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As Iranian Officials Urge More Repression, Activists Target Symbols of Regime’s Violence

 MEK network torches Qassem Soleimani posters across Iran

On Thursday morning, the office of a high-ranking, hardline Iranian cleric became the latest site of anti-government protests, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

The organization’s report noted that young dissidents targeted Ahmad Alam al-Hoda at a time when the full scale of the clerical regime’s crackdown on recent unrest has yet to be determined.

It also pointed out that al-Hoda himself had previously developed a reputation as one of the leading proponents of a brutal response to the unrest, has explicitly called for the execution of those who destroyed posters of Major General Qassem Soleimani as part of widespread street protests.

In a development that came as a surprise to foreign observers who assumed Soleimani was a popular figure among Iranian citizens, his image became an object of public aggression in mid-January, less than two weeks after he was killed in a US drone strike.

The relevant protests were sparked by the revelation that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had shot down a commercial airliner outside Tehran, just after its missile strike against the American forces in Iraq.

Slogans condemning the IRGC quickly emerged from memorial gatherings for the 176 victims of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. As the head of the IRGC’s foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force, Soleimani’s image had always been a common sight in public places.

But it became especially prevalent following his death and the resulting funeral procession that was staged in Tehran to showcase is supposed popularity. Preexisting posters and memorial displays were reportedly both vandalized during January’s protests, which were largely centralized on university campuses spanning at least 17 provinces.

The destruction of Soleimani’s image was a notable counterpoint to the funeral, which Iranian state media claimed was attended by more than a million people. Some international media outlets repeated this description uncritically, although critics of the Iranian regime explained that the authorities had used a variety of tactics to justify their outsized estimates.

The NCRI released its own reports on this subject, noting that attendance at the funeral had been mandatory for government employees and that others had been provided with material incentives and free transportation in exchange for appearing in the guise of mourners.

As part of their larger response to Soleimani’s funeral, the NCRI and other dissident groups also stated that his role as the head of Iran’s foreign terrorist operations had made him widely despised, not beloved. And even prior to his death, there was a clear basis for this conclusion in the form of widespread unrest and mass uprisings.

Both in January 2018 and in November 2019, nationwide protests gave rise to slogans that included the demand for the clerical regime to “forget about Syria” and focus on the Iranian people instead. By the time of the first uprising, it was estimated that Iran was spending upwards of 12 billion dollars per year on its support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, much of it in the form of arms sales and the maintenance of local paramilitaries under the nominal command for Qassem Soleimani.

Additional spending and additional Quds Force operations were targeted at Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and various regions of smaller-scale Iranian influence. And in recent years, this has coincided with the Islamic Republic’s worst economic crisis since the 1980s.

The effects of government mismanagement and misplaced priorities have been amplified by the White House’s adoption of a “maximum pressure” strategy for dealing with Iran, which has seen sanctions on the regime systematically increase since shortly after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

In a precursor to their apparent misunderstanding of Soleimani’s relationship to the Iranian people, many Western commentators warned that these sanctions might prompt most of the country’s 80 million people to throw their support behind their government.

But two nationwide uprisings and countless intervening protests would seem to suggest that the Iranian people were keen to direct their rage against the clerical authorities; once again proving that mullahs’ regime is the root to all the social problems, as people chanted “Our enemy is here, they lie it is the U.S.”.

This, in turn, presented a serious challenge to Tehran’s account of its own hold on power – a challenge that was made even stronger by the loss of Soleimani as a symbol for the regime’s foreign strength and influence.

It was in response to those circumstances that Alam al-Hoda declared, “It is a calamity that a bunch of mercenaries and spies walk around… and come and tear down martyr Soleimani’s posters. These people who are cooperating with the enemy are fifth columnists. They must be court-martialed. In any war, this is the law of the land and they execute fifth columnists on the battlefield.”

This reference to an active battlefield was reminiscent of remarks delivered in an interview with state media last year by former Iranian Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi. When asked about the threat posed to the regime by the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, he said, “We are at a time of war. Now is not the time to talk. Now is the time to fight them; now is the time to subdue them.”

In the same interview, Pourmohammadi reiterated his prior justifications for the regime’s mass execution of MEK members, in which he played an active role. As a member of one of the “death commissions” convened in the summer of 1988 as a response to Supreme Leader Khomeini’s fatwa regarding opposition groups, Pourmohammadi helped to interrogate political prisoners over their religious and political views, in order to determine which would be executed. Over the course of several months, an estimated 30,000 people were killed.

To the extent that Pourmohammadi or any other official has faced scrutiny over this history, it has come almost entirely in recent years, prompted first by a leaked audio-recording from the time of the killings and later by the regime’s acknowledgment that the PMOI still presents a significant challenge to the theocratic system.

In the midst of the January 2018 uprising, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave a speech in which he noted that the opposition group had “planned for months” to facilitate the rapid spread of protests while popularizing slogans like “death to the dictator” and other explicit calls for regime change.

Insofar as support for the PMOI is still considered a crime punishable by death, Khamenei’s warning provided additional justification for a violent crackdown on the 2018 uprising. Accordingly, several dozen people were killed, and thousands were arrested. Judiciary officials also threatened the death penalty for anyone who was determined to have played a leading role in the protest movement.

The crackdown ultimately succeeded in containing the nationwide uprising, but only after several weeks, and not before the opposition leader, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi called for supporters to use the initial protests as a starting point for a “year full of uprisings.”

Scattered protests throughout 2018 helped to keep regime authorities on edge while setting the stage for the November 2019 uprising, which was sparked by the government’s announcement of draconian increases in the price of gasoline.

The MEK, relying on an extensive intelligence network inside Iran, determined that roughly 1,500 people were killed by security forces and the IRGC for either participating in that unrest or merely standing in its vicinity.

Half of those victims have been identified by name, and human rights advocates have expressed concern that the total number of casualties could continue to rise as a result of the mistreatment of arrestees and hospitalized activists. Those concerns have only grown with the news of live ammunition being used once again to break up protests in January.

As recently as February 1, the website Iran Human Rights was warning about the possibility of mass executions. Although not apparently connected to political protests, the relevant report noted that 20 inmates at just one prison, Rajai Shahr, had been moved into solitary confinement as preparation for their sentences being carried out.

It is unclear whether all 20 individuals were hanged on Wednesday as planned, but if so, it would mean that the judiciary nearly matched in one day the number of executions it is known to have carried out during the entire prior month.

According to Iran Human Rights Monitor, there were 24 hangings in January, of which five were for non-violent offenses and only eight were formally acknowledged by regime authorities.

This lack of transparency points to the likelihood that even more executions were carried out but were not made known through activist networks. And of course, the record of official executions does not reflect the impact of unlawful killings either by security forces or by interrogators at institutions like the so-called “torture factory” that is Evin Prison.

Nearly two months after the outbreak of the latest nationwide protest movement, there is still very little information available about persons arrested in connection with it. One Iranian attorney retained by a number of those arrestees was quoted on Thursday as saying that in many cases, prosecutors have not opened files on the accused, who have not been allowed any contact with their lawyers.

No meaningful conclusions can be drawn from this fact alone, but there are grounds for concern that the regime may be taking a turn toward more hardline jurisprudence in general, given its sensitivity about the Soleimani killing and the growing social presence of the MEK.

In fact, this may be having a retroactive effect even beyond the November uprising. In a nutshell, the regime must increase its oppression to avoid its downfall. Yet, the Iranian people, with their bravery in November and January protests, showed their will to continue their quest for freedom.

On Wednesday it was announced that a group of dissidents was facing multiple additional charges after having already been convicted of “propaganda against the state” and “forming an illegal organization” as a result of their signing a letter calling for the supreme leader’s resignation.

Eight of the signatories have already received sentences ranging from one to 26 years in prison, and now each of them could face additional punishment for “insulting the supreme leader,” “disturbing public order,” and “spreading falsehoods.”

The Women’s Committee of the NCRI similarly reported that an activist by the name of Rezvaneh Ahmad Khanbeigi was sentenced to six additional years in prison on February 2 after having already been sentenced to four and a half years for participating in the protests. And if stories like these are signs of a worsening crackdown, there is a lot further than the regime could go in the same direction.

At the same time, Thursday’s protest gathering at Alam al-Hoda’s office suggests that the activist community is aware of this danger and is working to push back against it. But it is difficult to say what the effect of this pushback may be.

On one hand, Tehran has already stepped up its repressive tactics in response to prior demonstrations. But on the other hand, Soleimani’s death signifies that the regime’s strength is being undermined by pressure from beyond its borders as well as among its own people.

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