By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
In the summer of 1988, Iranian prison authorities began hauling detainees before “death commissions” where they were briefly interrogated over their political affiliations and their loyalty to the regime. Those who failed to appease the tribunal were generally scheduled for execution, and the executions were carried out rapidly, often in groups. After several months, an estimated 30,000 people lay dead, although the exact number is difficult to know since many of the victims were buried secretly in mass graves, some of which have since been paved over as part of an effort to conceal the history of the regime’s greatest crime against humanity.
That cover-up is consistent with much of the Iranian regime’s behavior. Out of the hundreds of executions that the regime carries out every single year, only a portion of them are formally recorded by the judiciary. The rest are tabulated by human rights groups and inmates themselves, who routinely smuggle information to the international community via such resources as the network of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK). The MEK helps to continually update the record of Iran’s actions to crack down on dissent, suppress the media, and other violations of civil liberties and human rights. The regime, meanwhile, tends to dismiss these accounts out of hand, albeit without offering any concrete information to demonstrate that they are false.
For a very long time, this was the regime’s modus operandi where the 1988 massacre was concerned, as well. Authorities simply maintained a veil of silence over the matter. And although few went so far as to suggest that the killings never took place at all, the regime did tend to dismiss groups like the MEK as exaggerating about the details, including the number of victims. At the same time, building projects were intermittently ordered for the sites of secret mass graves in which many victims were interred. Human rights defenders like Amnesty International have confirmed that these projects are still ongoing, and they have warned that if coordinated action isn’t taken by the international community in the near future, vital information about the scope of the massacre will continue to be lost.
Until a full-scale UN investigation is undertaken, the MEK is the best source of information. Tehran’s efforts to dismiss the group ring hollow for one essential reason: MEK members and affiliates made up the overwhelming majority of the victims of the death commissions. This, as it turns out, is not something that the regime is particularly interested in denying anymore. Ever since the release in 2016 of an audio recording made in 1988 by one official who opposed the regime’s killings, the veil of silence has effectively been lifted from the massacre. Now, officials are speaking more and more boldly about their role in the killings.
Those public statements include persistent justifications and even affirmations of pride for having been involved in the crackdown on dissent against the theocratic dictatorship. Shortly after the audio leaked, then-Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi declared in a state media interview that he still believed it was “God’s command” that members of the pro-democracy MEK should die. More recently, similar statements were made by the current judiciary head Ebrahim Raisi and by a former official named Morteza Moghtadaei. Both played a significant role in the massacre, and both hailed the support they had received from the founder of the regime as they did so.
“The Imam was many steps ahead of us,” Raisi said in a state television interview on June 2, 2020, recalling the concerns that he’d had about whether he would face criticism for the many capital sentences he’d passed before the massacre was fully underway. “Not only did he encourage us, he also said we should pursue these measures with a far more serious drive,” Moghtadaei said much the same thing in his interview a day earlier. At a time when some other observers were criticizing the high number of executions, Khomeini readily countered those criticisms and “ordered us to continue, and to do so with the utmost seriousness.”
What is particularly noteworthy about the remarks from both Raisi and Moghtadaei is that they are at odds with the enforced silence that has surrounded the 1988 massacre since its immediate aftermath. In a sense, their candor makes the initial cover-up seem pointless. But on the other hand, the regime could never have anticipated that a leaked audio-recording would make the massacre a household name, nearly 30 years after it happened. Once that happened and the consequences for Tehran proved to be non-existent, there was surely much less incentive for officials to remain silent about a crackdown that they consider a point of pride.
The recent comments in state media are emblematic of a sense of impunity that the regime has developed over many years of abuse. That impunity must be challenged, ideally in a way that involves widespread coordination among the clerical regime’s foreign and domestic opponents. If it is not challenged, then there will be even more danger of the regime adopting similar strategies once again, at a time when Khomeini’s successor is approaching the end of his life as it happened in 1988.
This summer, as every summer, there will be clear opportunities for action by policymakers who care about preventing the recurrence of mass executions while holding the regime to account for past and ongoing human rights abuses. At the end of July, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) will host its annual “Iran Freedom” rally to examine the challenges and vulnerabilities that the regime faces and to advocate for policies that will encourage Iranians to continue acting in opposition to their murderous government.
The NCRI rally is an ideal venue for highlighting the worst of the regime’s behaviors while also developing an understanding of the best opportunities to curtail those abuses. And while it is difficult to say what the outcome would be from fully utilizing that venue, it is obvious that the price for failure to act is too high and could amount to many thousands of additional Iranian lives.
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)