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A scene of one of the protests by the MEK supporters calling for regime change in Iran as the only solution to end the current dictatorship in Iran
An article in International Policy Digest by Professor Ivan Sascha Sheehan charts the Iranian regime’s increasing fears of the main opposition group the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK / Mujahedin-e Khalgh) and demonstrates that this increasing fear is a sign of changing times in the Iranian political landscape.
The Status Quo has Become ‘Untenable’
Professor Sheehan, the incoming Executive Director at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, wrote:
“There are growing signs that the status quo has become untenable”, in response to renewed US sanctions, continuous protests at home, a failing economy, and increasing international isolation, “the regime is finding it much more difficult to contain the situation”.
“The most defining aspect of Iran in 2018 has been the continuation of anti-government protests”, Sheehan suggests. Ahead of 2018, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)’s president-elect, Maryam Rajavi called for a year of protest and it has not disappointed.
The nationwide uprisings of January engulfed Iran’s cities and towns, expanding to more than 140 cities in all 31 provinces. According to Sheehan, it “shook the ruling theocracy to the core”. Confronted with such intense public outcry, the regime arrested political dissidents in the thousands, sentencing many to extreme punishments and lengthy jail terms.
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“That movement has continued in different shapes and forms over the past 11 months”, Sheehan writes, “despite a heavy crackdown, waves of arrests, and long prison terms for protesters.”
Key Iranian industries have suffered been racked with strikes, including the logistics sector, education, the retail industry, and manufacturing. Many sectors were protesting appalling working conditions, unpaid wages, and the pandemic corruption that ravages the Iranian business and political landscape.
Beyond poor working conditions and unpaid wages, the protests that have rippled across Iran in 2018 have taken a decidedly anti-government tone.
“In July, a five-day wave of anti-government protests proved to be the largest since January and encompassed more than a dozen cities throughout the country”, wrote Sheehan.
Similar anti-government took place across Iran’s major cities in June and August. “What makes recent and ongoing protests different from earlier movements”, Sheehan explained, “is that they are not limited to one part of the country or to any specific demographics.
What began as a grassroots movement among the “hungry and unemployed”, has spread to the urban middle classes, the working-class factory workers, college-educated students, inner-city shopkeepers, and younger segments of the population.
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Sheehan writes, “at first, the protests were over dire economic hardship, exorbitant prices of basic staples, high unemployment, runaway inflation and the lack of some of the most basic social services including running water and electricity. But protests quickly became political with people calling for an end to dictatorship”.
Among the protestors demands now are an end to the financing of foreign terrorism, missile proliferation, and the frequent and blatant human rights abuses. The protestors are calling for more civil freedom, an end to institutionalized discrimination and sexism, and the eradication of regime corruption.
What began as an economic protest movement evolved into a defiantly anti-regime movement.
The Iranian Economy is in Free-fall
“The Iranian economy is in free-fall and is getting more precarious”, Sheehan writes. “The national currency, the rial, has lost about 75 percent of its value in the past seven to eight months”.
What makes the current economic crisis worse is that it has come at a time when the Iranian regime was still exporting 2.7 million barrels of oil a day and received $100 billion of unfrozen assets.
For the country to be in economic collapse despite this significant windfall and oil revenue demonstrates extensive economic mismanagement and pandemic corruption.
“The main cause of the economic collapse is the regime’s policies”, Sheehan explains, “the lion’s share of the government budget is allocated to the apparatus of domestic oppression and to financing terror and warmongering abroad”. Sheehan cites payments of around $12 to $15 billion annually to the Assad regime in Syria.
Corruption and economic mismanagement were even explicitly mentioned by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in his speech on August 13th. He referred to the plunder of $18 billion as an example of some of the embezzlement and corruption that plagues his regime.
But Khamenei is nothing more than a hypocrite. In public, he may lament the state of the Iranian economy, but the Supreme Leader has a personal slush fund worth $95 billion according to Reuters.
Sanctions Will be Effective
Given that the Iranian economy is under the control of 14 financial holdings, all of which are managed by the Supreme Leader and the regime itself, US and international economic sanctions will be able to end the stream of revenue flowing directly into the mullahs’ pockets and impact their ability to funnel finances to international terrorists and militia groups.
“This is one of the greatest sources of anxiety for Tehran”, Sheehan writes. Under President Trump, the US has ended its decades-long strategy of appeasement. Trump and Pompeo have indicated that they will use sanctions to stop Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism and human rights abuses.
The State Department has reintroduced strict economic sanctions on the Iranian auto-industry, financial institutions, and energy sector. The US has vowed to bring further sanctions to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero.
“The regime has been at a total impasse”, Sheehan writes, “since retreating from its strategic policies would mean major reform”— which Khamenei is adamant he will not do.
As Khamenei and Rouhani continue to dig their heels, the public has only grown louder in its demands for political reform and regime change. “The protests have been a game changer in the Iranian political landscape”, Sheehan exclaimed.
The Regime has Intensified Efforts Against the Opposition
In response to the impasse Tehran finds itself in, the regime has targeted the MEK and other Iranian political opposition groups. “The MEK’s modern, tolerant and democratic view on Islam has been the antithesis to the Islamic fundamentalism” presented by the mullahs.
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“The ayatollahs were bent on annihilating it as a social and political force before they even took power”, Sheehan writes. Following their rise to power, the mullahs unleashed an “unbridled terror” campaign against the MEK and their supporters.
“Tens of thousands of MEK activists, men, and women, have fallen victim to brutal crackdowns. In the summer of 1988 alone… some 30,000 political prisoners— primarily MEK activists— were massacred”, Sheehan describes.
Today, the support and influence of the MEK are evident across Iran. The group has exposed some of the mullahs’ most secretive and nefarious activities, including their secret nuclear program.
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The MEK’s network of experts and underground sources has led to the exposure of over 100 “clandestine nuclear projects in Iran”, Sheehan claims. The MEK’s network has also played a crucial role in exposing the mullahs’ routine and frequent human rights abuses.
A Coordinated Campaign of Oppression
In response to the MEK’s surging power and influence, Tehran demanded international governments suppress the MEK as a precursor for good relations with Tehran. “Tehran demanded that Western powers blacklist the MEK”, Sheehan explains.
The MEK went on to challenge these blacklistings in international courts and were eventually delisted after courts ruled there was not even a shred of evidence connecting the group with terrorism.
“Interestingly, an impressive group of mostly senior former officials who held key national security posts in four US administrations filed an amicus brief in support of the MEK’s petition”, Sheehan writes.
“In the international arena, the MEK gained enormous respect among American and European politicians”, Sheehan continues, “a number of MEK allies hold prominent positions in the Trump administration, while the MEK itself enjoys solid bipartisan support in the US Congress”.
In 2016, following a particularly violent and aggressive persecution of the MEK in Iraq from the Iranian regime, several thousand MEK members were safely transferred to Albania. Following the outbreak of MEK-organised and endorsed protests in Iran in December 2017 and January 2018, the regime has targeted these members living in Albania.
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Tehran intensified its terrorist activities in Europe and the US. On June 30th, Belgian law enforcement authorities foiled a state-sponsored Iranian terrorist plot against the MEK’s annual Grand Gathering event.
A Belgian-Iranian couple was arrested traveling to the event with 500g of explosive matter. Their intention was to detonate the device at the event, which was attended by delegations of high-profile politicians and journalists from around the world.
President-elect, Maryam Rajavi, was the keynote speaker at the event and had traveled to Paris from Albania to be there.
The MEK’s investigation found that the Iranian embassy in Austria orchestrated the attack. The diplomat Assadollah Assadi, who was later arrested in Germany near the Austrian border, provided the couple with the explosive material and was the mastermind behind the operation.
German prosecutors later confirmed that Assadi was a member of the Iranian intelligence agency (MOIS) and was acting under the supervision of senior members of the Iranian regime.
Following the clear violation of international law and deliberate plotting of a terrorist attack on European soil, the French government froze MOIS assets and expelled Iranian diplomats from Paris.
There were other plots coordinated against the MEK. “In March… an attack was foiled that would have targeted a gathering of MEK members in Tirana, the capital of Albania, for the Iranian New Year celebration”, Sheehan writes.
A car bomb was to be used. Two Iranians who had arrived in the country under the guise of journalists were arrested over their involvement in the attack’s planning and coordination.
Similarly, in August, the US Justice Department announced it had detained two Iranian agents suspected of collecting information on the MEK ahead of a possible terror attack.
Once more, in October, Danish authorities arrested an assassin working for the MOIS. The Iranian government had planned to kill a dissident on Danish soil, but the plan was thwarted before it could be executed.
Each plan followed the same objectives; to attack and cause significant loss of life to the MEK and the Iranian opposition.
The Battle for Public Minds
Alongside the aggressive terror campaign against the MEK, Tehran organized a demonization campaign designed to vilify the MEK in the eyes of the public. Sheehan explains, “the objective has been to show that no democratic alternative is available and that dealing with this regime or looking for change within it is the only option for the West”.
The regime uses social media, state-run news outlets, and payments to international journalists to discredit the MEK. In one case, a regime-affiliated individual offered the head of the Mackenzie Institute $80,000 to publish a hit piece against the MEK.
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One-sided stories against the MEK have gradually seeped into international media outlets’ reporting. The Guardian, MSNBC, Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera, and the Independent have all echoed regime talking points in their coverage and published regime-fed lies about the MEK and the Iranian opposition.
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“The same individuals are quoted in each of the articles and questionable evidence that demonstrates a clearly pro-regime bias is used to source the so-called facts”, Sheehan writes. Many of the articles glaze over or completely ignore the Iranian regime’s state-sponsored terror activities or deplorable human rights record.
“For anyone who has followed Iranian affairs, it is evident that the content of the pieces are almost identical to the allegations and smears that Tehran has been making against the MEK for years”, Sheehan explained.
The regime also relies on its social media capabilities to spread misinformation about the MEK. Twitter recently detected 770 regime-affiliated accounts, many of which were posing as foreign citizens or international journalists to deliberately influence public opinion. The accounts had published more than 1.1 million Tweets promoting regime talking points, slandering the MEK, and even attempting to influence the US elections.
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Sheehan predicts that the regime will only intensify its efforts to persecute and attack the MEK in the near future. “Tehran is likely to respond to the challenge by growing even more focused on the MEK. This means more repression at home and terror plots abroad”, he writes.
Sheehan argues that it is the responsibility of the international community to give voice to the Iranian people and lend their moral support to the anti-regime protestors and the MEK. With this support, Sheehan supposes that 2018 could come full circle. “2018 may well end as it began: With Tehran’s theocratic rulers consumed with an existential revolt and brave anti-government demonstrators insisting on democracy in the streets”.