Last week, citizens of Iran were hit by price increases of up to 300% on bread and pasta after President Ebrahim Raisi removed flour subsidies for the already beleaguered population. The added hardships predictably sparked country-wide protests, and in the days that followed it was clear the uprisings had turned increasingly political with participants burning images of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and chanting slogans like “death to the dictator” and “death to Raisi.”
The current unrest is following a similar pattern to that which emerged in response to the sharp increase in government-set gasoline prices in November 2019. In that case, the ensuing crackdown on dissent led to 1,500 deaths and thousands of arrests.
The message is clear: The Iranian regime remains fragile. And with the Islamic Republic’s rulers on their heels, now is the time to exert even more pressure on the crumbling theocracy.
On Monday, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – an architect of the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign that previously intensified sanctions directed at the regime – visited the compound in Albania that houses thousands of members of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), the leading voice for democracy in the country.
Pompeo noted that a lack of commitment to the resistance movement, a driving force behind recent and ongoing unrest, was a “serious missing factor in U.S. policy toward Iran.”
“I want to say to you … that America recognizes and deeply respects you,” Pompeo told his hosts at Ashraf 3. “The things you have suffered in the name of freedom reminds us of what our country was founded to defend and secure so many years ago.”
The extent of that suffering is illustratedby multiple exhibits on the grounds of Ashraf 3 that depict the brutal torture meted out to political dissidents of the clerical regime.
Displays also memorialize the 30,000 political prisoners killed in a massacre during the summer of 1988, as well as the tens of thousands of regime change proponents that made the ultimate sacrifice in the interest of a democratic future for all Iranians.
But in tracing the progress of protest movements inside the Islamic Republic, the compound’s museum also emphasizes the lasting hope the opposition’s efforts have inspired.
According to the MEK, heightened bread prices were the spark for at least the tenth anti-government uprising in the past four and a half years. These uprisings have been consistent in their message, and their wholesale rejection of the theocratic dictatorship have been reinforced by countless activities spearheaded by the MEK’s “Resistance Units,” as well as boycotts of the regime’s sham elections.
Pompeo referenced the boycott of June’s presidential election in his remarks on Monday. “Turnout was the lowest since 1979, marking a total rejection of the regime and its candidate,” he said. “It was, in fact, a boycott of the regime – and the regime knows it. The regime is clearly at its weakest point in decades.”
Pompeo went on to conclude that “the Iranian people will have a secular, democratic, non-nuclear Republic.”
But questions persist when it comes to the human toll that will be imposed on those championing freedom in Iran. It is not brutality alone that has prolonged the life of the Islamic Republic; the international community’s response to the barbaric regime has also been shockingly tepid.
Tehran has normalized the practice of curtailing internet access in times of unrest, both to impede organizing but also to slow the spread of information detailing the regime’s bloody crackdowns. Despite warnings from international observers who noted the potential for suppressive activities amidst recent digital blackouts, Tehran brazenly cut off internet access before Iranians even took to the streets over bread price increases.
Though it remains unclear how many protesters have been killed in recent days, those familiar with prior uprisings know all too well that the numbers are certain to grow sharply as information leaks out of the Islamic Republic. Social media will ensure that key details are impossible to suppress. But if the past is prologue, the disclosures are unlikely to receive attention by those best positioned to act on them.
Maryam Rajavi, President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has long emphasized that Iran’s fate must be determined by its own people, but she has also repeatedly appealed to the international community to help clear the way for them to do so.
Rajavi repeated these appeals when Pompeo visited Ashraf 3 by calling for the regime to be subjected to comprehensive sanctions and international isolation, and noting that its long list of human rights abuses and terrorist acts should be referred to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
The ongoing troubles in Iran – and the clerical regime’s cowardly response to them – makes it easier than ever to see the rightness of this course.
Meanwhile, the persistence of the anti-government uprising makes it clear that once Tehran’s impunity is challenged by the international community, the indefatigable Iranian people are well positioned to topple their rulers and equipped to build a pluralistic government that exemplifies the opposition’s commitment to a free, secular, democratic, and non-nuclear Iran.
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.