The Islamic Republic of Iran has recently weathered one of its most formidable threats to power since its inception in 1979. Sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman in police custody in September, opposition anti-government demonstrations swiftly engulfed the nation.
The victim, 22-year-old Jina [Mahsa] Amini from Saqqez, emerged as the symbol of what many are terming the “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (Woman, Life, Freedom) revolution. In response to the protests, Iranian opposition groups, including the Kurdish armed opposition, reinvigorated their support (primarily through clandestine ground game rather than armed struggle). These groups strengthened their foothold not only within Iran but also globally, anticipating a potential post-Islamic Republic era in Iran.
The Tehran administration soon identified the brewing danger and initiated a crackdown on opposition groups, both to deflect attention and to weaken these entities. If further unrest erupts, these groups would be less equipped to amplify pressure on the government.
The regime pointed fingers at these factions for the disruption, and announced arrests and weapon seizures linked to these opposition groups. Simultaneously, Tehran initiated an aerial attack campaign, pummeling Iranian Kurdish opposition bases in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, resulting in dozens of casualties and numerous injuries.
In February, numerous Iranian dissidents and leaders from several opposition groups established the “Alliance for Freedom and Democracy.” This was achieved during a forum titled “The Future of the Iranian Democracy Movement,” held at Georgetown University in Washington. This ‘Georgetown coalition’ failed to maintain momentum, as Hamed Esmaeilion, a primary signatory from the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, soon withdrew due to the inclusion of Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran’s former Shah. Despite this setback, Tehran continues to target these factions and dissidents, extending its reach abroad.
Iran has accused around 20 Western nations, including the US, France, Germany, Canada, Belgium, and Italy, of instigating anti-government demonstrations. Earlier this month, General Mohammad Kazemi, an Iranian intelligence official, stated that according to investigations by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the countries were implicated in the “riots” that have gripped the nation in recent months.
In the UK, Iranian dissidents have been placed under round-the-clock police protection following threats presumably originating from Iranian intelligence agencies.
People’s Mujahedin of Iran, or MEK (Mujahedin-e Khalq)
In France last week, authorities prohibited a major rally, planned by the MEK and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—an umbrella organization that functions largely as its political wing, due to security concerns. The rally aimed to assemble tens of thousands of individuals in Paris. However, the MEK is facing increased scrutiny in Europe, as it anxiously observes the development of European negotiations with Tehran aiming to revive deals on Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
MEK supporters view it as the only credible opposition faction based outside of Iran, although many Iranians, including those opposed to the religious authorities, view it with suspicion. The MEK and NCRI have accused the West of “appeasing” Iran amid challenges. On June 20, Albanian authorities initiated a raid against a MEK camp, which has provided shelter to its members for the past ten years, following an agreement made in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion. This agreement was necessitated by the geopolitical shift that resulted from the invasion and regime change, causing the MEK members to relocate from Iraq to Albania.
The MEK is banned by authorities in Iran, which accuses the group of perpetrating a series of violent attacks in the early 1980s. The group had spent decades working to depose the Shah and initially supported the 1979 revolution. However, it quickly fell out of favor with the new administration and supported Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. This alliance meant its members had to be relocated after the 2003 US-led invasion.
The NCRI has reported that one MEK member was killed during the Albanian police raid, a claim that Tirana has denied. The NCRI also stated that Albanian police confiscated 200 computers. In an unexplained incident, a bomb was thrown into an NCRI office near Paris earlier this month, causing no injuries, according to both the police and the group.
Maryam Rajavi, who leads both the MEK and NCRI, told a meeting near Paris that these incidents were the result of a “policy of appeasement” by the West, alleging that they “occurred at the request of the Iranian regime.”
Despite these setbacks, the MEK maintains that it has a network inside Iran and touts its role in exposing Iran’s then-secret nuclear program in 2002, which led to tensions with the West. It boasts several high-profile Western supporters, including former US National Security Advisor John Bolton and former Vice President Mike Pence.
However, critics view the group as a cult and contend it does not represent the Iranians who took to the streets in a new wave of protests starting in September of the previous year. This perception could render the group vulnerable as Europe attempts to maintain open channels with Iran in the hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, an agreement the MEK vehemently opposed.
French President Emmanuel Macron and his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, engaged in telephone discussions on June 10, while the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief, Enrique Mora, met with his Iranian counterpart last week in Doha. Simultaneously, Paris is closely monitoring the situation of four French nationals currently held by Iran, who activists consider to be hostages. Last month, Iran released a Belgian aid worker in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who was convicted in Belgium for a plot to attack a 2018 NCRI rally near Paris.
Jason Brodsky, policy director at the US-based group United Against Nuclear Iran, commented on the coincidence of these events, saying it “certainly raises questions.” He stated, “The Islamic Republic has long complained about the MEK’s presence in Western countries, so I wouldn’t be surprised if its officials raised the issue in their conversations with Western counterparts.”
If the MEK’s status in Europe was indeed under discussion, Brodsky said it would represent a “paradigm shift,” as Europe and the US have historically wanted talks on the nuclear crisis to be limited to that issue. He added, “This is certainly a dynamic to watch.”
The MEK has faced challenges in the West: it was expelled from France in the mid-1980s as Paris sought to improve relations with the new Islamic rulers. The US only removed the MEK from its list of terror groups in 2012, after years of lobbying.
There is also a genuine fear among European officials that, following the 2018 foiled plot, NCRI rallies could become targets of attacks. Paris police chief Laurent Nunez stated there is a “current and real risk” of such an attack when he informed the July 1 rally’s sponsors of the prohibition. However, in a letter viewed by AFP, Nunez also warned: “The rally could be the scene of tension between supporters of the MEK and other Iranian opposition activists who have been engaged in a struggle for influence since the beginning of the protest movement in Iran.”
The Iranian government has been particularly riled by recent activities credited to the MEK, which include hacking into the computer system of Raisi’s administration. Yet, Tehran appears to be taking great satisfaction in the increased pressure against the MEK in Western countries: “Because of their terrorist nature, the MEK will always be a threat to the security of their hosts,” said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani.