By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
For much of the past four decades, American and European policies toward Iran have been impaired by the false assumption that change can come from within the regime. That assumption has been challenged by various domestic developments in Iran over the years. But all-in-all, it has proven remarkably persistent.
One of the main contributors to this trend is a peculiar silence among international media outlets and Western policymakers when it comes to the perspectives of ordinary Iranians or Iranian expatriates. Their voices have been conspicuously absent from policy discussions and analyses of the long-term trends in the relationship between Iran’s government and its people.
But make no mistake, the Iranian people themselves have never been silent. They have been shouting warning and requests for assistance since the immediate aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. Had the international community been paying attention at the time, it would have been clear that the system put in place by Ayatollah Khomeini was vulnerable and unpopular from the start.
That system of absolute rule by religious clerics was nothing like what the average supporter of the revolution had envisioned. Most opposition to Shah Pahlavi was driven by a desire for genuine democracy. And after Khomeini’s faction co-opted the movement, countless Iranians aligned themselves with other revolutionary groups that continued to promote the original vision, most notably the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
Nonetheless, Iranian officials have sought to downplay and demonize such groups as “cults” or “grouplets” that lack meaningful support among the Iranian people and because of the appeasement policy, the mullahs have enjoyed the tacit support of the West in spreading this kind of propaganda. The international disregard for the Iranian opposition is so pervasive that in 1988, when Tehran sought to actually destroy the MEK and other opposition through a series of mass executions, the global media remained overwhelmingly silent.
It did not seem to matter that the MEK’s representatives throughout the world were doing everything in their power to share testimony from the victims and eyewitnesses to the massacre. Over the course of several months that year, an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were summarily executed after they refused to demonstrate abject loyalty to the theocratic system. Most were buried in secret mass graves, some of which have been destroyed in recent years as Tehran hedges against the possibility of international scrutiny finally settling upon the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.”
Fortunately, the MEK not only survived that massacre but continued to thrive in its aftermath. Unfortunately, that fact has only had a minor impact on the conspiracy of silence among Western reporters, but the MEK and the NCRI have acquired devoted support from a significant number of politicians representing a wide range of political parties in Europe and the US.
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was presented with a House resolution that takes exactly this position and has acquired 221 co-sponsors, both Republican and Democrat.
That appeal is encapsulated in the 10-point plan of Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. That plan calls for free and fair elections, safeguards on the rights of women and minorities, peaceful relations with Iran’s Arab neighbors, separation of religion and State and abandonment of the current regime’s nuclear ambitions. It is an engaging vision for the future of Iran.
This vision has been articulated and publicly expressed in many events. In addition to a wide range of smaller-scale events, the NCRI holds a summer gathering each year to highlight the ever-growing popular support and organizational strength that the MEK and its affiliates enjoy inside Iran. On July 17, the latest iteration of that event will be held online. And while the coronavirus pandemic prevents the usual gathering of tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates in a single location, the variety of speakers and participants will no doubt reinforce the all-too-rare understanding of the Iranian Resistance as a force to be reckoned with.
That message will be further underscored by a look back on the impact of Iran’s two recent nationwide uprisings, one in January 2018 and the other in November 2019. Each of these brought an explicit message of regime change into the mainstream throughout Iran. In the wake of such a seismic shift, there is less justification than there has ever been for keeping this message out of mainstream policy discussions in the US and Europe.
It is long past time for the West to acknowledge the political viability of the Iranian Resistance, to listen to its supporters when they speak before a global audience on July 17 and to set policies that facilitate their plans to throw off the clerical dictatorship and establish a truly democratic system in the heart of the Middle East.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)