By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
On Monday, September 14, 2020, Iran’s Foreign Ministry summoned the German ambassador in order to protest a simple statement the embassy had shared via Twitter condemning the execution of a popular champion wrestler whose case had garnered international headlines. Navid Afkari was hanged on Saturday just a few weeks after Iran’s highest court upheld his dual death sentences.
Afkari was accused of fatally stabbing a security guard during an anti-government protest in August 2018, but there was allegedly no physical evidence to support the charge, and critics of the Iranian regime believe that the real purpose of his execution was to discourage other citizens from participating in public demonstrations in the wake of widespread popular unrest.
As has been the case with hundreds of political prisoners over the past decade, Afkari’s execution was apparently justified by little other than a false confession extracted through torture. A week before the death sentence was carried out, state media aired an 11-minute segment on the case which included this forced confession. Many who viewed it commented on its similarity to countless other propaganda broadcasts that state media had prepared over the years.
In light of these observations, German diplomats were certainly not breaking any new ground when they claimed to be “deeply surprised” at Afkari’s high-profile execution and cited it as the latest evidence of ongoing Iranian efforts to “silence opposing views”. Tehran’s reaction essentially proves that point correct and even opens Tehran to broader criticism. After all, by characterizing the embassy’s tweet as unacceptable “intervention” into Iranian affairs, the Foreign Ministry appears to be trying to silence opposing views not only domestically but also beyond its borders.
This should come as little surprise to anyone who has been paying close attention to the regime’s conduct in recent years. In 2018, just two months before Afkari was initially arrested, European authorities uncovered an Iranian terror plot that would have involved detonating an explosive device in the heart of Europe, at an international rally of Iranian expatriates and their political supporters. The plot had actually been put into motion when two Iranian operatives were arrested trying to cross the border from Belgium into France, en route to a convention space just outside Paris.
The attempted attack on the “Iran Freedom” rally says a great deal about the regime’s interest in silencing any high-profile criticism, in any venue, from any source. It also clearly highlights the hypocrisy that is on display when the regime summons foreign diplomats or arrests Western nationals over public statements that disparage the theocratic system or its destructive policies.
— People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) (@Mojahedineng) September 17, 2020
There is no sense in which Tehran adheres to its publicly-endorsed principle of strict non-intervention by consular officials. The 2018 terror plot was reportedly masterminded by a high-ranking diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Austria, Assadollah Assadi. He was arrested just after the two operatives to whom he had provided 500 grams of explosive material and he is currently facing terrorism charges in Belgium.
European authorities have made less noise publicly about these developments than Tehran has made about an innocuous tweet from German diplomats. The imbalance between these reactions reveals a certain shamelessness in Iran’s approach to foreign relations. But it also reveals a persistently conciliatory tone in Western nations’ dealings with the clerical regime. Unfortunately, this conciliation dates back to the 1980s and has arguably helped to diminish the potential impact of international appeals for a change in behavior or policy by the Iranian regime.
In other words, Western officials have turned a blind eye to the regime’s conduct on so many past occasions that they now struggle to convince that regime to take them seriously when, for instance, they demand a halt to the execution of a popular figure who might help to inspire more activity by Iranian advocates for freedom and democracy. It isn’t difficult to see that Tehran expects absolute impunity when it ignores those appeals, then turns right around and formally condemns foreign nationals for issuing them in the first place.
The best way to challenge that expectation is by backing up current appeals with efforts to hold the regime accountable for the crimes it has gotten away with in the past. Logically, policymakers and diplomats should start by bringing renewed attention to the worst of these crimes. And there is little question about which this is. Thirty-two years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring that opponents of the theocratic regime were enemies of God and thus subject to summary execution. Authorities responded by establishing “death commissions” in prisons across the country to interrogate political detainees and decide who should be killed.
The resulting “trials” lasted, on average, only a few minutes and resulted in death sentences for virtually everyone who failed to demonstrate complete fealty to the mullahs’ regime. Members of the leading democratic Resistance group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), generally refused to deny their affiliation regardless of the penalty and after a period of several months, they comprised the overwhelming majority of an estimated 30,000 victims. Most were then buried in secret mass graves and Tehran quietly swept the massacre under the rug while systematically promoting its perpetrators to higher and higher positions in the regime.
Many Western lawmakers were aware of the killings while they were still ongoing, having been informed by Iranian expatriate activists. This was reaffirmed last month when Amnesty International released a document from its archives which showed that the human rights group had repeatedly appealed for an end to the mass executions, only to receive no response from Iranian government officials and little support from the Western world.
Even to this day, no one has been held accountable for the massacre. Members of the death commissions remain in powerful, influential, and sometimes deeply ironic positions like that of judiciary chief and Justice Minister. Having served the regime in Tehran for more than 30 years with the blood of thousands of activists on their hands, it is only natural that these individuals would believe that they can continue to get away with similar human rights abuses, especially when they involve only one peaceful protester at a time.
If the international community wants Iranian officials to see the situation differently, it needs to convince them that there are actual consequences at hand for the Afkari execution and for others like it. On one hand, this may be accomplished by imposing significant, multi-lateral sanctions that are directly tied to current incidents. On the other hand, a much broader and much more impactful message would be conveyed by making penalties retroactive for all of the known human rights abuses that Iran has gotten away with in the past.
Apart from imposing sanctions, Western nations should also make incidents like the 1988 massacre into major topics of discussion at the United Nations General Assembly. Moreover, they should be pressure on the UN Human Rights Commission and the entire international body to initiate a thorough investigation into mass executions of political prisoners with the ultimate goal of bringing known perpetrators up on charges at the International Criminal Court.
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)