The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) held its annual “Free Iran Global Summit” in July. This event connected Iranian expatriates from more than 100 countries, and featured speeches from several dozen political dignitaries and foreign policy experts who underlined that there is a viable alternative to the theocratic dictatorship.
As more people approach the Iranian Resistance, both inside and outside Iran, the Iranian regime intensifies its disinformation to tarnish the image of its viable alternative. Invariably, that disinformation can be traced back to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which has been running a campaign to demonize and delegitimize the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) ever since it established itself as the leading advocate for democratic governance in place of Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime.
The MEK is the largest constituent group of NCRI’s coalition of Resistance, and it is responsible for much of the direct action intended to drive the mullahs out of power. Since the end of 2017, the MEK played a leading role during the two nationwide uprisings and a range of over large-scale protests, which have shaken the regime to its core. That role was acknowledged by none other than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in January 2018, when the first uprising was still at its peak, and he has been joined by other regime officials in warning about the MEK’s ascendancy ever since.
These sorts of statements stand in direct contrast to the disinformation that Iranian intelligence has tended to promote. Among the most prominent regime talking points is the idea that the MEK lacks meaningful support inside Iran. Even in the wake of the recent uprisings, Tehran has not really given up this position. Khamenei’s remarks about MEK leadership certainly make the talking point more difficult to sustain, but they were not directed at a foreign audience, whereas references to the MEK as a “cult” are prolific in the regime’s English language propaganda and in testimony to Western media by its intelligence assets.
Under these circumstances, the growing cracks in the regime’s propaganda narrative are visible to those who are paying close attention to what the mullahs are saying among themselves, as well as what is going on from day to day throughout Iranian society. The regime’s demonizing campaign is specifically tailored toward convincing the international community to disregard the MEK’s potential role in leading people’s struggle for a free Iran.
The prime significance of the NCRI’s recent virtual conference, the Free Iran Global Summit, is that it provided policymakers, journalists, and other interested parties with a window into the regime’s true attitudes toward the Iranian Resistance, divorced from its more deliberate communications with the outside world. At the same time, it permitted survivors of the regime’s repression to expose the full extent of its obsession with stamping out organized dissent. The catalogue of brutal political violence is clear evidence of a regime that is deeply worried about the security of its grip on power, and this worry has only grown in the face of ongoing unrest.
Much of the second section in the three-day summit was dedicated to giving a voice to former Iranian political prisoners and the families of those who died in prior crackdowns that targeted the MEK. Members and supporters of the NCRI continued a long campaign of highlighting the 1988 massacre, in which “death commissions” at numerous Iranian prisons ordered the systematic execution of all those who refused to disavow their dissident affiliations succumb to the regime’s pressure. Over the course of several months, over 30,000 political prisoners were killed, and the overwhelming majority of them were supporters of the MEK.
This incident alone undermines a great deal of Iran’s propaganda. As former US Ambassador Adam Ereli pointed out in his remarks to the Free Iran summit, “The greatest testimony to [the MEK’s] effectiveness is the fact that the Iranian regime hates [it] so much and will stop at nothing to destroy [it].” But beyond that, the regime’s failure to achieve that goal, even after 30,000 killings, is a clear testament to the fact that the MEK has long boasted enough popularity and organizational strength and still remains at the forefront of an active movement to overthrow the theocratic dictatorship.
In fact, the 30,000 victims of the 1988 massacre represent only about a quarter of the total number of MEK members who have lost their lives to Iranian terrorism, executions, and assassinations over the years. Not only has the organization recovered from all of those losses, but it has also sustained a rise in popularity ultimately allowing to play a leading role during the January 2018 uprising and then to another, the even larger and more wide-ranging uprising in November 2019.
The latter movement quickly encompassed approximately 200 Iranian cities and towns, bringing slogans like “death to the dictator” even further into the mainstream. It also generated some of the worst crackdowns on dissent since the 1988 massacre, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fatally shooting roughly 1,500 peaceful protesters and pushing for liberal use of capital punishment in the wake of thousands of arrests. Nonetheless, communications among regime officials and think tanks show little sign of confidence that dissent will diminish as a result of this repression.
Quite to the contrary, Supreme Leader Khamenei is still warning of the MEK’s potential to promote and direct large-scale protests on university campuses and elsewhere. And advisors on these matters are recommending further consolidation of power among repressive institutions, in order to confront the new uprisings that are no doubt on the horizon. At the same time, the campaign against foreign awareness of the MEK is continuing without alteration, extending the reach of what former US Senator Robert Torricelli called “a shadow of public relations firms, operatives, and companies that are disseminating false information.”
All those who are responsible for setting policy toward Iran, or for advising or informing policymakers on related matters, should be aware of the prevalence of this false information, and should make concerted efforts to oppose its influence. The trial of the regime’s so-called “diplomat” who was arrested while attempting to bomb NCRI’s “Free Iran” gathering in 2018 in Paris, is a testament to this fact that regime’s terrorism and demonizing campaign against the Iranian Resistance are two sides of the same coin.
To set the correct Iran policy and to end the regime’s terrorism, the international community must recognize the Iranian people’s right to Resistance and overthrowing the regime.