Next week, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner who is ideologically and personally close to Iran's 82 year-old supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will be inaugurated as Iran's president. This power transition comes as the country experiences a fresh wave of protests that started in Iran's southwest over water shortages earlier this month and has since spilled over into dozens of provinces.
Some close observers of Iranian society and politics say that popular discontent there is now more widespread than it has been in years, making the Iranian regime more vulnerable than ever.
To unpack recent events, GZERO Media interviewed Ali Safavi, a longtime member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran — the main political opposition group to Iran's theocracy — whose leaders have lived in exile for decades. Safavi has taught at several American universities and has been an analyst for Western media outlets. He was also involved in the campaign to remove the Mujahedin-e Khalq movement — which the NCRI is closely linked to — from the lists of terrorist groups in the US (2012) and Europe (2009).
The MEK was formed in the 1960s by leftist-student groups to overthrow the American-backed Shah. While its supporters view it as a freedom movement advocating democratic reform in Iran, its detractors condemn the MEK's militaristic past. Indeed, many Iranians shunned the group for joining forces with Saddam Hussein against Tehran during the brutal Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). (Meanwhile, accusations of cult-like tendencies plague the group today.)
This conversation with Ali Safavi has been edited for length and clarity.
GD: What do you make of the latest protests in Iran and what, if anything, makes them different from previous mass demonstrations?
AS: I think the recent protests have to be seen in the context of the developments of the past few months in Iran. Obviously what has happened is the continuation of four nationwide uprisings that erupted in Iran since 2017. And if anything, it goes to show that despite all the repressive measures that the regime has put in place, particularly since November 2019, that it cannot extinguish the flames of resistance and opposition to the regime.
Over the past year and a half, the most effective and closest ally of the Iranian regime has been the coronavirus. The regime has basically invested in the strategy of mass casualties — it is not providing the necessary assistance to the people. It seems that the Iranian people are emerging from the burden of the coronavirus and expressing their pent up anger and their demands for freedom and liberty.
The scope of the uprising this time is also different. Already there have been protests in 14 different provinces. And the interesting feature of all of these protests is the unanimity in the slogans that people express: "down with the dictator," "down with absolute rule of the clergy," and "down with Khamenei."
GD: Are those slogans new? Have they not been used before?
AS: Yes they have. But I think what is important is that, ostensibly, the protest in Khuzestan was over water shortage, but it quickly became political. The protest yesterday in Tehran was because of electricity cuts. So yes, people have different and specific grievances, but at the end of the day, the root cause of all of these calamities is the regime in Tehran. Today is the 13th or the 14th day of what began in Khuzestan in early July. And so it goes to show that the regime clearly cannot contain the protests; the regime is at its weakest and most fragile state in its 40-year history.
GD: Realistically, what role can the NCRI play in affecting change considering that your group is not actually in the country?
AS: While of course it is true that the leadership of the NCRI has been in exile, that is not to say that its network has been absent within the country. In every city that you see protests now, there have been hundreds of MEK members or sympathizers who have been executed by this regime in the past. And of course these people have families and many of them have children who are now grown up. And so the people that you see out in the streets, the fact that they repeat the very slogans that the MEK or the NCRI have been promoting for years goes to show the effectiveness of our movement.
GD: What do you think the Biden administration should be doing now vis-à-vis Iran policy?
AS: The Democratic Party and President Biden's platform during the election was that human rights and democracy will be front and center [in his administration]. He [Biden] should remain true to that pledge. And I think, for example, what happened in Khuzestan with eight people being killed, according to Amnesty International, required a decisive condemnation on the part of the administration. But what do we see? They are observing. Observation is not enough. You have to condemn Iran. Iranian people need to know that the Western world and particularly the United States stands with them in the real struggle for emancipation and freedom.
This whole JCPOA discussion is fruitless and helpless and is to the detriment of the Iranian people. Are they really going to lift the sanctions against Khamenei, the man who is responsible for, among other things, the 1988 massacre?
GD: What about the argument that these economic sanctions hurt ordinary Iranians?
AS: I think this is a false narrative that the pro-Iran lobby propagates in Western capitals. Remember, during Ahmadinejad's presidency Iran had $600 billion worth of oil revenues. Where did that money go? Why are 12 million Iranians hungry every night? Iran is a country with the second largest gas reserves in the world. Giving concessions to this regime has not improved the lives of average Iranians, and giving concession to this regime has not empowered the so-called moderates within this region.
GD: What's your response to detractors who say the NCRI, formerly designated a terror group by the US State Department, has a violent past, and that there isn't a constituency today in Iran that supports the group?
AS: When [former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini declared a reign of terror in June 1981, basically eliminating the last vestiges of peaceful political activity, the MEK had no choice, but to defend itself. And of course, that right is recognized even by the Catholic Church, that whenever you have no other means of defending yourself, you can use whatever means are necessary. Nobody welcomes violence, but it is not we that dictate the form of this struggle. It is the enemy that does that.
We have always said to all of those who say we don't have any semblance of support inside Iran: Okay. Let's have a free election and see who the people of Iran will vote for. If they vote for us, fine. If they don't, that's also fine. We have been an opposition movement for 56 years. We're perfectly willing to be an opposition movement for another 56 years.