Iran is 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 the country, leading regime officials to show 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 to demonize and discredit them. Unfortunately, some in the U.S. media have uncritically accepted Tehran’s narratives.
Such misrepresentation of the facts seriously jeopardizes public discourse and policy formulation. For example, is Washington truly ready to deal with an Iran experiencing revolt and regime change? Does it have a fair understanding of potential alternatives and opposition forces? Arguably, it appears that the lion’s share of Tehran’s misinformation has focused on the opposition group the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The regime’s favorite contention is that this oppositional group has no “popular support” within the country and therefore should not be taken seriously by others.
The logical conclusion is that since the most capable perceived alternative is rejected by Iranians, the mullahs’ regime should be allowed to continue. But there is ample evidence to contradict this claim.
It is simply stunning that some Western journalists and media outlets deliberately or unwittingly gloss over them. For example, on Saturday, thousands of average Iranians from around the world virtually connected to the MEK’s home in Albania. NCRI is a broad coalition of democratic groups which includes the MEK. Organizers said over 300 Iranian associations participated in the seven-hour global online conference. Engineers, professors, doctors, athletes, and prominent members of the Iranian community spoke at the event and praised the oppositional group.
The Saturday gathering displayed visible popular support for the group. In my independent research, I have yet to come across any other opposition group that can muster such backing.
Additionally, the event coincided with the 56thanniversary of the founding of the opposition group. That makes it one of the longest-lasting major opposition movements in the world. It is incredibly unlikely that a movement that has persevered against a campaign of executions and terrorist attacks by a fundamentalist regime can simply survive this long without relying on some semblance of authentic domestic support.
It is also unlikely that the oppositional group’s revelation, for the first time, about Tehran’s secret nuclear program in 2002 took place without it having reliable sources in Iran.
An important feature of the group’s attitude is its rejection of historic dictatorships in Iran. One of the frequent themes at its rallies is its denunciation of both the mullahs and of the Shah (monarchy) before them. On Saturday, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) emphasized 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 opposition group’s popularity and its increasing impact inside Iran: “Everyone should pay attention that they [MEK] too are working on our youth. They are trying to take advantage of our youth.”
So, regardless of what certain journalists personally think about the group, it has proven to be a serious contender in the political arena, with credible political aspirations and instruments at its disposal.
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 this particular opposition movement’s degree of support inside the country. Like protesters inside Iran, those who attended the oppositional group’s event condemned Tehran’s regional adventurism. That, among many other positions in the oppositional group’s platform, aligns with the interests of the U.S. and deserves more deliberation.
The reality of Iranian politics is complex and access to crucial intelligence is severely restricted. However, 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 by surprise, thereby seriously diminishing its ability to actively participate in the shaping of the region’s productive evolution.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a business strategist, Harvard -educated scholar, board member of Harvard International Review, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council.