Tehran continues to face challenges to expand its influence in the region by brute force. Against this backdrop, the time to support Iran’s opposition has come. A new administration in Washington has been ramping up the heat, punishing Tehran for meddling in other states’ affairs and advancing its ballistic missile drive. All the while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has seen his representative rejected by two senior Shiite leaders in Iraq, the proxy war in Yemen going south and Tehran’s support for maintaining Syria’s Bashar Assad in power eating up crucial resources.
Internally, the Iranian people are stepping up their protests to significant levels. In now daily protests, thousands of investors are demanding their savings from state-run institutions, and there were clashes recently in the city of Baneh in western Iran when people took up arms to protest against the ruthless killing of porters by state security forces.
In a significant parallel development, the principal Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) held its congress last Wednesday, its 52nd anniversary, and elected a new secretary general.
A fair and inclusive election is a core principle of a democratic organization. This election took place in six cities in six countries, including Tirana, the Albanian capital, where most MEK members are stationed after their long ordeal in Iraq. Zahra Merrikhi was elected as the new secretary general, replacing Zohreh Akhiyani, who served from 2011. In view of its unique nature and differences from state or party elections, MEK rules and regulations stipulate that the election of a secretary general takes place in three different assemblies.
In the first such assembly on Aug. 20, an initial 12 candidates were introduced, of whom four reached the next stage, with Merrikhi receiving a majority of the votes. At the second assembly two weeks later, senior MEK officials and cadres cast their ballots for the final four candidates, with Merrikhi leading the vote tally again. At the third and final assembly last Wednesday, all members raised their hands and unanimously elected Merrikhi.
Born in 1959, she joined the MEK in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. She was summoned and interrogated several times by the Shah’s intelligence service for her activities. Her younger brother, Ali, was killed by the current Iranian regime in 1988. From 2003 onward she was the coordinator of the office representing Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a coalition of opposition groups.
The democratic approach adopted by the opposition in this election process is in stark contrast to the one imposed on its compatriots by the regime ruling Iran for the past four decades. It also undercuts the oft-repeated, regime inspired characterization that the opposition has an authoritarian structure.
Unlike the sclerotic theocracy currently in power in Tehran, its opponents represent youth, dynamism and gender equality.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
If we were to take the Iranian regime’s presidential “election” into consideration, we would view a selection by an unelected few, far from anything resembling an election in the 21st century.
Iran’s so-called presidential elections, which banned all women, is a procedure in which all candidates are vetted by 12 ultraconservative clerics and so-called legal experts, named the Guardian Council, who are directly and indirectly appointed by the Supreme Leader. All candidates are evaluated for their utter devotion and obedience to the clerical regime and Supreme Leader.
As the Tehran regime’s founding fathers die one after the other, and the health of Khamenei himself is in question, there are serious doubts about the future of his rule and the regime in its entirety.
The conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, said to be groomed by Khamenei to reach the presidency and eventually succeed him, failed to unseat Hassan Rouhani from the presidency, so there is no new face with the necessary majority support to lead this regime into its unknown future. It is a completely different story for the MEK leadership, however, as Merrikhi enjoys the support of 18 senior colleagues and three from the organization’s younger generation. Narges Azodanlou, 36, Rabi’eh Mofidi, 35, and Nasrin Massih, 39, all born during or after the 1979 revolution, show how the MEK is able to adapt and deliver new and dynamic young leaders in this fast-changing world.
In short, Iran’s opposition election demonstrates process, structure, depth of leadership ranks and a genuine and practical commitment to gender equality, especially in leadership positions. “Today, the PMOI, with the help of the Iranian people, is prepared as never before to overthrow the clerical regime,” Merrikhi said after expressing gratitude to her predecessors and vowing to remain loyal to the ultimate objective of establishing freedom and democracy in Iran. Welcoming her election, NCRI President-elect Rajavi described this new development as signaling the soon-to-come change of the theocracy ruling Iran.
The critical time has come to robustly support other Iranian democratic establishments, which oppose Iran’s ruling clerics, the IRGC, its sectarian agenda and Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions. Standing with Iran’s opposition would be a strong blow to Iran’s leaders, who fear the soft power of the opposition more than the hard power of foreign nations.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh