Echoes of Iran in Egypt


The Orange County Register - PARIS
– Thirty-two years ago, almost to the day, I was in the streets of one of the largest Middle Eastern capitals demanding the ouster of a 3-decade-old dictatorship. With some friends in Tehran, I helped organize demonstrators from dawn to dusk as the sun set on the shah's regime.


Now, as I witness scenes of protests in Cairo, I remember similar images three decades earlier.

I took part in those rallies, having been released from prison almost a year before. Four of my brothers and one of my sisters were murdered by the shah's secret police during my five years in prison.


Much like the developments in Egypt, the anti-shah demonstrations were inspired initially by demands for freedoms of the press, assembly and expression, coupled with calls for the release of political prisoners, an end to corruption and the institution of social justice.


The key word – and the chief political cry – was "freedom."


But in the final stages of the shah's overthrow – from September 1978 to February 1979 – Islamic fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, suddenly hijacked the enormous social movement and imbued it with a fundamentalist ideology that on Feb. 11 led to the establishment of a theocracy far more suppressive and opposed to freedom than its predecessor.

Since then, the clerical regime has executed 120,000 dissidents, two of my sisters and their spouses among them. I was forced to flee the country in 1981.


Of course, the Egypt of today is not the Iran of 1979.


Each country has its own unique historical trajectory and defining features, not to mention the seismic shifts in the global order since 1979. In addition, the Islamic fundamentalism in Iran has been completely bankrupt socially and culturally, and has engulfed the country in a whirlpool of fear and blood. As such, it is so loathsome that Islamic parties in Egypt distance themselves from it.


At the same time, it would be naive to assume that the bleak prospect of Islamic fundamentalism will leave the uprising of Egyptians alone.

The main challenge does not stem from inside Egypt and developments unfolding there. The challenge is that the Middle East is haunted by the Iranian regime, which has the backing of Islamic fundamentalists and extremists in the region.


The mullahs detect breeding grounds to propagate Islamic fundamentalism when tides of change are introduced where, owing to years of tyranny and suppression, a country lacks a recognizable secular leader armed with a concrete political platform.


Tehran's rulers remain extremely alarmed about freedom becoming a rallying cry in the greater Middle East, as well as the consequences of changes in the political landscape of the region. They are still on edge about the mass uprisings of 2009, which rattled the entire regime.


Ever faithful to the adage "in war, the best defence is a good offence," the regime will do its utmost to usurp the uprisings of people in Egypt and Tunisia by falling back on its successful model of hijacking the Iranian revolution in 1979. The theocracy will try to label these movements as "Islamic" in a bid to stem accumulating domestic crises.


Tehran's covetous plans were evident in the speech of Ali Khamenei, the regime's leader, on Feb. 4. He showed the regime's desire to usurp the popular uprisings in the region and leading them towards fundamentalism and exploiting them to its interests. While describing the movement of Egyptians as "an Islamic movement," Khamenei said the protesters should keep their unity on the basis of religion and according to Tehran's views "this movement has begun from mosques and its slogans are religious like 'God is great"' ... and "people of Egypt would not allow westerns to derail this Islamic movement."


That prospect should sound stern alarm bells for the West. So, what is the solution?


Obviously, simple rhetorical statements, and negotiations with Tehran will not do. The most effective solution would be to ratchet up the pressure against the clerical regime while isolating it within Iran's borders. That would turn the mullah's strategic nightmare into reality. Among the measures the West should take are:


•Sanctions on purchasing mullahs' oil to prevent it from the means to finance its terror.


•Underscore the rights of the Iranian people and raise the issue of human rights violations in Iran at international forums, particularly the U.N. Security Council, in pursuit of punitive measures and concrete steps. (Last month, Tehran's rulers executed close to 100 people, a number of them political prisoners, including those affiliated with the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/ MEK), and the principal opposition group.


•Revoke the terrorist designation in the U.S. of the PMOI/MEK. The 1997 designation was a strategic gift to the mullahs, which has had grave adverse effects inside Iran while allowing the suppression of 3,400 resistance activists in Camp Ashraf, in neighbouring Iraq. Lifting the designation would bring the United States in line with its allies in the United Kingdom and the European Union and enable the organized opposition to organize the Iranian people's protests against the mullahs in search for democracy.


These measures would send a strong message to the Iranian people that change is on the horizon, further inspiring their uprisings against dictators. The regime would be consumed by domestic challenges, leaving it little time or energy to meddle in or exploit developments in other countries, and setting back its attempts to obtain nuclear weapons.


Democratic change in Iran would guarantee endurance and success for the march towards democracy across the entire region; a fact completely foreign to me 32 years ago.


Abolghassem Rezai is Deputy Secretary of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the coalition of Iranian opposition movements.

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