When despotic regimes begin sending mixed signals, it is a sure sign that they are in trouble. One example of this is the Iranian regime’s reaction to the recent massive protests that pervaded the country in late December and January. On one hand, there has been acknowledgment of the public discontent, but on the other, Iranian activists have been facing escalating repression.
Another vivid sign of distress is the regime’s confusion regarding how to deal with the rising levels of support for the Iranian Resistance movement, as led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK/PMOI). On January 9, when the anti-government protests were at their height, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement acknowledging the MEK’s major role. Later that month, the political affairs deputy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps chimed in, also noting that longstanding MEK leaders had headed up protests in which the overwhelming majority of participants were under the age of 30.
Such statements represent a dramatic shift from the regime’s previous rhetoric. Since attempting to stamp out the MEK through a campaign of assassinations and mass executions – including 30,000 executions in the summer of 1988 alone – Iranian officials have publicly insisted that the leading pro-democracy organization has only marginal influence and little support.
Behind closed doors, though, their preoccupation with the MEK demonstrated quite the opposite. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Iranian officials for years have made suppression of the MEK a priority in negotiations with Western governments over Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues, according to several diplomats who were involved in those talks.”
In the immediate aftermath of the January uprising, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reportedly called his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in an effort to convince him to crack down on the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is headquartered outside of Paris. Macron rebuffed the request, although it bears mentioning that Western leaders have not always acted appropriately in such situations.
Backdoor dealings with the Islamic Republic led to the MEK’s designation as a terrorist organization — a label that was revoked in 2012 following a series of court cases in both the US and Europe. Today, the organization continues to acquire allies in Western governments who represent a broad range of political persuasions.
The appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser reflects Donald Trump’s long-overdue assertive stance on Iran. While Iran’s January uprising was in full swing, Mr. Trump expressed full-throated support for the movement, while condemning the clerical regime for its human rights abuses and status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Such positions reflect the growing recognition of the MEK as a legitimate expression of the population’s demand for freedom and democracy. Khamenei and other Iranian officials now find themselves compelled to recognize the prominence of the MEK themselves. As Tehran finds fewer and fewer Western leaders willing to disregard the Resistance, the regime has little choice but to attack publicly, although doing so means also acknowledging that the supposedly marginal opposition group is actually a serious threat to the mullahs’ hold on power.
After Iranian security forces dispersed the protests that had rocked the entire nation, many experts speculated that the demonstrations were only on pause and would resume with even greater intensity in the wake of the violent crackdown. Approximately 50 people were shot dead, and at least 14 others tortured to death after their arrest. The judiciary has explicitly warned of possible death penalties for the thousands facing criminal charges.
Unfortunately for the regime, attacks on dissent can only be expected to fuel the popular movement for regime change. Against the backdrop of repression, NCRI President-elect Maryam Rajavi issued a statement, calling for the new Iranian calendar year to be “a year of uprisings”. The NCRI hopes to exploit the clerical regime’s weakness – a vulnerability made increasingly obvious by officials’ inability to adhere to their own propaganda, by their desperate crackdowns on all forms of dissent, and by Tehran’s growing international isolation.
In word and deed, the Iranian regime has betrayed its fear, demonstrating just how close the Iranian people are to achieving their goal of regime change. For the sake of Iran’s people and the future of the Middle East, Western leaders of every stripe must continue to resist Tehran’s appeals to restrict the pro-democracy movement abroad, and join the White House in expressing support for the democratic uprising.
Col. Wes Martin (ret.) was the chief anti-terrorism protection officer for all of the coalition forces in Iraq.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.