By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
There is no doubt that Iran will be a major focus of policy debates at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, but with so many issues emanating from that region at once, there is some question as to which aspects of Iran policy will take center stage. And it is not at all clear that leading Western powers are on track to make the right decision on this matter.
For many years, European and American governments have been prone to certain blind spots in Iran policy. They have understandably become preoccupied with certain hot button issues at certain times, but multinational emphasis on Iran’s nuclear program or a fledgling arms embargo tends to come at the expense of other, equally substantive, issues. Often, this sort of preoccupation virtually wipes out awareness of unresolved issues from Iran’s past, including its worst human rights abuses.
This is, of course, an undesirable outcome from a moral standpoint. It undermines Europe’s reputation as a beacon for the cause of universal human rights and it leaves murdered and grievously injured people bereft of the sort of justice they can only obtain from outside the borders of Iran or from a different Iranian government at some point in the future.
The neglect of Iran’s past human rights violations is also undesirable from a purely pragmatic standpoint. By failing to hold Iran accountable for prior crimes, the international community effectively sends the signal that the regime is free to repeat those actions or others like them. Over time, these signals have created a consistent message that the Iranian regime enjoys impunity in certain areas. More specifically, they have shown that as long as Iran and its foreign adversaries are fighting over nuclear enrichment and terrorist armament, the regime will hardly hear a word about its domestic abuses.
It might seem like Western policymakers are just focusing on their own countries’ interests when they neglect Iran’s domestic affairs, but doing so actually incentivizes the regime to continue acting against those interests, so the US and Europe will remain distracted. These incentives may be greater under present circumstances than they have been for many years because Iran has been in the grip of popular unrest since the end of 2017 and the regime has responded with shocking political violence.
In a matter of only days last November, 1,500 peaceful protesters were fatally shot by Iranian authorities during a nationwide uprising. Since then, the death toll has continued to climb as political prisoners have been beaten, denied medical attention and sentenced to death for the crime of chanting “down with the dictator.” These abuses were already commonplace before the outbreak of unrest, but they have greatly accelerated in recent months and there is reason to be concerned that the regime might be testing the waters for an even grander crackdown on dissent, possibly rivaling one of the worst unpunished crimes against humanity to take place during the latter half of the 20th century.
In the summer of 1988, the Iranian judiciary convened “death commissions” throughout the country and tasked them with interrogating political prisoners over their ideals and affiliations. Those who failed to disavow the Iranian Resistance and demonstrated fealty to the theocratic system, were summarily executed. After several months, the death toll reportedly exceeded 30,000, with victims including pregnant women and children as young as 13. Iranian expatriates tried to bring the killings to the world’s attention, but foreign governments generally turned a blind eye rather than risk their diplomatic and trade relations with the Iranian regime.
This was an early example of misplaced Western priorities and it remains as arguably the worst of its kind. That singular mistake is compounded every year when the US and Europe refuse to raise the issue before the United Nations or to assume the task of pursuing charges for perpetrators of the massacre in the International Criminal Court.
The General Assembly provides the democratic nations of the world with another opportunity to correct their longstanding mistake. And on this occasion, that opportunity may be more vital than it has ever been before. If world powers don’t send an unequivocal message that the era of Iranian impunity is over, then the regime can be expected to indulge its very worst impulses when dealing with the domestic unrest that will inevitably re-emerge in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the previous crackdowns on dissent.
In that case, European leaders will share a significant portion of the responsibility for untold numbers of dead Iranian, but this may not be enough incentive for certain callous policymakers to act. So they should be reminded that as long as Tehran is accelerating the pace of its domestic human rights violations, it will also be accelerating its political conflicts with the West. Until the regime has a reason to halt its crackdowns, there will be no resolution to the nuclear issue or the arms embargo or any of the other Iran-related issues that are most likely to be discussed at the General Assembly.
With this in mind, those who are in charge of setting the agenda should recognize that there is both a moral and a practical imperative to pursue real justice for the victims of prior Iranian human rights violations. The value of an international debate about this issue has not diminished over the past 32 years. It has only grown more urgent with each successive Iranian crackdown or political clash, all of which have their roots in the impunity that the regime has enjoyed since the summer of 1988.
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)