According to Borji, those protests demonstrated public opposition not only to Iran’s clerical regime as it exists today but also to the entire concept of political Islam. This account of popular sentiment is in keeping with the slogans that organizations like the National Council of Resistance of Iran have reported as coming out of those protests. These include calls for the resignation of both the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Protesters have also been heard to identify by name the reformist and conservative political factions that these two men lead, only to declare “the game is over” and suggest that there is little difference in what each has to offer the future of the Iranian nation.
Borji echoed this interpretation of public sentiment, stating that Iranians see little chance for reform from within the existing regime. “They see just survival tactics,” he said of the people’s response to Iranian activities such as the wasteful expenditure of public funds on interventions in the broader region, as well as the regime’s violent reaction to the latest round of protests.
Many observers of Iranian affairs have concluded that such violence is likely to only inflame the types of sentiments that Borji highlighted. For instance, an editorial published at Iranian.com declared that while the protests had largely subsided after two weeks, “the fallout from the government’s harsh response has just begun.” The article points out that the disappearance of protesters and politically active university students has brought people out by the thousands to protest in front of Iranian prisons and demand information or the release of their loved ones.
The article even goes so far as to say that “unrest in Iran will continue until religious rule ends.” This same conclusion is being presented to the world at large by activist groups like the NCRI, many of which are also working to keep international attention focused on the human rights abuses that have been witnessed in the midst of the regime’s response to the popular uprising.
NCRI President Maryam Rajavi visited the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council on Wednesday and decried the “silence and inaction” that has been typical of European leaders’ responses to the unfolding situation. She urged those leaders to instead begin pushing for a United Nations inquiry into the regime’s response to protests, and to take appropriate measures such as the imposition of new sanctions to prevent that response from worsening.
“Iran is a powder keg and the protests continue to occur throughout the country,” Rajavi said. “The regime is doomed to fall and the Iranian people are determined to continue their struggle to end the rule of religious dictatorship and establish freedom.”
Such remarks reflect the conviction that regime change in Iran will be driven by the domestic population. But the NCRI has also called for foreign support in that endeavor, without limiting that support to human rights advocacy. Previously, the resistance organization called upon Western governments and the international community to help keep lines of communication open for the Iranian people on the internet and social media. This goal may prove more important than ever in the near future, as Tehran weighs its options for increasing restrictions on media and communication in hopes of slowing the spread of information about human rights abuses and ongoing protests.
Radio Free Europe reported on Friday that Supreme Leader Khamenei had recently met with cyberspace experts to explore this issue. The article also included some of the comments that had been offered by other clerical authorities. For instance, Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Guardian Council, acknowledged that it would be impossible to “fully block” the internet but also insisted, “We have to reduce it.”
Additionally, Tehran’s Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami attributed the recent protests to “cyberspace seditionists” and said, “Cyberspace as a platform for foreigners is a mad dog. If left alone, it will bite again.”
The Iran Project added that General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military aid to Khamenei, had said, “The enemies are seeking to undermine national unity through using cyberspace” and creating “a gap between the nation and the authorities.” While it is true that the United States State Department communicated with protesters and urged them to evade the regime’s new restrictions on social media platforms like Telegram and Instagram, the regime’s critics insist that the gap between “the nation and the authorities” already existed. On this view, the White House and other foreign supporters of the protest movement have only been trying to give the Iranian people the means to express the dissent they already hold dear.
Nonetheless, Khamenei has made every effort to portray the recent protests as being ginned up by foreign powers. He has described them as products of a “tripartite alliance” between the United States, its Arab allies, and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the pro-democracy resistance group that comprises the major part of the NCRI. “The MEK had prepared for this months ago and its media outlets had called for it,” he said. This was certainly a reference to NCRI-linked satellite television networks but perhaps also to social media communications, which were widely credited with organizing and informing people about protests.
In various NCRI communications including Mrs. Rajavi’s visit to the European Parliament, the resistance organization has pointed out that information is still spreading among domestic channels so as to reveal an increasingly clear picture of the regime’s violent response to the protests. While most international media continue to report that there have been only about two dozen deaths, the NCRI is adamant that the real figure is at least twice that. The group’s coalitions include people who were shot dead in protests and also people who have evidently been tortured to death, some of whom the regime attempted to publicly write off as suicides.
The Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Wednesday that people were still coming forward to dispute the government’s official story in such cases. Specifically, it highlighted commentary from Kurdish human rights activist Mokhtar Zarei regarding the deaths of two other Iranian Kurds, Saro Ghahremani and Kianoosh Zandi, whom the regime says were killed in an armed confrontation with security forces.
Zarei provided a detailed eye-witness account of the incident, in which police opened fire on unarmed men, and he highlighted the parallels between that case and the case of Ramin Hossein Panahi, yet another Kurdish activist who was detained after a shooting incident last year in which three of his friends were killed in a vehicle. Kurdistan 24 now reports that Panahi has been sentenced to death on false charges of membership in a terrorist group, following 200 days of solitary confinement during which his family was deprived of all information about his situation.
These parallels, together with the poorly-justified death sentence, suggest that the Iranian regime is using the recent protests as an opportunity to continue its established patterns of human rights abuses, including unlawful executions and enforced disappearances. Of Panahi’s case, Amnesty International said in a statement, “Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law and places individuals at serious risk of extrajudicial execution, torture, and other gross human rights violations.”
Amnesty has also put out more general statements about the environment that has developed in the wake of the protests. These reiterate the positions of other groups like the NCRI regarding the danger faced by large number of demonstrators. After initially acknowledging only a few hundred arrests, government officials more recently admitted that 3,700 arrests had been made. But relying on the networks of the MEK, the NCRI has determined that upwards of 8,000 people have been detained and that many have been kept behind a familiar veil of secrecy, effectively making them victims of enforced disappearance.