Amid high security, thousands of human rights defenders and politicians gathered last month in Paris, in a massive expression of support that urges the international community to take a firm stance against the ruthless Iranian regime. This is reportedly the world’s largest gathering of people outside of Iran who call for freedom and democracy in Iran.
Iran’s clerical establishment has been in power for almost four decades. Since 1979, major pillars of the regime’s foreign policy have remained intact. These pillars include anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, sponsorship of terrorism, support for proxies and militias such as Hezbollah and Hamas, engagement in asymmetrical warfare, pursuit for regional hegemony, and expansion of the mullah’s revolutionary ideals abroad.
Some Western powers believed that they could change the Iranian regime’s behavior from within, by empowering the moderate politicians. But a few months ago the widespread protests in Iran and the slogans that they shouted, showed that many Iranians are feeling doubt that the regime will fundamentally change its policies this way. Slogans such as “Hardliners, reformers, game over,” “Our enemy is right here,” “Death to Rouhani,” “Death to Khamenei,” “Death to the dictator,” and “The people live like beggars / [Khamenei] lives like a God,” were heard across Iran’s cities.
Iranian leaders have their attention fixed on the Paris rally for several reasons. The rally comes just a few months after widespread protesting erupted throughout Iran’s cities and towns. The unrest was displayed by many different groups of people, youth, workers, teachers, farmers, and students. They rallied together to demand change. Iranian leaders fear that the Paris rally will spark a new outcry in Iran, and create disruption with another wave of protests. Another cause for concern, is the many American dignitaries, members of the European parliament, and Middle Eastern politicians who joined the rally.
The American delegation to the rally issued the following statement: “We, the American delegation to the 2018 annual rally for a Free Iran joined by fellow citizens who are unable to attend, are proud to stand with colleagues from all over the world and the many friends of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), whose members have firmly stood for decades against religious dictatorship, enduring heavy personal costs.”
The American delegation also emphasized a focus on bipartisanship and the need to end repression in Iran, as well as Iran’s threat to peace and security: “At a time when partisanship is shaping American politics, we are united in bipartisan solidarity, speaking with one voice and reflecting our common American values and principles as we join the call for liberty, justice and an end to repression for the people of Iran. …We believe that our elected leaders and representatives in the United States can unite behind a bipartisan Iran policy that reflects honor and strategic wisdom.”
These are powerful words, but many at the rally wondered whether there truly was a coherent bipartisan policy in the West, and if it will be strong enough to take a robust stance against the Iranian regime. Iran continues to expand its influence in the region while the E.U. and the U.S. are currently dug in on different sides because of Iran’s nuclear deal.
Sarah, a 29-year-old Iranian engineer from New York whose father was tortured and executed by the Iranian regime said, “ I am here in Paris to stand with human rights defenders and support my people who have struggled for a long time under this dictatorship. All we are asking for is to have a representative and democratic government which treats all ethnic and religious groups equally, and for our country to have respectful relationships with other countries around the world.”
When it comes to the issue of human rights, although Rouhani promised to enhance Iran’s civil, political, and human rights, the situation has considerably deteriorated under his rule. Iran’s rate of execution, arrests, and torture spiked under Rouhani’s presidency. Iran also continues to be one of the leading executioners of juveniles in the world, according to Amnesty International. And when it comes to the issue of inclusiveness, according to Amnesty International, religious and ethnic minorities including Kurds, Baha’is, and Jews are currently subjugated and systematically discriminated against by the Iranian regime in various areas. These areas include the economy, employment, and political, social, and religious affairs.
From the perspective of Maryam Rajavi, the leader of NCRI, which organized the rally, there should be “separation of religion and state. Any form of discrimination against the followers of any religion and denomination” must be prohibited as well. In addition she believes that foreign policy should be based “on peaceful coexistence, international and regional peace and cooperation, as well as respect for the United Nations Charter.”
Major questions and concerns remain. Will the U.S., the E.U., and regional powers be capable of devising a coordinated and articulate policy toward the mullahs? Will the international community take a firm stance against Iran’s human rights violations? Will people in Iran rise again in large numbers, as they did in January 2018? After all, it should not be forgotten that the Iranian people are not unfamiliar with uprisings and revolutions. In nearly a century, Iran has had three major revolutions; the 1906 constitutional movement, the 1953 oil nationalization movement by Dr. Mossadegh and the 1979 revolution. Iran has demonstrated an ability to handle these uprisings in a cruel and vicious manner.
Despite all of these questions, one thing remains certain: The voices of the people are strong, their demands are unwavering. Many Iranians at the rally insist that they will continue to stand against the mullahs’ theocracy and repression. They are united in the hope that one day the Iranian people will have the freedom that they deserve, that their beloved country will be led by a democratic government, and that the region will have the opportunity to transform into a safer place to live.