By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Western governments have been prone to a misguided approach to Iran for most of its 41-year existence. This is never more evident than when someone highlights the lack of accountability for Iranian human rights abuses. The mullahs are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of domestic activists and dissidents, and yet none of the perpetrators of these killings have faced charges in the international criminal court or even an independent investigation into their conduct.
The lack of attention to this situation is made all the more egregious by the fact that the identities of various human rights abusers are well-known. They were exposed once again this month when the National Council of Resistance of Iran hosted an international virtual conference known as the Free Iran Global Summit. One of that event’s three sessions was dedicated to outlining the history of Iran’s violent political repression, and to providing a platform for Iranian expatriates who previously served time as political prisoners, or suffered the consequences of their loved ones being detained.
Prominent among these speakers were individuals who had witnessed one of the worst single crimes against humanity since the end of the Second World War. In the summer of 1988, political prisoners all across Iran were hauled before “death commissions” and interrogated over their political affiliations and their view of the theocratic system. Over 30,000, who refused to denounce their support for the main opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), were systematically executed over a period of several months.
The relevant session of the Free Iran Global Summit, on July 19, coincided exactly with the 32nd anniversary of the formation of those death commissions. This anniversary was also recognized, apparently for the first time, by the US State Department. The department’s spokesperson Morgan Ortagus pointed to the 1988 massacre as an early example of the Iranian judiciary’s “persistent violations of human rights.”
She said: “July 19th marks the anniversary of the start of Iran’s so-called Death Commissions on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini.” She then went on to say that “the United States calls on the international community to conduct independent investigations and to provide accountability and justice for the victims.”
This call to action was long-overdue. But now that it has been issued, the nations of Europe should immediately follow America’s lead and take steps to impose serious pressure on Iran over its past and ongoing human rights violations. This was the general message of the Free Iran Global Summit, and it has been the message of that event’s organizers for many years, though it has gone largely unheeded.
Make no mistake, the NCRI has tremendous support among Western lawmakers, academics and policy experts. And all of them agree that serious action is needed to hold the existing regime accountable for the 1988 massacre and a range of other crimes. But even though these supporters span multiple different political parties and branches of government, they have struggled to have their position adopted as official policy.
This difficulty cannot reasonably be explained by a lack of awareness about Iran’s various unpunished crimes. There is really no question about the reality of the 1988 massacre. Neither is there much question about its scope. Even some of the officials who were directly involved in it have corroborated the pre-existing accounts in recent years. After the release of a contemporary audio recording describing the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic,” then-Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi said in 2016 that he was “proud” to have helped carry out “God’s command” for the main targets of the massacre, members of the MEK.
That name is probably the cause of much Western reticence regarding the massacre and the other incidents that killed another 90,000 or so members of the MEK over the years. But there is no legitimate reason for this reaction.
Among many other lies, Tehran has variously attempted to portray the 1988 massacre as being justified by a military operation that the MEK launched against the regime near the end of the Iran-Iraq War. But this claim does not stand up to even the slightest scrutiny, because the operation in question began on July 25, 1988, a week after Tehran began implementing its plan to stamp out opposition through a series of mass executions.
Ms. Ortagus’ statement affirmed this discrepancy, and in so doing added even more value to the State Department’s position as viewed by close US allies. If any European nation feels wary of following America’s lead after hearing only the call for an international investigation, let it listen to the entire statement and pay attention to the underlying lesson about preventing Tehran’s disinformation from influencing Western policies.
Thirty-two years after the worst crime of the Iranian regime, there is no valid reason to dispute the consistent accounts that eyewitnesses have been sharing through that entire time. Neither is there reason to suspect that MEK activists were anything other than innocent victims of a bloodthirsty regime terrified about threats to its grip on power. They still are and the longer European leaders stay silent about it, the longer the Iranian people will go on suffering from old collective wounds, right alongside new ones.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)