On or about July 15, residents of the Iranian province of Khuzestan began protesting over severe and persistent water shortages, often calling attention to the role that government policies had in creating that situation, as well as the lack of interest the government has shown in providing the people with relief from a worsening crisis. Since then, the protests have continued without interruption and have spread to other areas that are suffering from their own water shortages, as well as to cities whose residents simply wish to express solidarity with Khuzestan’s activist community.
That solidarity was present from the outset, but it has surged with the news of a violent response from Iranian authorities. The government has made a concerted effort to slow the dissemination of reports concerning the repression of dissent, but some information has managed to spread among the activist community in spite of complete internet outages orchestrated by Tehran. Among that information is the fact that over a dozen people have been killed since the unrest began. The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran has identified twelve individuals by name who were felled by authorities gunfire, and the pro-democracy Resistance group has noted that a number of other deaths have already occurred, though the identities of those victims have yet to be confirmed.
The PMOI and other on-the-ground observers of the developing situation have also reported mass arrests among direct participants in the protest movement as well as among known and suspected activists whom the regime believes could be involved in planning and organization. The overall situation is worryingly reminiscent of crackdowns on previous protest movements, including nationwide uprisings that took place at the beginning of 2018 and near the end of 2019.
In the first place, around 60 protesters were either shot dead or fatally tortured during and immediately after protests in January 2018. Those protests featured provocative anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator” and thus made ruling officials noticeably concerned about the growth of popular pressure in the direction of regime change. While the 2018 uprising was at its height, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei took the unusual step of publicly admitting that the PMOI – a group long dismissed as a “cult” in regime propaganda – was a major driving force behind the unrest.
This acknowledgment of political vulnerability made the regime especially sensitive to resurgent unrest in the aftermath of the initial crackdown. PMOI leader Maryam Rajavi, who also stands at the head of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, called for Iranian activists to make the rest of 2018 a “year full of uprisings,” and many groups of protesters obliged her by staging scattered demonstrations that were technically separate from the earlier nationwide uprising but also featured many of the same slogans and explicit calls for regime change.
Those demonstrations helped to keep anti-government slogans in mainstream circulation pending the second uprising in November 2019, and when it erupted spontaneously following the announcement of a sharp increase in government-set gasoline prices, regime authorities responded with outright panic. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordered security forces to restore order by any means, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps promptly opened fire on crowds of protesters all across the country. Approximately 1,500 people were killed in a matter of days and mass arrests led to at least 12,000 people being detained. Many of the detainees were then subjected to systematic torture over the course of months, as authorities sought to secure false confessions and set the stage for harsh prosecution, including prosecution for capital crimes.
Now many critics of the Iranian regime are understandably concerned that this pattern may be repeating in the present circumstances. Those concerns are amplified by the fact that the IRGC has personally carried out at least 100 arrests, as well as by the fact that both the Iranian judiciary and the executive branch of government will soon be firmly in the hands of hardline figures with a long history of human rights abuses and no qualms whatsoever about promoting mass executions or attacking protesters with fatal intent.
On August 5, Ebrahim Raisi will be inaugurated as Iran’s next president, having been promoted as an apparent reward for his role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988 and his leadership of the judiciary during the November 2019 crackdown. He has already been replaced as judiciary chief by Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, an equally notorious hanging judge whose legacy includes participation in a spate of assassinations of expatriate dissidents during the 1980s and 90s.
Between July 10 and 12, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held an international summit on Iranian affairs during which dozens of the coalition’s activists and political supporters delivered speeches that emphasized the danger facing the Iranian people and the entire world with the advent of the Raisi era. Maryam Rajavi predicted in one such speech that the new era would be one in which “the hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society will intensify more than ever before.” She also suggested that it would be a “litmus test” for European and American commitment to the human rights principles that are so threatened by authoritarian attacks on the Iranian people.
These predictions were already well-founded at the time of the Free Iran World Summit, days before the outbreak of water shortage protests in Khuzestan and at least a week before related demonstrations were recorded in Tehran, Tabriz, Saqqez, Zanjan, Mahashahr, and other localities throughout the Islamic Republic. Now, it is easy to argue that the “hostility and enmity” Mrs. Rajavi was referring to is already emerging on a grand scale, with both positive and negative implications for the Iranian people and their supporters.
On one hand, the new protests demonstrate the continuation of defiant attitudes toward depression which were on display in the months following the November 2019 crackdown, when activists continued to protest the entire Iranian regime despite the fact that 1,500 people had just been killed and others were facing the possibility of capital punishment. On the other hand, the present crackdown underscores the fact that Tehran has faced few, if any, consequences for that mass killing, and therefore may have no real incentive to avoid a similar or worse outcome in the present scenario.
That is presumably why the NCRI, in its statement regarding the deaths of a dozen peaceful protests, reiterated the call to international action that had already been issued repeatedly during the summit. “The Iranian Resistance urges the United Nations Secretary-General, the UN Security Council, the European Union, and its member states to condemn these crimes against humanity and take the necessary steps to confront [the] regime [over] committing crimes against humanity for more than four decades,” the statement said. “The leaders of the regime must be brought to justice and the UN Security Council must initiate any action needed to [achieve] this end.”