Iran’s ayatollahs can be made to come to terms with the demands of the international community. And this is much more attainable than it might seem.
On August 5, the spokesperson for the Iranian president’s cabinet, Ali Rabiee, held a briefing with journalists and explicitly mentioned the clerical regime’s longstanding conflict with its domestic enemy, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK). This represents a departure from the government’s normal policy of remaining silent on that issue in order to downplay the threat that the MEK poses to the theocratic system.
Established as a movement against the Shah’s regime in the mid-20th century, the MEK was a major force in the Iranian Revolution but immediately broke away from the emerging government after that movement was co-opted by Ayatollah Khomeini. The MEK was then and now remains a leading voice for democratic governance, and its vision has been formalized in the 10-point plan of the Iranian opposition leader, Maryam Rajavi.
The MEK has expressed unmitigated confidence that the current regime is nearing its collapse, which will pave the way for that vision. This was perhaps the central message of a gathering held last month at Ashraf-3, a recently-completed compound in Albania that houses 3,000 of the organization’s members who were relocated from Iraq after living for years under threat from the Iranian regime.
The Ashraf-3 gathering was attended by a large, influential coalition of national, local governments, personalities and institutions from throughout the world, who fully share the positions of the National Council Resistance of Iran aimed at transforming Iran into a democratic country led by the rule of law, respect of human rights and democratic freedom.
Iran has never had these in any meaningful sense. The Islamic Republic’s core governing principle is the veleyat-e faqih, the absolute rule of clerical “guardians.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has final say over all matters, and candidates for elected office are excluded if they fail to demonstrate abject loyalty.
For this reason, the MEK has worked to organize boycotts of the polls, among other protests. Prior to elections in 2017, MEK activists risked arrest and long prison terms by posting messages in public and online urging people to “vote for regime change.”
The popularity of the underlying message was put on vivid display just months later when protests broke out in every major town and city. Participants chanted slogans like “death to the dictator” and expressly rejected both the “hardline” and “reformist” political factions. This widespread endorsement of regime change prompted Khamenei to acknowledge the organizational role of the MEK and the “resistance units” operating throughout Iranian society.
This was arguably the turning point undermining the regime’s oft-repeated claim that the MEK is incapable of presenting a serious challenge to the clerical dictatorship.
Rabiee’s recent remarks to the national press stopped just short of admitting the regime’s anxiety, and the same can be said of preceding remarks by Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, an advisor to the head of the judiciary who served as Justice Minister during current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first term.
Pour-Mohammadi became infamous both among Iran’s activist community and among human rights defenders throughout the world in 2016, when he defended an incident that had come to be known as “the greatest crime of the Islamic Republic.” These were the words of Hossein Ali Montazeri, an Iranian official who was tapped to be the successor to Khomeini, until he fell out with the regime over the systematic execution of political prisoners in 1988. In just a few months, an estimated 30,000 people were put to death for the crime of disloyalty, and the killings focused overwhelmingly on the MEK.
Pour-Mohammadi’s earlier remarks described these killings as the fulfillment of “God’s command,” and his most recent media interview reiterated his lack of remorse while drawing parallels between the 1988 massacre and the current situation. “We have no ambiguity about the MEK,” he said. “We are at a time of war. Now is not the time for talk. Now is the time to fight them.”
Much has changed between then and now. But one thing that remains the same is the fact that the MEK is Tehran’s greatest adversary, and it has not only evaded all efforts to destroy it but has actually grown so much in power and influence that it was able to organize and lead a nationwide uprising just last year. With Tehran still reeling from that uprising, it is more difficult than ever for government officials to deny the reality of the challenge they are facing. In conversations with foreign counterparts, they are sure to continue trying. But if the world pays attention to what these officials are saying at home, it will become clear that they are afraid.
That fear represents a clear opportunity for the international community, as well as for the Iranian people. It underscores the correctness of the American strategy of “maximum pressure,” and it calls for other democratic nations to adopt similar strategies. By so doing, they will help to expose a vulnerability that Iran has long tried to deny, and they will make it clear to the Iranian people that the West will not side with the mullahs over them.
It is now much more difficult for the mullahs to deny that there is already an alternative to their theocratic system and that popular resistance is their Achilles’ heel.
Ambassador Giulio Terzi, a former foreign minister of Italy is a member of United Against Nuclear Iran’s Advisory Board.
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