In it, he called upon the shrinking population of young hardliners to co-opt and redirect protests that would otherwise remain firmly in the hands of youth who oppose “the foundations of the revolution” and the Islamic theocracy that it helped to create.
“It would be good if you were at the forefront of demands,” Khamenei explained. “If you stop leading in this arena, then others may take the lead whose aim is not to resolve the people’s difficulties but to fight against Islam and the Islamic Republic. Don’t allow that.”
He went on to warn of the likely impact on Iran’s image abroad if the Basij failed to insert itself into public demands for political change. Referring to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) as “the enemy,” Khamenei expressed powerful concern about how they might exploit any indications that the mullahs’ did not enjoy the support of the people. The unmistakable intention behind his remarks was to portray this as an existential threat to the theocratic system.
Khamenei is not wrong about this, although there are still open questions about both the speed and the conviction with which regime’s “enemies” would respond to perceived threats to the regime’s hold on power. After all, those threats have already been evident for no less than two and a half years, and yet Western policies toward the regime have barely shifted in response to the emerging opportunity.
That opportunity is nothing less than a chance to bring about the collapse of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and to do so without resorting to bombs, bullets, or any direct intervention whatsoever. The only thing that the international community needs to do in order to topple the mullahs has recognized the conditions that Khamenei acknowledged on Sunday and to set policy with the intention of helping those conditions to grow and flourish.
This isn’t a particularly difficult prospect since the conditions of domestic opposition to the Iranian regime have already been flourishing since before the start of 2018. That year began with the regime already in the grips of a nationwide uprising. And although the activism was largely forced back underground through a campaign of violent repression, it would soon prove to be the start of what the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi called “a year full of uprisings.”
The countless protests in 2018 and 2019 ultimately coalesced into another nationwide uprising in November 2019. Spanning this entire period and continuing up to the present day, the unmistakable message of the protest movement was a demand for regime change. This was expressed through calls for the resignation of all top officials and through provocative and risky slogans like “death to the dictator.”
In the regime, merely insulting the supreme leader can land a person in prison for many years. And if protests are deemed a threat to national security or an instance of “waging war on God,” their organizers can even be put to death. In 2018, Khamenei implicitly made all protesters subject to the latter charge by linking their uprising to the MEK, as the leading voice for democratic governance as a replacement for the religious dictatorship.
Countless Iranians have been put to death for simply donating money to MEK news networks, and the group’s membership comprised the vast majority of victims in a mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. Despite this devastating early blow, the MEK has grown steadily throughout the subsequent 32 years, and by all accounts, Khamenei is correct in saying that it played a leading role in the 2018 uprising.
The same can be said of the following year’s nationwide protests, as well as a great deal of sustained activism that continues the push for democracy and civil rights in between these demonstrations. Khamenei seemed to acknowledge all of this on Sunday, as he commanded the Basij to “deal with [the MEK] explicitly and strongly,” before the opposition can follow through with plans to exploit their growing popularity among university students and young Iranians from all walks of life.
The urgency of the supreme leader’s appeal implied that the prevalence of MEK messaging would be inevitable if the Basij failed to drown it out. Indeed, that has already been the outcome of two prior uprisings and countless smaller protests that evoked the same unequivocal demand for regime change.
Now that that message has already entered the mainstream, it seems as if it would be quite impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. But fortunately for Khamenei, the public endorsement of regime change has yet to be widely recognized among Western policymakers. So while the Basij cannot realistically be expected to divert protesters’ attentions toward simple matters that don’t challenge the foundations of the regime, the militia may at least be able to convince some foreign observers that the current trend in Iranian activism is toward gradual reform, rather than a new revolution.
But that just isn’t the case. And anyone who takes an appropriately close look at Iranian affairs this very moment will see the truth. Recent uprisings and ongoing national crises have brought the mullahs’ regime to the very edge of collapse. Public frustrations cannot be silenced even in the wake of brutal government suppression. The deaths of 1,500 people during the November uprising did not stop student activists from coming back into the streets to condemn Tehran’s incompetence and propaganda two months later.
Under these conditions, any individual show of support for the Iranian people could be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. Each time economic sanctions deprive the regime of resources for its repressive institutions, the public gains more leverage in its fight for freedom. Each time Tehran’s propaganda is contradicted on a global scale, it helps the people to organize behind the belief that the world will support them when they throw off their rulers.
Regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei understands all of this, and he is desperate to convince his “enemies” that threats to his hold on power are not what they appear. But to let him get away with it, Western policymakers would have to be equally eager to turn a blind eye toward reality. If they are willing to relinquish the status quo in their relations with the Iranian regime, they can rid the world of one of its greatest threats to peace and stability.