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The Rebellion in Iran: A Comprehensive Assessment

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In late December 2017 and in January 2018, massive protests erupted throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran. The largest countrywide uprising since 2009 started in the northeastern holy city of Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and a few towns on December 28, and spread to some 142 cities and towns in all 31 provinces at a shocking pace.

The uprising was prompted by runaway prices of some of the most basic staples, such as eggs, but became political in a matter of just a few hours.

On the morning of December 29, protests emerged in the western city of Kermanshah, the center of the province of Kermanshah,which was struck by an earthquake in November. It quickly became evident that what was happening was more significant than a short-lived protest – limited to a particular region of the country – but rather a reflection of deeper, more profound anti-regime sentiments.

Unsurprisingly, the Tehran responded to the rebellion, as it did in 2009, with brutality. According to official figures, 22 protesters were killed, but according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, some 50 protesters were killed and a member of the mullahs’ parliament cited the head of the Prisons Organization and said that they had registered 4,972 arrests. The opposition put the number of detainees at 8,000 but there are indications that this may be a somewhat conservative estimate. As of the date of this writing, at least 14 protesters have been identified as having been killed in detention[1].

After two weeks of relative calm, more than a dozen Iranian cities were again scenes of protests on January 31 and February 1, with similar slogans that rejected the regime in its entirety.In the meantime, the world has witnessed a steady stream of protests and strikes by laborers and victims of theft and fraud by state institutions. The extraordinary resilience demonstrated by the Iranian people suggests that protests could reoccur relatively quickly, and perhaps more forcefully.

A careful review of the evidence clearly indicates that the protests were not a short-lived phenomenon with temporary impact. Rather, they marked a turning point and permanent change in the trend of events and political calculations in Iran.

This is significant in various ways.

Iran has historically been an enigma for Western powers and for Washington in particular. In this sense, the protests were significant for the future of Iran.

But from a geo-political perspective, the impact and consequence of major political developments in Iran transcend the country’s borders. In recent history, the region is still reeling from the establishment of a theocratic regime in Iran in 1979, subsequent to deposing the country’s monarchy.

Perceptions among Iran watchers in the West prior to protests 

It is safe to say that the protests caught most experts and Iran analysts in the West by surprise. This is reflected in less than accurate analyses of the realities on the ground during the uprising, as well widespread assessments of the situation inside Iran.

The below assumptions comprised a conventional wisdom regarding Iran and its future prior to the protests that was promoted for years by Tehran’slobbyists and apologists in the West:

  • The Iranian regime enjoys the support of the population, in particular the urban poor and the lower class that served as the backbone of the Iranian Revolution and comprised the main social base of the clerical rule. It stemmed from the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime, had ascended to power with the slogan of supporting the Mostazafin or the deprived.
  • The regime in Tehran is stable and strong enough to support interference in the affairs of other countries in the region and, as such, it should be treated as a rising regional player with significant sway.
  • Tehran has been able to suppress all dissent, and opposition is limited to exiles with little to no influence on the current state of affairs inside the country and with no appeal to the youth who comprise the majority in Iran.
  • The Iranian political landscape is defined by a contest between “moderates” and “hardliners” and the outcome of this contest will determine the future of Iran. The West is well served by propping up the “moderates” and allaying their concerns to neutralize the hardliners.
  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is in full control. They have restructured on a provincial basis and geared up to prevent popular uprisings.
  • The nuclear agreement and the cash windfall that resulted from sanctions relief improved the welfare of the average Iranian and provided a capital gain for the “moderates.”
  • JCPOA will gradually lead to a change of behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But another school of thought stressed that:

  • The clerics are isolated at home and are loathed by the Iranians, in particular by the youth. People are waiting for the first opportunity to express their wrath.
  • The foreign interventions and wars are not signs of strength. Rather they are taking a big toll on the regime and are maintainedto cover up the shortcomings and failures at home.
  • When it comes to major issues there is not much difference between the various factions and the regime is neither capable nor willing to get engage in any meaningful moderation.

In the major annual international rally of the opposition in Paris on July 1, 2017, Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran said: “The light of change is shining on Iran. The ruling regime is in disarray and paralyzed as never before. Iranian society is simmering with discontent and the international community is finally getting closer to the reality that appeasing the ruling theocracy is misguided.

These observations speak to three fundamental truths related to obtaining freedom and liberty in Iran, as well as peace and tranquility in the region:

  • First, the overthrow of the ruling religious dictatorship is an imperative.
  • Second, the regime’s overthrow is within reach.
  • And third, a democratic alternative and an organized resistance exists which is capable of toppling the theocracy in Iran.

Protests proved the assumptions pushed by Tehran’s apologists to be totally devoid of any bearing in reality and the second school of thought to be more attuned to realities on the ground.

Root causes of the Iran uprising

A correct assessment of the roots of the uprising is of paramount importance in making a good prediction of their future.

The first protest was prompted by a sudden increase in the price of some of the most basic staples, particularly eggs, and by the announcement of a projected major increase in fuel costs. But, the protests quickly took a political tone and quickly came to target the regime in its entirety.

In reality, the protests were the result of several factors and the culmination of the regime’s failures in several key areas over the years.

In the area of economics, despite the unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars under the nuclear agreement, there is total stagnation and the public has not witnessed any benefits. In recent years the private sector has been very much squeezed out. According to reliable estimates, organizations and institutions under the control of Khamenei, which include the IRGC, now control over 50% of Iran’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).[2]

Inflation is still in double digits, while unemployment is staggering [3]. This is even worse in towns and smaller cities, where according to some reports unemployment among the youth is as high as 50 percent. Iranian state media is riddled with stories of young people with PhDs or Masters Degrees from some of the country’s best universities who have to drive taxis or work as dishwashers in order to make ends meet.

On priorities, a recent review of the official budget indicated that its allocations for the IRGC and suppressive forces are several times more than allocations for the most basic social needs such as public health and education. According to one study, Iran’s total health care budget for 2018 is $16.3 billion, which is a third of its total war budget. The costs of wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, which is up to tens of billions of dollars, as well as financing a range of extremist groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon, has taken a toll on the Iranian economy and the welfare of Iranians. In other words, Tehran’s strategic policies and priorities have had direct impact on the Iranian economy and have become totally intertwined with it.

Little noticed in the West has been the failure in the past few years of a series of major financial institutions affiliated with the IRGC. Millions of middle class and lower income Iranians were lured toinvest in government–affiliated and sanctioned institutions that promised high returns. The institutions were allowed to gamble or run Ponzi schemes with impunity for years because they were owned by well-connected elites: religious foundations, the IRGC and/or other investment funds in the Iranian state. The funds, life savings for many depositors, were either embezzled or diverted to the regime’s priorities[4]. The bankruptcy of these intuitions, known as “mal-baakhtegan” or “property losers”, impacted millions of Iranians and has been steering public unrest for the past couple of years.

A number of the regime’s main banks face bankruptcy,mainly because of bad loans provided to the regime’s senior officials or their trade partners without any guarantee or collateral. Mohammad Reza Bahonr, a former Vice-speaker of the Majlis (Iranian parliament) said on February 1, “A number of our main banks are on the verge of bankruptcy. Let’s pray the Lord that their bottom will not fall out since in reality these banks are in the red.”

Corruption has become so rampant and systematic that hardly a day goes by without a story of embezzlement of mammoth proportions being exposed in the state-run press. The problem is so acute that Supreme Leader Khamenei described it as a “seven headed dragon” in his speech on February 8.

Nepotism is as its peak. The term “Aghazadeh” (son of Agha or noble born) has been a colloquialism in Iran since 1990s,describing the children of elites who emerge as men of means and influence by way of nepotism and corruption. In 2017, the term “good genes” was introduced in the Iranian parlance and became synonymous with the privilege that the children of the elite, notably the sons and grandsons of senior ayatollahs and senior government officials, or Aghazadehs, enjoy.

The protests, of course, expressed the public’s rage over the mullahs’ plundering of their wealth. Poverty, unemployment, and class differences have inspired it. But the protests were not limited to demands for necessities of life and were not a spontaneous and sudden upheaval by the hungry. Rather, they had clear and distinct social and political elements.

Iran is suffocating from social and political repression, lack of the most basic freedoms, and systematic institutional discrimination and nepotism have pervaded the regime. As such, the protests were also for freedom and popular sovereignty to establish social justice and prosperity.

In other words, the protests were the culmination and convergence of years of the ill-fated policies and priorities of the regime with deep-rooted causes. Several factors had simply postponed the eruption of these crises. The reality caught up with the ayatollahs.

Characteristics and features of the protests

The span and rapid expansion of the protests was quite remarkable. In a few days, they spread to 142 cities inall 31 provinces of Iran, and no major city in Iran was spared. By comparison, the protests in 2009 were mainly limited to Tehran and a number of major cities. Tellingly, in 2018, confrontation between the protesters and the security forces were most fierce in some of the smaller cities and towns including and not limited to Izeh (Khuzestan Province), Touyserkan (Hamadan Province) and Shahinshar (Isfahan Province).

Not only did the protests begin in the holy city of Mashhad, but also some of the strongest slogans on the first days of the protests were chanted in Qom, the other Iranian holy city. These two cities traditionally were perceived to be bastions of clerical rule. The vast geography of the protests not only indicated the general sentiment throughout Iran, but from a security standpoint, it forced the regime to spread its forces and made it impossible to concentrate on major cities by amassing its forcesin a handful of locations to prevent the protests taking place.

The overwhelming majority of those engaged in the uprising were from poor and underprivileged backgrounds, i.e. people who were tired of their circumstances and angry at the regime for ignoring their wellbeing and denying their humanity. In other words, unlike the 2009 protests that were primarily comprised of middle class people, in 2018 the protesters were from “armies of the hungry and the unemployed.” They clearly repudiated Tehran’s claims of enjoying a broad base of social support in general andthe claims by the mullahs’ spin doctors about their popularity among the impoverished in particular.

The mullahs’ claim that they are “defenders of the abased” was totally discredited. The abased cried out in the streets: “People must beg while the supreme leader lives like a God.” Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran University Professor who is an advocate of the “reformers” in Iran, said in an interview on February 17, “The 2009 protests showed that the system has difficulties with the people who reside north of Enghelab (Revolution) Avenue[5]. The problem was with office workers, writers, university students, medical doctors…. But the protests in January 2018 were much more dangerous for the system. I believe those who came out were from south of Enghelab Avenue.”

People from all walks of life and social strata took part in the protests,and young men and women, particularly those who are called “Dahe haftadi” (those have been born in 1990s) played a key role. “Those who chanted those slogans, chanted against the regime, most of them were Dahe Haftadi.”Zibakalam acknowledged. (Dahe Hafadi is the term used in Iran to refer to those who have been born in 1990s).By the regime’s own estimates, 50 percent of those who were detained were between the ages of 19 and 25, and 27 percent were between 25 and 32.

The 2009 protests began and were initiated due to a rift in the leadership of the regime, specifically over the fate of the disputed elections, expressed with slogans like “where is my vote?”. The disenchanted population used the fissure to express its frustrations. Yet, what seemed to be a blessing at the onset turned out to be a majorweakness of the protest movement. As the public slogans became more radical and targeted the leadership of the regime and challenged the regime in its entirety, the individuals who appeared to be the leaders ofthe uprisingbecame more inclined to cut a deal with the status quo and at one point simply abated the movement and the public demands. In 2018, the uprising was not a byproduct of an internal power struggle. To the contrary, it wasa nail in the coffin of the myth of moderation.

From the outset, protesters’ slogans – which included chants of ‘down with Rouhani’ and ‘down with Khamenei’ – demonstrated an outright rejection of the status quo and the regime in its entirety. The slogan ‘no to reformer, no to hardliner, this game is over’ expressed a new awareness that differences between political factions in Iran are distinctions without a difference. The protests showed that the people of Iran detest both regime factions and want it to be overthrown in its entirety.

The protests propelled a new player into the Iranian political landscape: the people’s power. Very quickly it became evident that the demarcation was between the people on one side and the regime on the other.

Slogans like ‘no to Lebanon, no to Gaza, my life for Iran’ demonstrated that the people are rejecting the regime’s regional interference in addition to its domestic policy. (A full analysis of the slogans is provided below.)

Subsequent to 2009, in order to prevent a popular uprising, the IRGC had restructured and one division was designated to control each province (with the exception of Tehran,where two divisions were devoted for its control). Yet, the speed in the movement’s expansion overwhelmed the IRGC and it could not prevent or contain the unrelenting, pervasive, and geographically widespread protests for more than 10 days. This is despite the fact that after the second day, there was no element of surprise and virtually all the details of the protests including locations and times were announced in advance on social media.

It seems the myth of the invincibility of the IRGC has been proven false.

Though the protests began over increased prices for staple items such as eggs, not a single shop or private commercial entity was attacked. Rather, suppressive centers, government buildings, and offices of the Friday prayer leaders[6] – the very institutions that push the regime’s extremist, fundamentalist agenda – were targeted.

By some assessments, the “moderate” faction was the bigger loser in a sense that it became quite evident that they enjoy neither popular base and appeal nor political sway. When the former President Mohammad Khatami, who has been touted by some observers as a champion of “moderation” in the past decades, said “the youth who chanted harsh slogans were not ‘barandaz’ (the person who seeks the regime’s overthrow), rather they were simply protesting for their grievances,” the Iranian youth repudiated him fiercely in social media to a point that #براندازم (I am a barandaz) was rewetted more than 30,000 times in less than 24 hours.

Social media played a key role in organizing and also in making the activists aware of developments and status in other locations, towns and cities. As of July 2017, there were 48 million smart phones in Iran, a country of 80 million people.

Telegram is the king of messaging apps/social media in Iran with more than 40 million users. (Telegram has about 100 million users worldwide.)  According to government statistics, there are more than 586,000 Persian Telegram channels and in an average day more than 3 million messages are exchanged in these channels. The young people – undeterred by the regime’s brutality – used technology to mobilize the masses, open new fronts, and fight back, and the IRGC was stretched to contain the protests.

The role of women was quite dramatic and remarkable. Indeed, women have borne the brunt of repression for the 39 years of the mullahs’ rule. The compulsory veil, as well as subjugation and humiliation of women for failing to observe the veil, are among the most important means for the regime to impose repression on society.

The video clips coming from Iran showed that women wereat the forefront in many scenes and took the lead in charging at the security forces. A scene of a young woman standing at arm’s length from the guards and security forces in Hamedan and shouting in their faces “Death to Khamenei,” went viral on social media.

There were signs of alarm and concern even inside the IRGC and Bassij militia, on which the regime relies for its survival.A number of members of the Bassij burned their membership cards during the days of the uprising and joined the protesters.Some of the people killed by the regime’s forces during the protests were from Bassiji families.

Reaction in 2018 was very different than 2009, particularly where the U.S. is concerned.In 2009,President Obama remained very much indifferent to the protests while reaching out to the ayatollahs and hoping for a nuclear agreement. This was despite explicit calls by protesters who chanted, “Obama, Obama, either with them (i.e. ayatollahs) or with us.” But the Trump administration was emphatic in its support for the protesters and their demands from the moment it appeared that the protests represented a serious force and a challenge to the ayatollahs. President Trump in his State of Union address stated, “When the people of Iran rose up against the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship, I did not stay silent.  America stands with the people of Iran in their courageous struggle for freedom.”

It appears the wall of fear in Iranian cities suffered cracks. This can be seen in the audacity and bravery of the young protesters and the continuation of protests by different sectors of society demanding their rights and welfare. Le Monde, the prominent French daily wrote in an article on March 3, 2018, “In Iran the fear has changed camp and the people are no longer fearful of the regime.”

The protesters’ slogans and the new choice

It is impossible to hold an opinion poll in a country like Iran,especially where it pertains to sensitive issues such as anti-government protests and the sentiment of the protesters. But one measure for assessingthe prevailing mood and sentiments of the protests is analysis of the slogans that are chanted. The most striking slogans which put an end to a long misguided perception in the West was, “reformists, hardliners, the game is over.” According to Zibakalam people have passed both the reformists and hardliners. This slogan symbolizes a new era in Iran’s political landscape. The choice in Iran is no longer “moderate” or “hardliners” but the ruling regime or regime change.

A review showed that some 130 slogans were used in the recent protests. While a number of them were used sporadically and in a few towns or cities, some including ‘Down with Khamenei,’ ‘Down with Rouhani,’ or ‘Down with the dictator’, were chanted in almost all the cities and towns that were the scenes of protests

There were 12 slogans such as ‘Down with the clerical regime,’ ‘We are determined to overthrow the regime,’ and ‘This is the last message, the goal is to bring down the regime,’ that called for the overthrow of the regime in its entirety.

Fourteen slogans such as ‘Khamenei is a killer, his rule is illegitimate’, ‘Khamenei be ashamed, abdicate power,’‘Seyed-Ali, it is time to go’ (referring to the first name of Khamenei), and “Down with Rouhani,’ targeted the leaders of the regime and both factions.

Eleven slogans emphasized patriotism and rejected the regime’s strategic policies, in particular meddling in affairs of other countries. Among them were ‘Leave Syria alone, think about us,’ ‘Down with Hezbollah,’ ‘No to Gaza, no to Lebanon, my life for Iran,’ and ‘Dignified Iranian, support, support.’

Eight of the slogans,including ‘We will fight to wrest back our country Iran’ and ‘Either death or freedom,’ referred to continuity of the protests.

One telling aspect of the slogans was that despite the protests taking place in several ethnic areas of Iran, including Kurdistan (northwest) and Balouchistan (southeast), there were no ethnic slogans and all were in tandem with the rest of the country, targeting the regime in its entirety. Many slogans emphasized the notion of Iran and the protesters’ affection for a unified Iranian identity.

Role of the opposition: Were the protests organized?

There are a number of significant issues surrounding the question of the protests’ leadership.

The prospects for repressing and containing a leaderless movement are much better, particularly for a regime like the one ruling in Iran that has shown no hesitancy in using brute force against its demanding citizenry. On the other hand, the chances of success are much higher for a movement that has established leadership and a clear plan. This factor is also significant so far as it pertains to the future course of events and providing an alternative to the status quo.

A key question was about the role of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as the Mujahedeen-e- Khalq (MeK).It has been a leading Iranian opposition group and its existence in the Iranian political landscape predates the clerical regime. The MeK espouses a democratic-anti fundamentalist perception of Islam and played a significant role in the opposition against the Shah that culminated in the overthrow of the monarchy on February 11, 1979.

Soon after the establishment of theocracy in Iran, the MeK stood up to the new regime and rejected its constitution as undemocratic. In the summer of 1980, the MeK staged several rallies in Tehran drawing up to 150,000 people to hear Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the MeK promise to carry on the opposition to Islamist domination[7]. It has been the primary target of the ruling fundamentalists since 1981. In the course of the past three decades, some 120,000 MeK activists from all walks of life and from all over Iran have been executed and a larger number have been incarcerated and persecuted.

In the course of the anti-regime demonstrations in 2009, many MeK supporters were arrested, and some were later executed.

Over the years, the MeK made key revelations on some of the most secret aspects of the Iranian regime’s nefarious conduct including exposing scores of the most important secret nuclear weapons sites and research facilities. The intelligence gathered by MeK operatives inside Tehran was ultimately corroborated by the UN watchdog, the IAEA.That intelligence pointed to the MEK’s network of activists including persons inside some of the most sensitive government intuitions. For anyone with the least knowledge of the Iranian regime’s modus operandi, it was evident that those operatives’ work involvedhuge risks.

While the fact that the MeK enjoyed a constant and formidable presence in Iran was irrefutable, the regime’s focus one liminating the MeK as its arch enemy has made itrather difficult to gauge the scope and extent of the MeK network.

It is somewhat easier to gauge the opposition’s appeal among the Iranian diaspora, a vibrant society of several million people. Historically, Iranians are not a migrating nation. The overwhelming majority of the Iranian diaspora is comprised of Iranians who fled Iran after the establishment of the clerical regime or were born elsewhere. Expatriates throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and even Asia are in constant contact with their homeland. Particularly in the age of communications, the mood among the Iranian diaspora is in a way reflective of the mood at home. The MEK has held massive rallies in Paris in recent years that have drawn more than 100,000 of their supporters from the world over.

In September 2016, after years of intense campaigning, the opposition was able to safely transfer its members, several thousand strong, from camps in Iraq to European countries, most notably Albania.  The opposition leaders and spokespersons pointed out that the transfer, in addition to being a major humanitarian success to guarantee the safety and security of opposition members, was a major strategic achievement. They reasoned this would free up the time and resources of the organized resistance to focus on affairs inside of Iran and on expanding its social base. But outsiders did not initially pay much heed to the opposition’s assessment.

Recent MeK efforts have focused on mobilizing public opinion in Iran on the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988. The overwhelming majority of the victims, including juveniles and pregnant women, were MeK activists who rejected the regime’s demand to denounce their sympathy to the MeK and were executed subsequent to one or two minutes trials.

In April and May 2017, in the run-up to the Iranian presidential elections, the activities entered a new phase and the MeKactivists started to systematically place big pictures of Maryam Rajavi, on major highway overpasses and onwalls beside major streets. The MeK network had engaged in similar activities in previous years but the uptick in their frequency and scope was clear. Video clips showed banners and pictures of Rajavi placed in major cities including Tehran, Mashhad, Kermanshah, Shiraz, and Hamedan, as well as in some of the smaller provincial cities. In parallel, the network became active in exposing mullah Ibrahim Raissi, one of the two leading candidates who was one of the key officials involved in the 1988 massacre in Tehran.

Given the state of repression in Iran, it has been rather impossible for the MeKor any other genuine opposition groups to have any public presence in Iran. A key question has been the MeK’s appeal among the young generation, Nasl sevomi (literally meaning the third generation), or the millennials.

A new feature of MeK events in recent years, in particular in the past two years, has been the presence and activism of the youth. Some of them are Iranians who have been born or grown up in Western countries. But more remarkable has been the presence and appearance of MeK activists who have fled Iran recently.A number of them have been incarcerated for several years and have fled Iran subsequent to their release from prison.[8] This was a new phenomenon and a solid indicator that the MeK had made tangible strides in gaining the attention and recruiting the Iranian youth despite Tehran’s systematic and extensive demonization campaign against the MeK.

Some of the young activists had become familiar with the opposition through their relatives or immediate family. But according to their own accounts, and interviews with international media, a number of them had become acquainted to the MeK in recent years for the first time and had decided to join them. The new activists came mostly from urban middle class families but also from all over Iran. The high percentage of women among them was conspicuous.

As the protests broke out in Mashhad and a number of smaller towns on December 28, the MeK network was the first that broke the news and started sending updates and video clips from the protest scenes. Over the course of the following two weeks that the protests were at their peak, the MeKnetwork distributed around-the-clock news and clips that it received from its activists. The MeK network’s role in breaking the mullahs’ censorship was indisputable, and it persisted despite all the restrictions that Tehran imposed on the Internet and popular social media apps.

A number of MeK activists involved in organizing the protests took the risk of speaking to major international media from Tehran and from smaller towns. In one instance, Nik, a female MeK activist was interviewed by Fox News on January 10 while protesting with hundreds of relatives of detainees in front of the notorious Evin Prison in northern Tehran.

“Calls were given on our Telegram channels a few days before the demonstrations,” Mohammed, a 29-year-old engineering student from Tehran and a MeK activist told the UK’s Daily Telegraph on January 6.“We cover every protest, no matter how small. Some of the slogans that were shouted on the first day and were repeated were started by our friends on our networks,” he added.

The regime’s most senior officials repeatedly underscored the role of the MeK.

Hassan Rouhani called French President Emmanuel Macron on January 2and said the MeK was behind the protests in Iran and asked him to restrict the activities of the Iranian opposition. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition that the MeK is its biggest constituent, is headquartered outside of Paris.

In a speech on January 9, Khamenei said, “These incidents had been organized.” The MeK implemented the plans. He added, “The MeK had prepared for this months ago” and “the MeK’s media outlets had called for it.” He said the MeK was at the apex of the triangle that incited the uprising. He attributed the other two angles to foreign powers.

Brig. Gen. Rasoul Sanai Rad, Political Affairs Deputy for the IRGC, provided the most detailed account of the role of the MeK. In his remarks “Role of the ‘hypocrites’ (the derogatory term used by the regime to describe MeK or PMOI) in recent uprisings” he said:

“Eighty percent of those arrested were under 30 years of age. There were several women among them, who are middle aged. In the 1980s, those who were leading MeK protests were mostly women. And now, the main chain of provocation and starting the protests were women. For example, four of these women caused the protests in the city of Ilam (western Iran). After they were detained, we realized they were not from Ilam…,”

“Similarly, those arrested in Kermanshah had come from the city of Karaj (near Tehran). Those who were from Bandar Abbas were arrested in Shiraz. These were the MeK who would go to the cities in an organized fashion and were guiding the slogans. The most radical and sacrilegious slogans, such as ‘they have used Islam as a ladder to harass the people, neither Islam, neither the Quran, let’s sacrifice both for Iran….

“This shows how much they hate Islam and political religion. Directing attacks on military centers, like assaults on the State Security Force and Bassij bases were part of the planning by the MeK. They even attacked the prisons, which means they have their hands in prisons as well.”

It is very difficult to imagine that the protests spread to 142 cities and that people chanted almost identical slogans without some sort of coordination and organization. It was telling that the protesters’ main slogans were the same as those advocated by the MeK for years.

The progress the MeK has made in recent years and remarks by the regime’s most senior officials all lead to the conclusion that the protests were not leaderless or unorganized. Rather, some sort of organization and coordination was involved and the MeK played a much more extensive and prominent role than might have been recognized from the outside.

Regarding future steps, the opposition has been advocating establishing secret centers of resistance in an attempt to unleash the potential of a disenchanted population that is willing to stand up to clerical rule, and to use the simmering situation in Iran in preparation for an uprising.  It has said that practical steps includejoining together large number of individuals who are currently scattered and disconnected, and encouraging people to invite the real hope that the mullahs can be brought down.

Is Iran destined for a crisis like the one in Syria?

Tehran’s advocates have tried to scare the international community from the eruption of an internal conflict and a repeat of the Syrian scenario in Iran. But the situation in Iran is very different than Syria or other countries in the region that experiencedthe Arab Spring. In those countries, the opposition was not organized and was nascent at its best. In Iran, the opposition has a well-definedstructure, a well-known leader and a declared platform and plan for transition. It has weatheredseveralstormsin the span of more thanthree decades and has shown remarkable resilience and perseverance.

As it pertains to Syria, if it were not for the Iranian regime’s full- fledged military and financial support and the direct intervention of the IRGC and its mercenaries, the Assaddictatorship would have been ousted several years ago and the situation would have been totally different.

The road ahead: Intensified conflict between the regime and the people

Tehran is facing serious financial, political and social challenges. The policy of denying people’s demands and outcries has failed. The policy of intervention in the region has run into a deadlock and exhausted its resources. Its adverse consequences are already felt inside the country. The factors that led to the protests are still in force, even aggravated and the regime does not have the power to address and solve them.

Abbas Abdi, one of the leading thinkers of the “reformists” acknowledged on February 3 that “there is no technical solution for the Iranian society. These solutions existed in the past, but currently such solutions do not exist.” That means that tackling the web of crises facing the clerical regime requires quick, substantial, and profound reforms.

The clerical regime seems incapable of major political reform and all signs indicate that Khamenei, who has the final say, is neither willing nor capable of serious reform,least of all after major social unrest, since this might lead to quicker unraveling of the system.

Yet, there is little doubt in Tehran that the protests will reoccur. Saeed Hajarian, one of the strategists of the “reformists” acknowledged on January 24, protests are like sea waves. They recede to return stronger.”

As well as being unable to prevent the resurgence of the uprisings,the mullahs have lost their duplicitous safeguards and can only depend on the repressive apparatus.

Even Khamenei recently acknowledged the continuation of the protests. He said, “This is a battle of the nation against anti-nation, the battle of Iran against anti-Iran, and the battle of Islam against anti-Islam and it will henceforth continue.”

It can be stated unequivocally that Iranian society will not return to the conditions preceding the 2018 protests, and the clerical regime seems incapable of returning to the status quo ante regarding its balance of power vis-a vis the population.It is in a weaker position than any other time.

This means that the confrontation between the people of Iran and the ruling regime will intensify and the power struggle among the regime’s internal factions will be aggravated.

Sadegh Zibakalam described the prospect in this way: “I am fearful that in the next round… there is no way to contain these people. If this happens, this fire will burn all of us together.”

 

[1] Tehran has acknowledged that a number of prisoners have died during detention but claims they have committed suicide during detention, a claim that has strongly been rejected by the relatives of the protesters and have been questioned even by some of the regime’s own officials.

[2] Primary Causes of Poverty and Popular Uprisings in Iran: The Enormous Cost of the Regime’s Warmongering, Terrorism and Domestic Suppression”, Report by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, January 2018

[3] According to Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a former Vice Speaker of the Majlis, average annual inflation rate after 1979 has been 20 percent and the unemployment has always been on double digits. (State0run Fars news agency, August 8, 2017)

[4] Caspian Finance and Credit Institution, www.caspianci.ir was one of the major financial institutions that was involved in this scheme.

[5] Enghelab Avenue is one of the main Avenues in central Tehran and in a way separates lower class people in southern part of Tehran from the more affluent residents of northern Tehran.

[6] According to regime officials, people attacked the offices of 60 Friday prayer leaders throughout the country.

[7] Breaking the Stalemate, The Case for Engaging the Iranian Opposition, study by Mettis Analytics, a Washington, DC-based research company, March 2015.

[8] Farzad Madadzadeh, Shabnam Madadzadeh, Arash Mohammadi, and Paria Kohandel, were among the young MeK activists who had fled Iran in the past couple of years and appeared in public.

Prof. Ivan Sascha Sheehan is the incoming Executive Director of the School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Baltimore. For the past eight years, Sheehandirected the graduate programs in Global Affairs & Human Security and Negotiations & Conflict Management in the College of Public Affairs. An award-winning scholar, Sheehan has been influential in shaping Washington’s thinking on the prospect of a democratic transition in Iran and is the author of more than fifty articles in prominent news outlets and academic journals. Learn more about his scholarship on terrorism, counterterrorism, and regime change in Iran at www.professorsheehan.comand follow updates via @ProfSheehan.

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Middle East

Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields

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When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.

The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.

Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.

Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.

Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.

To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.

With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.

Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”

“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.

Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.

“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.

Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.

That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.

In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.

The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.

The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.

That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”

Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”

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Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit

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The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.

The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.

In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.

It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.

The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.

Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.

Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.

The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.

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Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations

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Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.

Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.

Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.

How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.

Consider three recent instances.

First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.

Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”

Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.

Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.

Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.

Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.

For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.

In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.

Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.

Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.

In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”

Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.

These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.

The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.

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