The latest developments in Iran suggest that the country is likely on the verge of a historic change. The economic situation is abysmal, the government is nearly bankrupt, and a second wave of coronavirus infections has hit, leading regime officials to tell of their growing anxiety about the prospects of rampant unrest and state collapse. In this context, the regime has become hypersensitive about organized opposition groups, unleashing a campaign of demonization against them and blaming them for domestic unrest. Unfortunately, some in the US media have uncritically accepted Tehran’s narratives.
Such misrepresentation of the facts seriously jeopardizes public discourse and policy formulation. For example, is the US truly ready to deal with an Iran experiencing revolt or regime change? Does it have a fair understanding of the potential alternatives and opposition forces? Arguably, it appears that the lion’s share of Tehran’s misinformation has focused on domestic opponents and particularly the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The regime’s favorite contention is that this group has no “popular support” within the country and therefore should not be taken seriously by others.
Its logical conclusion may seem to be: Since the most capable perceived alternative is rejected by Iranians, the mullahs’ regime should be allowed to survive longer. But there are ample facts and evidence that contradict this claim and it is simply stunning that some policy analysts, scholars, politicians, Western journalists and media outlets deliberately or unwittingly gloss over them. For example, last week, thousands of average Iranians from around the world connected to a virtual NCRI event in Albania. Organizers said more than 300 Iranian associations participated in the online conference. Many people, including professionals, engineers, professors, doctors, athletes and prominent members of the Iranian community, spoke at the event and praised the oppositional group, which also organizes the annual Free Iran rally that attracts tens of thousands of supporters and high-level officials from across the globe.
Ignoring such developments is not a responsible approach for designing a comprehensive policy to deal with one of the world’s strategic hotspots. In my research, I have yet to come across any other opposition group that can muster such backing from inside Iran, Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and many other countries. Additionally, it has been 56 years since the NCRI’s founding, making it one of the longest-lasting major opposition movements in the world.
It is incredibly unlikely that a movement that has persevered under a barrage of executions (such as those seen during the 1988 massacre of prisoners) and terrorism (like the bomb plot against the 2018 Free Iran rally in Paris) by a fundamentalist regime could survive this long without relying on some semblance of authentic domestic support. It is also unlikely that the group’s revelations about Iran’s secret nuclear program in 2002 took place without it having reliable sources inside the country that trusted it and provided it with such intelligence.
An important characteristic of the NCRI’s mission is its rejection of historical dictatorships in Iran and thus aligning itself with the prevalent international liberal order. One of the frequent themes at its rallies is an equal degree of denunciation for the dictatorship of the mullahs today and those of the shahs before them. NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi emphasized exactly that last week, saying that Iranians “are not looking to the past, they have set their sights to the future.”
In May, Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, expressed anxiety about the NCRI’s popularity and its increasing impact inside Iran, saying: “Everyone should pay attention that they (the opposition abroad) too are working on our youth. They are trying to take advantage of our youth.” So, regardless of what certain journalists personally think of the group, it has proven to be a serious contender in the political arena, with credible political aspirations and instruments at its disposal. Based on publicly available evidence, what NCRI Secretary-General Zahra Merrikhi said about the group’s popularity has a significant degree of truth to it: There are indeed imprisoned dissidents and “resistance units” that continue to expand their activities geared toward organizing more anti-regime protests.
As an observer, I cannot simply ignore facts and naively buy into a foreign state’s propaganda. These facts deserve an honest and unbiased reflection by those who dangerously parrot the regime’s narrative about the opposition movement’s degree of support inside and outside the country. Like protesters inside Iran, those who attended the NCRI event condemned Tehran’s regional adventurism. That, among many other positions in the group’s platform, aligns with the interests of the US and Arab governments and deserves more deliberation.
The reality of Iranian politics is complex and access to crucial intelligence to help with outlining an overlaying policy position is severely restricted. However, the evidence that is accessible should be studied and debated. This evidence-based (not propaganda-based) approach will enrich our conceptual dialogue with future modalities. Otherwise, the incoming tidal wave of changes may catch Washington and the regional powers by surprise, thereby seriously diminishing their ability to actively participate in the shaping of the region’s evolution.