Iran underwent an historic uprising at this time last year. On the anniversary of Iran November 2019 protests, it is important to understand the impact of this uprising and the Iranian opposition role.
First of all, it is important to note that the November 2019 uprising was not the first of its kind. It emerged less than two years after another nationwide protest movement, with the two demonstrating notable similarities. The prior uprising began in the final days of 2017 and lasted through much of January 2018. Although initially focused on economic grievances, it came to be defined by slogans like “death to the dictator” and calls for regime change. This broad messaging was kept alive in a series of scattered protests in the months following the initial uprising and was taken up on an even larger scale last November.
While the January 2018 uprising reportedly spanned something like 150 cities across all 31 of Iran’s provinces, protests were confirmed to have taken place in 191 cities during a period of less than two weeks in November 2019. The brief duration of the latter uprising was a sign of the effectiveness of the Iranian Resistance organizing. During both uprisings the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK) played a leading role. And this spurred regime authorities to use “whatever they can” to prevent the regime’s downfall.
The regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei confirmed the MEK’s leading role, in one of his speeches. While that uprising was ongoing, Khamenei stated that the MEK had “planned for months” to popularize the message of regime change. Tehran naturally responded with violence to that initial uprising, and it is estimated that several dozen protesters were killed, some of them under torture. Yet the regime’s oppression did not prevent Iranians from pouring on street again in November.
Khamenei, Regime’s Supreme Leader Blames the MEK for the Iran Protests
Khamenei’s speech confirmed the regime’s fragility. In his speech Khamenei acknowledged to the public that the MEK is the regime’s main opposition. By giving such credit to the leading Resistance group, he also undid more than three decades of his regime’s propaganda that referred to the PMOI as a “grouplet” that had been largely destroyed during the systematic executions of more than 30,000 political prisoners, mainly supporters of the MEK on summer of 1988.
This statistic stands out as an historical marker of the lengths that the regime is willing to go to in its effort to stamp out organized dissent. Tehran’s crackdown on the November 2019 uprising now stands right alongside that incident.
Recognizably anxious over the growing influence of the MEK organizing, regime authorities ordered the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to confront the November uprising with deadly force. Amnesty International later confirmed that IRGC forces were shooting to kill when they opened first on crowds of protesters. On December 15, the MEK presented a report to the international community on the impact of the crackdown. According to the MEK, the IRGC had killed 1,500 people in shooting incidents all across the country, with victims including adult protesters as well as bystanders as young as three years old. MEK revealed more than 800 names of the victims.
The severity of the response was clearly by design, and it has been backed up by numerous other incidences of repression connected to the November uprising and its counterparts. In September, Amnesty International released a report titled “Trampled Humanity” which detailed many forms of torture that had been meted out to political detainees in the aftermath of the uprising. The PMOI/MEK continued to report on prisoners’ conditions and noted that the situation was worse than it initially appeared, in part because some detainees had been housed in particularly secretive, temporary jails.