations more than half a year later. Many have received multi-year sentences. A handful may yet suffer capital punishment. But even among those who escape the ultimate sentence, some could die as a result of wounds, illnesses, and infections that have gone untreated during their time in prison. And this danger is of course made worse by the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, which has hit Iranian prisons with particular intensity, but has prompted little to no change in the abusive behavior of the judiciary or its prison guards.
That crackdown came as little surprise to those who are familiar with the standard behavior of the Iranian regime. It certainly came as no surprise to those dissidents and expatriates who witnessed the violent backlash against the 1981 uprising and have been waiting impatiently for any sign of change during the nearly 40 years that followed.
Seven years after the uprising, a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini led to a massacre of political prisoners which claimed the lives of 30,000 activists, mostly members of the MEK, over the course of several months. And between then and now, the death toll among the Iranian Resistance ballooned to a staggering 120,000 people. Some were formally executed in Iranian prisons and some were killed in terrorist incidents and assassinations outside Iran’s borders. All are now recognized on the Day of Martyrs and Political Prisons.
Later in the summer, the same martyrs will also be recognized as part of the NCRI’s annual gathering, which typically attracts tens of thousands of expatriate activists from throughout the world, as well as hundreds of political supporters who believe that their own governments should adopt policies that formally recognize the Iranian people’s right to oppose their tyrannical government.
That same sentiment was expressed on Saturday by numerous speakers who addressed the anniversary teleconference from their homes in the United States, Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and so on. Steve McCabe, a Labour MP from the UK, declared his belief that the Iranian Resistance represents a viable alternative to Iran’s current government. He then went on to say, “I want the British government to be open in its support for NCRI and Madame Rajavi,” the wife of the MEK’s founder, who has taken over much of it day-to-day operation and is designated to serve as the head of a transitional government after the mullahs’ overthrow.
How likely is that outcome? The consensus expressed by Saturday’s teleconference will no doubt be reiterated at the Iran Freedom rally just over a month from now. Participants tend to view regime change as not just likely but inevitable. Their confidence is undiminished by brutal crackdowns on the November uprising, a previous uprising in January 2018, or any of the countless smaller-scale protests that surround those nationwide movements.
In fact, those crackdowns only prove the resilience of the activist community. And by the same token, they prove that that community is a direct heir to the legacy of the 1981 uprising. Then as now, the push for democracy is being led by the MEK.
The present situation is now different. Despite suffering at least 1,500 casualties late last year, Iranian protesters were back out in the streets at the beginning of the current year. More recently, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they have remained active on social media, contradicting the regime’s disinformation and propaganda and prompting widespread warnings among government officials about the potential for even grander uprisings once the current crisis has abated.
The international community has a choice to make regarding where it will stand when those uprisings come to pass. Historically, most foreign governments have stood on the sidelines whenever Iranian authorities clashed with their citizens. But if supporters of the Resistance are correct and regime change is ultimately inevitable, then the world should keep in mind that standing on the sidelines will be tantamount to standing on the wrong side of history.