Thanks to the tireless efforts of human rights activists and opposition-linked intelligence networks, the world has acquired at least a partial image of the circumstances surrounding the continuing dissatisfaction of the Iranian people with the theocratic establishment and Iran’s latest popular uprising.
One of the clearest impressions from this information is that the clerical regime’s ongoing crackdown on dissent is perhaps even more severe than anything Iranians have experienced over the past three decades.
At least 450 protesters are reported to have been killed and, of these, the opposition movement the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) has managed to identify 154 by name across three dozen cities. The NCRI has also been working to keep tabs on the authorities’ broader tactics, which include house raids that have led to the arrest of suspected protesters as young as 12.
At least one politician has issued public threats regarding the possibility of capital punishment for participants in this latest uprising. And the death toll underscores the fact that this cannot be dismissed as a hollow threat.
The international community must not underestimate how indiscriminate the regime’s killings might turn out to be. In 1988, a staggering 30,000 political prisoners were killed in the space of just a few months, according to Amnesty International. And, as an audio recording from that time confirmed when it was leaked in 2016, the victims included pregnant women and young teenagers.
The mass executions were carried out as part of an effort to suppress the threat posed to the mullahs’ regime by an organized, democratic resistance movement known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). As such, members and associates of the PMOI constituted the overwhelming majority of the victims. Some now believe that the key organizers of recent protests could be said to be associates of this oppositional group.
Contrary to a historical preoccupation with downplaying the post-1988 strength of the resistance, Iranian officials now appear all too willing to acknowledge and portray those arrested as being involved with the PMOI. As he did in the midst of a previous uprising in January 2018, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei blamed the current unrest on the Iranian oppositional group, which is also known as Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), and its organizing efforts.
Some might find it difficult to see any clear boundary between the oppositional group and the countless Iranian citizens who endorse its pro-democracy platform. In a recent press conference, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the regime’s Supreme National Security Council, said: “These people were connected to governments and the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)… I believe 34 MEK members have been arrested so far. A vast network of individuals, operating not under the MEK’s name but pursuing their line and modus operandi, were also identified.”
Tehran’s willingness to namecheck its enemy should set off alarm bells for the international community. Iran failed to decisively suppress the PMOI/MEK in 1988 and it has failed to prevent it from gaining in membership and organizational power during the subsequent three decades. Now, some argue that it could be standing at the head of a protest movement that could very well lead to a new democratic revolution. And there is every reason to believe the regime will use any means necessary to prevent it from gaining more influence over Iranian society.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that the regime has already set out on this mission. If the latest casualty figures don’t point to this conclusion, then it is imperative for international observers to consider that those figures are undoubtedly incomplete. Not only does the persistence of the unrest point to the certainty of more killings, but the existing figures only represent the information activists have been able to smuggle out of the country in the midst of what may be the largest and most sophisticated shutdown of the internet in history.
The scope of the crackdown is so pervasive that, according to some reports, the ruling theocracy has turned some elementary schools into makeshift prisons.
If the mullahs come away from the latest brutal crackdown with the impression that they are effectively concealing the extent of their crimes, there can be little doubt that they will green light further violations in the future.
Fortunately, there are some fairly simple steps that world powers and human rights groups can take to prevent this from happening. Firstly, the UN Security Council must convene a special session to discuss the protests and issue a statement making it clear that the violent repression of legitimate dissent will not be tolerated. This means that the UN should immediately dispatch a fact-finding mission to Iran. This is advice that was first given by the president-elect of the NCRI, Maryam Rajavi.
Beyond that, anyone who supports the cause of Middle Eastern democracy should push for providing the Iranian people with the means to communicate and acquire information freely. It has long been said that knowledge is power and, in the age of online communications, reliable and up-to-date access to information could be the most vital tool for protecting the Iranian people from the repressive power of the state.