The street protests of June 20, 1981, were met with a brutal crackdown, led by the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Hundreds of activists were killed on the spot and thousands more were systematically executed in the ensuing months, as the regime struggled to exert real control over groups that had been growing more and more popular since Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in the wake of the 1979 revolution.
The number of Iranian political prisoners swelled in the aftermath of the 1981 uprising and, seven years later, inmates all across the country found themselves being interrogated about their political affiliations and their views on the system of absolute rule by religious clerics. The summer of 1988 bolstered the death toll for opposition activists by a staggering 30,000. According to Amnesty International, the majority of the victims were targeted for their association with the main opposition group, Mujahedin-e Khalq. Over the course of the next two-and-a-half decades, the overall death toll would climb to about 120,000.
Yet none of this has been sufficient to extinguish the people’s hopes for democracy or the activity, popular appeal and the organizational integrity of the resistance. Today, that 1981 movement is part of a broader coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which had its genesis in the 1981 uprising and now enjoys strong international support. The influence of the resistance was put on display this month in a video conference organized to commemorate the Day of Martyrs and Political Prisoners, which dates back to the 1981 uprising. The virtual event established connections between 2,000 locations and featured remarks from a number of international dignitaries.
The annual conference is significant because it recognizes June 20 as the anniversary of the beginning of a long and ongoing process of self-sacrifice for Iran’s pro-democracy activist movement. As former French government minister Rama Yade told the conference: “On that day (June 20, 1981), the resistance rose and, since then, has been moving forward, braving threats and fatwas, intimidation and misinformation on the part of the regime, but also our own cowardice, the latest of which was the nuclear agreement, which has come to nothing.”
Current and former legislators from the US, Britain, France, Spain and Germany all utilized this event as an opportunity to reaffirm their support for the Iranian opposition and to urge their own governments to do the same as a matter of official policy. UK MP Steve McCabe said: “I want the British government to be open in its support for NCRI and Madame Maryam Rajavi,” a reference to Maryam Rajavi, the NCRI’s president-elect.
In her keynote speech during this month’s event, Rajavi said: “We are fighting against a regressive worldview and order represented by the mullahs. We are fighting against a prevalent approach that prefers the appeasement of, and complicity with, this regime.” She added: “June 20, 1981, drew the line between submission to the mullahs’ religious fascism and aligning with the shah and the clerics on the one hand, and remaining steadfast, proud and choosing to make the ultimate sacrifice on the other.”
The Iranian resistance has continued to push for a reversal of the West’s appeasement policies throughout the last 40 years. It has made substantial inroads, as evidenced by the consistent American and European presence at its major events. But formal Western policies still lag behind individual policymakers’ sense of duty to the fight for human rights and democracy in Iran.
While the death toll has continued to mount, the international community has failed to exhibit the kind of support that would make Tehran think twice before instituting another crackdown. Fortunately, the resistance movement has remained strong and it shows no sign of going anywhere. It is also holding another major virtual international gathering featuring hundreds of lawmakers and dignitaries, as well as Iranians from as many as 60 countries, in support of a free Iran on July 17.
The West missed a vital opportunity last November, when the regime responded to nationwide protests with live ammunition, killing at least 1,500 people. This was a chilling reminder of the bloodlust that was obvious in Tehran as long ago as 1981, while the immediate aftermath was also a reminder of the activist community’s resilience.
Inevitably, the public will take to the streets again in the near future to once again demand regime change. And, when that happens, all the democratic nations of the world should finally, after more than 40 years, show their willingness to stand alongside these people and affirm their right to demand freedom and democratic governance in their homeland.