Iranian Expatriate Rally Takes on Newfound Significance after Two Activist Uprisings

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

At the end of July, tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates will gather, as they do every summer, to voice support for the ouster of Iran’s theocratic regime. The annual event is a reliable showcase for the democratic opposition that pervades not only the expatriate community but also the population of the Islamic Republic itself. 

This role has been particularly evident in recent years and will only be more so when speeches and panel discussions begin several weeks from now. If not for its connections to Iran’s domestic activist movement, the Iran Freedom rally would presumably not be viewed as much of a threat to the clerical regime. But Tehran’s recognition of that threat was exposed two years ago when the event space at Villepinte, Paris, became the target of a bomb plot that was disrupted by multiple European authorities just ahead of the gathering. 

At that time, two would-be terrorists were apprehended while trying to cross the border from Belgium into France while carrying 500 grams of the high explosive TATP. An Iranian diplomat posted in Austria was later arrested as well, having been identified as the mastermind behind the plot. All three are now facing charges for international terrorism, and their cases have helped to reveal the extent to which Tehran remains willing to threaten Western territory and Western nationals in pursuit of its malign objectives. 

The French gathering, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, routinely attracts hundreds of prominent political dignitaries alongside the tens of thousands of expatriates. Repeat attendees include former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who now serves as President Trump’s personal lawyer. This is just a small selection of the individuals whose lives were put at risk by the 2018 bomb plot, yet high-profile attendees returned in comparable numbers in 2019 and are poised to do so again this summer. 

Their willingness to accept the inherent risk is a testament to their belief in the importance of the event’s cause. The NCRI has long advocated for regime change in the Islamic Republic and, crucially, has emphasized that this goal can be accomplished by the Iranian people themselves, with little more than political support from Western powers. What’s more, NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi has laid out a ten-point plan for the country’s future which promotes free and fair elections, safeguards on the rights of women and minorities, and a host of other principles that would establish a new Iranian government. 

That prospect represents a vital opportunity to transform the political landscape of the Middle East. The change of government would unquestionably bring an end to malign activities by the current regime which contributes to virtually every source of instability and insecurity throughout the region. And this is to say nothing of the inevitable impact on Iran’s own population, which has suffered tremendously over the past four decades at the hands of a regime that prioritizes its own stranglehold on power over all else. 

The relevant human rights concerns stand right alongside national security interests as a substantial motivator for American and European attendance at the Iran Freedom rally. And those concerns have been brought into especially sharp relief in recent years. The 2018 bomb plot was both an inheritor and a precursor to more successful crackdowns on dissent inside the Islamic Republic. These in turn coincided with prominent waves of opposition to the theocratic system, driven by troubling economic indicators as well as pent-up frustrations over the regime’s chronic mismanagement of a wide range of domestic issues. 

In the final days of 2017, an expression of economic grievances in the city of Mashhad morphed into an uprising that spanned well over 100 cities and towns, giving rise to provocative slogans like “death to the dictator.” Related chants continued to echo through the streets for much of January 2018, leaving little question about the ultimate goal of regime change and a transition to real self-determination. And although the uprising was violently repressed by security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it also spawned a series of localized protests that Mrs. Rajavi and the NCRI described as a “year full of uprisings.” 

The summer bomb plot can largely be understood as a reaction to these circumstances. By the same token, it can also be understood as a sign of the regime’s deepening anxiety regarding its ability to control an increasingly restive community, which enjoys ever greater support from outside the borders of the Islamic Republic. That same anxiety will surely prompt Tehran to act out in increasingly desperate and dangerous ways. Indeed, that is exactly what it did when the public demands for regime change found an outlet in another nationwide uprising in November 2019. 

That incident was much more short-lived than the 2018 uprising, though it erupted spontaneously in perhaps twice as many localities. Authorities responded to many of the composite demonstrations by firing live ammunition into crowds of peaceful protesters. Activists for the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which stands at the head of the NCRI coalition, ultimately determined that 1,500 people were killed in a matter of days. And even though roughly half of these have been identified by name, Tehran has very recently attempted to sweep the crackdown under the rug, claiming that there were only about 200 fatalities and that a quarter of them was not even attributable to state security forces. 

This year’s Iran Freedom rally will, of course, serve to highlight the conditions driving domestic opposition to the clerical regime. Equally important, though, is the role it will play in countering the state propaganda that threatens to help the regime deflect international criticism and evade responsibility for its escalating human rights abuses and strategies for suppressing dissent. It is, therefore, important that the international community be well represented at the event, in order to bring accurate information about the Islamic Republic before a large, international audience.