Supporting Iran’s Pro-Democracy Activists

For decades, the U.S. has hesitated to challenge the regime’s authority in Tehran. Recent unrest suggests a change is needed.

By Ivan Sascha Sheehan, Contributor, U.S. News, Nov. 28, 2019, at 7:00 a.m.

Protests are a common occurrence in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But there are a number of factors that make ongoing demonstrations against the regime particularly worrisome for Tehran’s clerical rulers.

The current unrest in Iran, which began on Nov. 15, was initially triggered by a gas price hike that quickly evolved into a full-blown rebellion. Economic mismanagement – coupled with crippling sanctions imposed on the regime to curtail Tehran’s nuclear pursuits – have worsened ordinary Iranian’s already unbearable economic plight. And the discontent on the Iranian street has reached a fever pitch.

The short-term consequences of this month’s unrest may be greater than anything the public has endured in recent years, but the long-term effects could be transformative – not only for Iran but for the broader Middle East. Indeed, the current protests, which are far more serious than either the 2009 uprising or the countrywide revolt in 2018, have already resulted in some of the regime’s worst repression, but they have also demonstrated the Iranian public’s courageous resilience.

Amnesty International confirmed last week that at least 106 people have been killed by Iranian security forces to date, while acknowledging that some estimates place the number much higher. It is difficult to obtain a complete picture of government repression at a time when Iran is practically cut off from the world by what some are calling the most sophisticated internet shutdown in history.

Still, the largest and best organized Iranian opposition movement – the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) – is reporting casualties in excess of 200, with upward of 3,000 wounded, and thousands more arrested.

At a moment when regime forces are reportedly firing at protesters’ heads and chests, with mercenaries suppressing dissent and Tehran’s chief instruments of power on full alert, the MEK’s vast network on the ground is furnishing the world with contemporaneous footage from 132 cities rocked by anti-regime demonstrations.

The speed with which the protests expanded – not seen since early 2018 when anti-government demonstrations gradually emerged over economic issues and ultimately spread to every major Iranian town and city – belies protesters’ organizational efforts.

Indeed, protesters surpassed the previous uprising’s level of geographic and demographic diversity and reawakened slogans that defined the 2018 rebellion, particularly calls for “death to the dictator,” “death to Rouhani,” and “death to Khamenei.” It is hardly surprising to scholars who have watched the MEK’s “Resistance Units” spring up across the country.

Leading Iranian officials are clearly watching, too. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was quick to acknowledge that Iran’s democratic resistance has been the driving force behind the demonstrations. In January of last year, the regime endured roughly two weeks of protests before targeting the MEK. When this month’s backlash against price hikes transformed into outright calls for regime change, Khamenei promptly blamed the organization.

By crediting the grassroots movement with setting the tone for the protests, the regime is effectively acknowledging that it is vulnerable to a homegrown opposition that is widely seen by bipartisan U.S. officials as a force to be reckoned with.

That hardline officials and Ministry of Intelligence and Security operatives continue their work to delegitimize the MEK makes sense. But U.S. officials should not be deterred by accusations against Western “enemies,” supporters of the old Iranian monarchy, and so on. The false charges are little more than an effort to distract attention from an increasingly desperate population that is lining up behind a leader, Maryam Rajavi, who has outlined a credible 10-point plan for her country.

The plan features the establishment of free and fair elections, secular governance and legal protections for women and minorities. The Iranian people are well-known for being among the best educated and most forward-looking populations in the Middle East. It therefore comes as no surprise that a progressive, pro-democracy movement is giving voice to the aspirations of the Iranian people after decades of authoritarian rule.

As young people across Iran risk their lives by seeking to topple their theocratic dictatorship, it is vitally important that the democratic nations of the world understand exactly what the protesters are fighting for and how consistent their values are with the freedoms too often taken for granted in the West.

Rajavi recently called upon U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to convene an extraordinary session of the Security Council to address the atrocities committed by Iranian security forces. “Silence vis-à-vis crimes against humanity perpetrated in Iran every day is absolutely unacceptable,” she said in a statement.

But silence by Western powers, it must be remembered, was all too prevalent during the murderous crackdowns on protesters in 2009 and 2018, and in numerous other repressive episodes dating back to the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

For 40 years, U.S. officials have been hesitant to challenge the regime’s status as a fixture of the Middle East landscape on the assumption that there is no viable alternative to clerical rule. But with domestic unrest reaching an acute stage and demonstrations continuing in spite of brutal repression, the falsity of this assumption has been laid bare.

There is a democratic alternative for Iran; it has the support of the Iranian people; they are increasingly willing to risk their lives for its sake; and it has moved the existing regime closer to being overthrown than ever before.

Once Tehran’s security forces lose their grip on the Iranian people, the regime’s destructive influence and malign activities will vanish from the Middle East and across the globe.

At this defining moment, U.S. officials should do everything they can to exert pressure on Tehran’s repressive institutions by protecting and supporting Iran’s pro-democracy activists.

Ivan Sascha Sheehan

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the executive director of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @ProfSheehan.