On July 17, Iranian expatriates throughout the world will hold a series of simultaneous gatherings, all of which will be livestreamed as part of the “Free Iran Global Summit.” The networked global event constitutes a socially distanced alternative to the international rally that is usually held each summer by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Organizers anticipate that the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic will actually increase overall participation as people travel to historic locations within their home countries or organize domestic viewing parties, rather than traveling to France from throughout the world.
Something will inevitably be lost in terms of the physical representation of global unity, but something will also be gained in terms of the event’s symbolic value as a starting point for remote support of the Iranian Resistance. That is a topic that the international community will have to think carefully about in the wake of the summit, because recent developments suggest that the opposition movement will be making increasingly bold moves against the theocratic regime in the near future.
This isn’t just the optimistic conclusion of the NCRI’s supporters. Its adversaries in Tehran had said much the same thing. In April, the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei held a teleconference with members of the Basij militia disguised as students and urged them to be on the lookout for dissident protests on university campuses. Khamenei explained that the MEK, was sure to take on the leadership of those protests unless actively opposed by the regime’s supporters.
The Supreme Leader did not dare entertain the notion that protests could be stopped in their entirety. He only demanded that Basijis interfere enough to muddle their message and make it appear to foreign observers as if they were focused only on narrow grievances about current leadership, not on the prospect of regime change and liberation of the country. But in describing the MEK as a group that “rejects the foundations” of the Islamist revolution, Khamenei tacitly acknowledged that Iran’s student population, and all the Iranian people, are primed to similarly reject the regime’s founding principle.
In fact, Khamenei’s April speech actually presented a more optimistic view of the regime’s hold on power than one might have expected in light of earlier events. In January 2018, he seemed to hint at a growing embrace of the MEK platform of regime change all across the country. At the time, Iran was in the midst of its most significant anti-regime protest since the 2009. Khamenei’s response attributed the rapid spread of anti-regime to the MEK, noting that its Resistance Units had “planned for months” to facilitate nationwide demonstrations.
That planning was remarkably successful – so much so that the 2018 uprising eclipsed the2009 Movement in some people’s minds. While the earlier protest involved massive participation among the middle class youth of Tehran, the nationwide uprising brought together Iranians from all walks of life, including ethnic and religious minorities and poor rural communities that had long been assumed to be a political stronghold for the clerical regime.
The defining features of the 2018 protest movement were on display once again in November 2019, when a hike in government-set gas prices caused spontaneous protests to erupt in an even larger number of localities. The MEK’s messaging, as expressed in slogans like “death to the dictator” and “the game [of reformist, hardliner] is over,” was repeated in its sequel, leaving little doubt about the lasting popular embrace of the organized Resistance.
The 2019 uprising was unfortunately suppressed by immediate, brutal political violence. An estimated 1,500 peaceful protesters were shot dead by security forces, and thousands of activists were arrested and brought up on charges that could lead to multi-year prison terms or capital sentences. Yet this hasn’t impeded the optimism of the Free Iran summit’s organizers, or its intended participants who include Iranian citizens with illegal satellite hookups or internet connections running over virtual private networks.
Neither has the regime’s suppressive efforts inspired much confidence in its own officials, who continue to echo the sentiment that Khamenei hinted at in his April speech. Tehran seems to be well aware of the fact that it is losing ground to the Resistance, and it is readying itself for the next great popular uprising. On one hand, the prospects for such a public display have been impeded by the coronavirus pandemic. But on the other hand, Tehran’s mishandling of that crisis, which has left tens of thousands of Iranians dead, is expected to be further fuel for popular outrage once the time comes.
It is unclear how long the international community has to prepare for this next development. But in any event, it must prepare. And the Free Iran Global Summit is an ideal forum in which to do so. The event can be expected to give voice to many Iranian activists’ ideas regarding the ways in which foreign governments and Iranian resistance units can collaborate to bring about transformative change in Iran.
The Iranian Resistance has always maintained that such collaboration. And in this regard, the international community must recognize the Iranian people’s right to resistance and overthrow of this regime, because the Iranian people themselves are the actual authors of change, and the originators of a new government. The foundations of that government have already been laid down in the 10-point plan of Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, which calls for free and fair elections, secular governance, safeguards for the rights of women and minorities, peaceful coexistence between Iran and its neighbors, and so on.
That, ultimately, is the vision for Iran’s future that was embraced by participants in the 2018 and 2019 uprisings. And the emerging legacy of those uprisings gives credence to the notion that the Iranian people are poised to overthrow the mullahs’ regime.