An Iranian woman raises her fist through the smoke of teargas at the University of Tehran during protests that rocked the nation in 2018. Photo: AFP

The murder of a prominent dissident and an attempted bombing of an opposition rally in Paris suggest that Iran may be seeking to quash some of its most vocal critics abroad just as the Iranian regime faces growing unrest at home.

Since last year, Iran has seen massive protests in cities across the country. The Islamic Republic is no stranger to protest, but what is different is that the concerns are not just economic. Across Iran, groups ranging from farmers deploring water scarcity to truck drivers have launched protests.

Many of these protests have used dramatic political slogans critical of Iran’s involvement in the war in Syria and even directly calling for the removal of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Even protests with a clear economic focus have quickly taken on political overtones.

In May and June, Iranian truckers protested in all 31 of Iran’s provinces asking for improved conditions. They were quickly joined by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who visited the strikers to show moral support.

On May 27, at a public funeral for Iranian film star Naser Malek Motiei, protesters allegedly shouted “Death to the dictator, Hail to Naser.”

Other equally proactive messages in recent months included “Political prisoners must be freed” and “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon – my life only for Iran” – both of which were read aloud by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Hayley this year in an effort to amplify that message.

The protests, which perhaps saw their height during last December and January, were the largest Iran has seen since 2009 and the Green Movement. Iran also saw protests in 2011 when, inspired by the Arab Spring, Iranians took to the streets on February 14 that year for “Days of Rage,” which sputtered out in early 2012. But in 2009, most protesters weren’t calling for removal of the regime, and in 2011 there was only a small section of society that held such views.

What Iran is dealing with now is protests against the regime that cut across different levels of society. The very public slogans targeting the regime suggest a culture of fear has been broken. At present there is a lack of an organizing force or leader to cut across sectors and unify – there is no Lech Walesa waiting in the wings.

The Iranian state fears that such leadership could emerge from abroad. Thus the attempted bombing in Paris and the murder last year of an Iranian Arab activist Ahmad Mola Nissi in the Netherlands suggests the Iranian regime may be returning to its old ways. Mola had been the leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz before he was shot five times in front of his home in The Hague – a crime that remains unsolved.

The investigation also continues into a thwarted terrorist attack at a rally attended by hundreds of politicians from Europe, the Middle East and North America last month. In that case an Iranian diplomat in Austria is accused of giving two Iranian expatriates in Belgium half a kilogram of the explosive TATP to bomb the June 30 gathering – a volatile explosive also known as the “Mother of Satan.”

The United States has publicly accused Iran of orchestrating the plot at the highest levels, and the investigation involves Belgian, Austrian, German and American investigators. French authorities arrested three individuals, two of whom were later released. The Netherlands is expelling diplomats, while Austria is petitioning Iran to remove diplomatic immunity on the accused.

The target of the plot was an annual rally organized by the National Council of the Iranian Resistance on the outskirts of Paris. Tens of thousands visit the event each year, including politicians and former military officers from Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Notably this year’s event included the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and President Donald Trump’s current lawyer, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Could representatives of America, which Iran refers to as the “Great Satan,” have been the target of this “Mother of Satan” bomb?

The mostly likely target, however, was the National Council of the Iranian Resistance itself, an umbrella group for organizations critical of the Islamic Republic. Its most organized faction is the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). For decades that group has served as one of Iran’s most prominent rebel groups, cutting its teeth in opposition to the Shah and later as one of the Islamic Republic’s best-organized opponents. Though MEK renounced violence in 2001, it remains a favorite bugbear for the regime in Iran.

According to Iranian press reports, President Hassan Rouhani called his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron asking him to take action against the Paris-based exiles earlier – whom Rouhani blames for the unrest in Iran. If the phone call took place, Macron’s government took little notice, allowing the Paris rally to proceed normally.

That the Iranian regime would fear Iranian exiles based in Paris has an unlikely historical precedent. The authorities in Tehran know their history. Before returning to Iran to usurp the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini spent much of his exile in Paris – a sojourn that apparently did little to dampen his anti-Western sentiments or those of his successors.

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Joseph Hammond

Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Eurasia, Africa and the Middle East.

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