Iranians aspire to establish a secular democratic republic and reject returning to the past

More than 750 Iranian protesters, including 70 persons under the age of 18, have been killed during Iran’s five-month anti-government uprising.  Upwards of 30,000 protesters have also been arrested according to the network of the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran/ Mojahedin-e Khalq (PMOI/MEK). At least 100 have already been indicted on capital charges, with others being sure to follow. Four executions have been publicly acknowledged by the regime’s authorities.

The duration of the unrest, despite such a savage crackdown, has been surprising to western analysts and experts. New protests broke out simultaneously in Tehran and several other cities on February 17, leading to reports of the most widespread unrest in weeks. That upsurge in political activity was specifically timed to coincide with the end of a traditional 40-day mourning period, marking the execution of the second pair of men condemned to death for taking part in the uprising. In this sense, the latest protests convey specific defiance of the regime’s efforts to suppress anti-government sentiment through violence.

Even if it were not for this latest round of large-scale protests, there would still be ample evidence to suggest that the situation inside the Islamic Republic has changed and that it will be virtually impossible to return to the status quo, as it existed before “morality police” killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September, for wearing her mandatory head covering too loosely.

It is very telling and rather unique that Iranian women have maintained major leadership roles in the nationwide uprising, which has spanned as many as 300 cities across all 31 provinces at its peak. But for those who are familiar with the Iranian Resistance movement that has been percolating just below the surface of mainstream society for the past four decades, women’s visibility in recent and ongoing protests has come as no surprise.

The Resistance movement for years have been led by a woman and has been formally designated by the democratic coalition of Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, to serve as transitional president when the current uprising leads to the mullahs’ overthrow. Maryam Rajavi has presented a ten-point plan for Iran’s future following that transition, and it involves not only free and fair elections but also formalization of key principles of any modern democratic society, including secularism and equal protection before the law for men and women, as well as members of various ethnic and religious minorities.The coalition’s main constituent group, the MEK, maintains a network of “Resistance Units” which has been promoting the democratic alternative across the Islamic Republic since long before the current uprising began. 

If one listens carefully to the slogans chanted in the streets it is evident that the protesters have no interest of returning to the pre-1979 revolution and the rule of Pahlavi and the discredited monarchy. One of the main slogans of the protests that have been repeated in Tehran and throughout Iran has been “Death to the oppressor, be it the shah, be it the religious leader”. As the Washington Post put it on October 21st – “This slogan captures a consistent repudiation of autocratic rule, be it a king or a cleric.” The binary canceling one system in favor of another one does not represent the ideals of the protesters. 

In the meantime, the son of the former, deposed Shah, would have the international community believe that he represents the potential for a democratic future in his homeland. But this notion is overwhelmingly rejected by the Iranian people, who remember well the repression that Reza Pahlavi brought to bear on them or their forebears. It is a legacy of violence and corruption that has never been disavowed by the surviving Pahlavis, and it is one that promises only a return to an earlier dark age. Iranians in Iran and in the Diaspora, have very dark and dreadful memories of the repression, torture, and executions that were imposed on them by the Shah’s notorious secret Police, SAVAK, on human rights and democracy activists. They point to the rampant corruption and embezzlement under the Shah’s rule and the fact that the Shah’s son, whose only political capital is being the son and grandson of deposed dictators, has never distanced himself from the misdeeds of his forebears. 

It is long past time for the international community to recognize the reality of the Iranian situation and to transcend the longstanding tendency to view Iran as irrevocably torn between the antiquated dictatorship of the mullahs and the no less damaging dictatorship of the Shah. The reality is that Iran is ready for change and the people of Iran are ready to achieve what was taken away from them by Khomeini in 1979, i.e., a democratic, secular, republic. 

Western powers have a powerful opportunity to help the Iranian people claim a better future for themselves, but they should disavow the policy of placating and appeasing the ruling theocracy and should identify with the true aspirations of the Iranians, with concrete steps. The first step will be to blacklist the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. The IRGC is responsible for the ongoing terror and suppression of the Iranian people and has coordinated the regime’s warmongering and terror attacks worldwide. Their blacklisting is long overdue and will send a clear message to both the ayatollahs and to brave Iranians that the EU is adapting to fast-paced changes in Iran.