The Danish case has only added strength to claims that the overall Iranian threat to global security and stability is increasing. This trend stems not only – and not even primarily – from the escalating war of words between the Iranian regime and the administration of US President Donald Trump, but also from the growing unrest inside the Islamic Republic itself. The connection between recent protests and the regime’s efforts to lash out against foreign adversaries is underscored by the fact that the main target of those would-be attacks is the entity that is largely driving the Iranian protests that continue to this day.
The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran has, in fact, been the main source of opposition to the theocratic regime since shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It has accordingly been targeted for destruction by regime authorities both at home and abroad throughout the intervening four decades. The Mojahedin (PMOI or MEK in its Farsi abbreviation) has seen approximately 120,000 of its members killed during that time, some of them via execution, some via direct clashes with security forces, and some of them via assassination either inside the Islamic Republic or on foreign territory.
Despite this fact, the MEK has steadily grown in membership while also acquiring alliances among global policymakers, Middle East experts, and so on. Today, the organization stands at the head of a coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is headquartered in France and holds an international rally near Paris every summer. The event tends to attract upwards of 100,000 attendees, consisting of Iranian expatriates from throughout the world, plus hundreds of political dignitaries from the United States, Europe, and various countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
It also happens that this year’s MEK-led rally was the target of one of the thwarted terror plots that preceded the Danish incident. In June, a leading Iranian diplomat working out of Austria provided 500 grams of TATP explosive and a detonator to an Iranian-Belgian couple, with instructions to bomb the Iran Freedom gathering. The operatives were arrested at the border between France and Belgium, and the diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was later arrested in Germany, in preparation for his extradition to face charges in Belgium.
The NCRI subsequently released detailed reports on the plot, drawing upon information gathered by the MEK intelligence network inside Iran. That information demonstrated that the order for renewed terrorist operations on European soil came from the highest levels of the Iranian regime. This finding was later corroborated by French intelligence officers when they completed an exhaustive investigation in October and concluded, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Tehran was responsible for the plot.
The credibility and potential usefulness of the MEK intelligence network had previously been demonstrated by wide variety of reports detailing the operations and inner workings of the clerical regime. Prominent among these was the MEK’s revelation of the location of secretive Iranian nuclear sites and details of the weaponization aspects of Iran’s nuclear activities. This certainly did nothing to diminish the regime’s focus on the MEK as the greatest threat to its hold on power. In fact, the nuclear deal generated substantial backlash from hardline institutions of the Islamic Republic. Officers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, among others, were evidently fearful of the implications of a forced compromise with Western “enemies,” and sought to save face both by stepping up confrontational rhetoric and cracking down on dissenting voices at home. Naturally, the MEK stood out as a prominent target of the latter phenomenon.
In recent years, as human rights activists and labor organizers have been targeted for largely indiscriminate arrest, some supporters of the MEK have been given extremely long prison sentences or even executed for “crimes” as insubstantial as donating money to an opposition satellite television network. But as the regime’s risky effort to bomb the Iran Freedom rally this year indicates, these pressures have done nothing to slow down the efforts of the MEK to encourage popular dissent and work toward regime change and the establishment of a truly democratic system of government.
The MEK’s organizing power was already given somewhat prominent attention last year, against the backdrop of the national elections that led to a second term for so-called moderate President Hassan Rouhani. The MEK publicly disputed Rouhani’s moderate credentials since his first-term election, when a number of Western policymakers welcomed him as a potential symbol of change. Throughout the ensuing five years, more and more observers both inside Iran and throughout the international community have moved in the direction of the MEK’s position, following Rouhani’s failure to address the escalating domestic crackdown or instances of foreign belligerence that include but are not limited to French, Danish, and other terror plots.
In fact, the NCRI reports on the French plot connected its planning to the Supreme Council on National Security, which is chaired by Rouhani. Recognizing and anticipating the president’s fealty to the hardline policies and views that are more formally linked to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the MEK sought to organize a boycott of the 2017 elections, emphasizing that the disqualification of reform-minded candidates by the powerful Guardian Council meant that there was no real alternative to the hardline theocracy on the ballot.
MEK activists risked arrest and even possible execution by posting images in public places of Maryam Rajavi, who is the heads MEK’s parent coalition of the NCRI and is its designated president for a transitional period following the ouster of the mullahs’ regime. The images were accompanied by such slogans as “vote for regime change,” in an apparent precursor to the strongly anti-government slogans that would characterize widespread public protests in the following months.
Although the Iranian government reported large turnout for the presidential election, the MEK maintained that the boycott was largely successful and that the polling numbers had been deliberately inflated, with members of the Basij paramilitary appearing in large numbers at designated polling places for the purposes of propaganda broadcasts on state media. The opposition claim was arguably reinforced by the subsequent protests, which – by the regime officials’ own admission – pointed to the widespread social influence and organizing abilities of the MEK.
The anti-government protest and, by extension, the work of the MEK, took on new dimensions on December 28, when economic protests began in the streets of Iran’s second city of Mashhad before spreading throughout the country and giving rise to slogans like “death to Rouhani” and “death to the dictator [Khamenei].” These slogans clearly highlighted the strong overlap between popular sentiment and the goal of regime change that had long been espoused by the MEK.
On January 9, while the nationwide uprising was still in full force, the Supreme Leader issued a public statement in which he referred to the MEK by the familiar derogatory term “hypocrites,” and acknowledged that the organization was a driving force behind the protest. Khamenei declared that the MEK had “planned for months” to promote the anti-government slogans and organize the demonstrations across many localities so they would take on national significance. This speech was clear departure from the regime’s longstanding policy of downplaying the strength and popularity of the MEK while insisting that there is no viable alternative to the theocratic dictatorship.
Considering that the December/January uprising compelled Khamenei and other authorities to admit to some of the regime’s domestic vulnerabilities, it is no surprise that many of those same authorities have sought to expand upon force-projection beyond their borders, even reaching into Western territory with multiple terrorist plots, though they have been almost entirely unsuccessful.
The MEK, it associates in the NCRI, and its political supporters throughout the world are understandably concerned that this escalation in Iran’s foreign policy will continue as long as the regime feels particularly vulnerable. At the same time, these critics of the Iranian government recognize the likelihood of simultaneous escalations in the longstanding crackdown on dissent inside the Islamic Republic.
The potential cost of those escalations is considerable. The historical behavior of the clerical regime points to the extent of the bloodshed that can result when it feels the need to reassert its power in the face of existential threats.
In 1988, when Tehran was facing domestic pressure from the MEK while also begrudgingly managing the end of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring opponents of the fledgling regime to be at war with God himself, and thus subject to summary execution. As a result, tribunals were assembled across the country to interrogate political prisoners over their affiliations and pass immediate death sentences for those deemed disloyal. Over a period of just a few months in that year, an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were put to death, with the overwhelming majority of them being members or supporters of the MEK.
The danger of similar bloodshed persists. Thousands of peaceful protesters were reportedly arrested in the midst of the nationwide uprising, before it was suppressed in late January. In addition, approximately 50 protesters were shot dead in the streets, and a further 14 were tortured to death while in detention. Since then, the ranks of the nation’s political prisoners have continued to swell as protests demonstrations flared in numerous localities, following the lead of the nationwide uprising. Many of those arrestees have been explicitly threatened with the death penalty by judiciary officials and other hardline authorities.
But in contrast to 1988, the domestic pressure that Iran faces from the MEK today is accompanied by unprecedented pressure from the United States following its withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. The leading Iranian opposition group continues to reach out to the international community with the message that these simultaneous pressures could yield a change of government for the Iranian nation, especially if the European Union and other world powers join in imposing sanctions while supporting the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.
With concerns over Iranian terror threats mounting in the West, it may be increasingly likely that European governments will sign onto this high-pressure campaign in at least some capacity. If that turns out to be the case, many Middle East experts foresee further escalations in Iran’s domestic unrest. But the MEK would no doubt emphasize that this trend is already underway, and that the organized Iranian Resistance movement is guiding it.
In March of this year, Maryam Rajavi, the NCRI president-elect, looked back on the nationwide uprising from the perspective of the Iranian New Year celebration of Nowruz and declared publicly that the year ahead could be made into “a year full of uprisings.” This, she said, would lead in turn to the ultimate victory of the Iranian people over the clerical regime. It is a message that has been tacitly endorsed by the Trump administration in the US, which recognizes Iranian fingerprints on all major regional crisis and many threats to American national security. It now remains to be seen whether the nations of Europe will similarly endorse that message in the wake of multiple terror threats inside their borders, primarily targeting the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.