By Giulio Terzi
Mr. Terzi is the former Foreign Minister of Italy
This month marks 40 years since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established following the overthrow of the Shah’s dictatorship. The regime is planning celebrations to project an image of strength and the message that its leadership is impervious to change. At the same time, the regime’s critics will be working to undermine this propaganda by highlighting the vulnerabilities of the repressive system.
Activists inside Iran are sure to carry on with the anti-government protests that defined 2018 and have continued in 2019. A nationwide uprising at the beginning of last year gave rise to slogans such as “death to the dictator,” which were repeated in more than 100 cities across the nation.
In a sign of the regime’s vulnerability, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged that a driving force behind this messaging is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), a group that the same officials had long sought to portray as weak and incapable of mustering a threat to the dictatorship. The falsity of that propaganda was made apparent months later, when Iranian intelligence operatives were caught in an attempt to bomb a major rally organized by the Iranian opposition near Paris.
This and other threats against Western territory and interests have helped to spur support for at least one event that will stand alongside Iran’s domestic protests in challenging the regime’s claims about the strength it hopes to begin the next decade of rule. Last month, during a tour of the Middle East, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described plans for a conference in Warsaw that would focus on the Middle East and on building a coalition for the purpose of compelling Iran to “behave like a normal country.”
The US has advocated for that strategy since the advent of the current administration. In recent weeks, European allies have begun showing signs of commitment to standing against Iran’s destructive policies. The Paris bomb plot and other terror threats were no doubt instrumental in reorienting their priorities away from defense, at all costs, of the Iran nuclear deal. Of equal importance are the anti-government protests and other signs that the regime is perhaps even ripe for overthrow.
Still, many Western policymakers remain wary taking actions that would lead to that outcome. The Warsaw conference may represent an opportunity for Tehran’s adversaries to explore the substance of that outcome and assuage one another’s fears. In order to do so effectively, recent developments in Iran must be understood in context.
On February 8, just days before the Warsaw gathering, the Iranian diaspora will hold a major protest in Paris to promote the cause of democracy and to push for international policies for dealing with the Islamic Republic. If prospective attendees at the February 13 conference will listen to the message of the preceding rally, they will gain a deeper understanding of what Iran’s domestic protest movement signifies. The ongoing demonstrations don’t just point to the vulnerability of the existing regime; they underscore the existence of an organized and ideologically consistent alternative to that regime – led by the MEK, and stands ready to facilitate a transition to democracy.
All sensible Western policymakers support the collapse of the regime. Most of them lack a vision for what comes afterward. Others have learned to wrongly associate opposition to the theocratic dictatorship with support for earlier forms of tyranny that would be no better for the Iranian people than the mullahs’ rule or a descent into chaos.
Neither of these outcomes is realistic. The past year – described by Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, as a “year full of uprisings” – went a long way toward demonstrating that opposition to the regime is well organized to descend into chaos, and too focused on democratic objectives to lead toward anything other than free and fair elections. Arguments to the contrary might have seemed plausible before Tehran admitted that the MEK enjoys extensive clout. Now that it has, the international community cannot fail to orient its policies around support for the pro-democracy movement.
The details of those policies will be examined at the Warsaw conference, and they are certain to include elaboration on existing economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Whatever proposals grow out of that conference, they will be easier to sell to the international community if relevant parties understand how close Iran’s domestic population has already come to throwing off tyranny in favor of democratic governance.