As the international community watched to see who would be pulled out of the ballot box in Iran’s Presidential election last month, many Iranians refused to participate in the process, seeing no real prospect for change in their country and not wanting to encourage the perception of legitimacy for the existing government.
Despite state media propaganda of a high turnout (which the regime has claimed at each of its sham polls), this time the online social sphere was full of images of empty voting stations and posters on walls calling for a boycott. The organized boycott was led by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI or MEK), the principle opposition group to the Ayatollahs’ regime.
The country’s leading opposition group has continued to attract support throughout the past three decades, even after regime authorities attempted to destroy the group in the midst of a massacre of political prisoners, which killed 30,000 in the summer of 1988. It has also continued to accumulate supporters and organize activist demonstrations in the four years since Rouhani took office on promises of greater civil rights and less restrictions on cultural activities and free expression.
The undiminished appeal of the PMOI is indicative of how little has changed in the wake of Rouhani’s election. As a matter of fact, some conditions inside the country have only grown worse, with the Rouhani administration overseeing approximately 3,000 executions and an enhanced crackdown on activists, journalists, dual nationals, and many other sectors. The administration’s true feelings about human rights issues were made clear the moment Rouhani chose Mostafa Pourmohammadi as his Justice Minister: a man who had served as one of the four judges on the “death commission” that determined whom to hang in 1988.
Rouhani’s contender was Ebrahim Raisi, another member of this panel. Thus the choice for Iranians was between a faction that directly participated in notorious political killings and a faction that merely stood idly by, as well as justifying the killings after the fact. This barely significant difference was reflected in the slogans disseminated by the PMOI in the run-up to the election. Banners and flyers which sprung up throughout the country dismissed Raisi as a “murderer” and Rouhani as an “imposter.” Some of these accompany pictures of PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi, and the messages went on to explicitly advocate regime change instead of acceptance of the extremely limited alternatives that are imposed upon the people.
Every candidate to high office is vetted by Iran’s unelected Guardian Council, in order to guarantee that they pose no challenge to the will of the supreme leader or the country’s hardline Islamist identity. With this in mind, Western policymakers should have been very well aware of the fact that Rouhani’s election in 2013 would not have a meaningful impact on the future of relations with the Islamic Republic, or on the conduct of the Iranian government toward its own people. Nevertheless, the Obama White House eagerly embraced Rouhani as a potential moderating force, as did his counterparts in a number of European nations. And they continued justifying their naivety by boasting of the nuclear agreement that was concluded with his government in July 2015.
But the consequence has been a blind eye to human rights abuses, which are ingrained in the very fabric of tightly controlled theocratic system, by the international community. The persistence of those abuses should have been foreseen by the US and its allies. Throughout these years there have been many within the policy circles who have foreseen these abuses, especially those who have long expressed their support for the PMOI.
Each year, hundreds of international dignitaries attend the international gathering of the PMOI’s parent organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), in Paris. The event organized by the Iranian diaspora is attended by tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates and is viewed via illegal satellite television hookups and social media by millions of people within Iran. Policymakers who have witnessed this event are fully aware that the will of the Iranian public is not behind the regime, regardless of who holds the office of the presidency.
The legacy of the 1988 massacre and the regime’s ongoing justification of this heinous crime, explains why Iranians see no hope for change during Rouhani’s second term. And the United States should be looking back on the aggressive Iranian rhetoric and force-projection in the Middle East and recognizing it as a reason to support the domestic desire for regime change in Tehran.
The extent of the electoral boycott illustrates the political will which exists throughout the country, eight years after the 2009 uprisings were brutally cracked down. The collapse of that movement was made possible by lack of international support for the people yet wholehearted support for Rouhani, which was itself apparently based on the misplaced belief that the Iranian regime would respond to the discord by changing from within. Now that that assumption has once again been proven false, it is in the interests of the US and all freedom-loving peoples throughout the world to reject the Iranian parody of democracy and to finally listen to the voices of the Iranian people.
Those voices have been consistently neglected, especially during sham presidential elections in which a victor has been declared without acknowledging the people whose absence from the polls constituted a vote for regime change. The activity of the PMOI has been even more pronounced this year than in the lead-up to other elections, and the continuation of the same patterns of neglect would be particularly inexcusable. The strength of the country’s alternative voice will be made clear when there is a full accounting of voter participation. And thereafter, the actual substance of that voice can be heard in the NCRI’s next Paris gathering, which will be held on July 1st, where over 100,000 will voice their support for a ‘Free Iran’.