The United Nations General Assembly is slated to begin its 77th session on September 13, with several world leaders addressing the international body in subsequent days.
As of now, it appears that the Iranian regime President Ebrahim Raisi plans to attend the UNGA and that the United States is prepared to grant him a visa allowing him to visit New York. Both of these expectations are unfortunate insofar as they demonstrate the US’s willingness to overlook terrible human rights abuses and terrorist threats while also demonstrating that Tehran is aware of it.
Raisi ostensibly had an opportunity to attend last year’s General Assembly within a month of his inauguration. However, he sent a video message instead, and some observers interpreted that decision as a sign of concern over the possible consequences of travel to the US or other Western nations. It came at a time when the former Iranian prison official Hamid Noury faced prosecution for war crimes and mass murder after being arrested in Sweden in 2019. That arrest was made possible by the principle of “universal jurisdiction,” which allows virtually any country to pursue charges for citizens of another if there is evidence they have committed serious violations of international law.
In Noury’s case, the violations in question related to his participation in a massacre of Iranian political prisoners during the summer of 1988. That massacre was initiated by a fatwa from then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, which declared supporters of the country’s leading pro-democracy opposition group to be enemies of God, deserving of execution based on their beliefs alone. The fatwa was largely implemented by “death commissions” that were convened across the country, including in Tehran, which counted Ebrahim Raisi as one of its four members.
In that role, Raisi evidently assumed responsibility for the greatest single share of the massacre’s death toll, which has been estimated at roughly 30,000. That role was highlighted by much of the testimony from survivors and eyewitnesses in Noury’s trial, which led to the Stockholm district court imposing a sentence of life in prison this year. The sentence arguably should have reinforced Raisi’s preexisting concerns over the consequences of foreign travel, but his prospective attendance at the UNGA suggests that those concerns have dissipated rather than grown.
There are several factors contributing to this trend, not the least of which is the US government’s silence on Raisi’s past crimes and abuses, accompanied by its apparent eagerness to welcome him into the country without restriction or precondition. Provision of the required visa will only give Raisi and other Iranian officials reason to believe they are free to travel worldwide. After all, if its leaders can expect friendly treatment from the country, they deem the “Great Satan,” why would they expect anything less from the countries they consider to be lesser adversaries?
Some of those countries have already signaled their own willingness to overlook not just the regime’s historically malign activities but also those malign activities which have been visible in recent years and remain visible even now. Many of these reflect the same commitment to repression of domestic dissent displayed during the 1988 massacre. But many others reflect the regime’s penchant for belligerent foreign policy and the use of terrorism as a form of statecraft.
Last month, the Belgian parliament approved a treaty secretly negotiated between Brussels and Tehran. The treaty is unmistakably intended to facilitate the release of an Iranian regime diplomat terrorist named Assadollah Assadi, whose 2018 arrest has been a subject of performative outrage by Iranian officials ever since.
Assadi was arrested in Germany while attempting to return to his diplomatic post in Austria, where he would have ostensibly been protected by diplomatic immunity. For more than four years, Tehran has insisted that that protection should have been extended to wherever Assadi was traveling, even though he had been identified as the mastermind of a plot to bomb a gathering of tens of thousands of Iranian expatriates, which the National Council of Resistance of Iran had organized just outside Paris.
Assadi was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison for conspiring to commit terrorism and mass murder, but the newly ratified treaty raises the possibility of him being released after only four years. This is made all the more objectionable by the fact that Belgian authorities’ investigation into the plot established that Assadi had specifically been acting upon orders from the highest officials in the Iranian regime.
That revelation should have prompted demands for higher-level accountability for what could have been the worst terrorist attack on European soil to date. Those demands should have been echoed worldwide, including in the United States. But because they were not, the regime has been emboldened in its terrorist activity, which has seen an upsurge over the past few years, especially since Ebrahim Raisi took office in August 2021.
In July, it was reported that Albanian authorities raided a network of spies and terrorist operatives targeting the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK) which maintains a headquarters in the country. And in August, the US Department of Justice unsealed its case against an Iranian operative who remains at large in the wake of protracted efforts to facilitate the execution of former US National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Just days later, the author Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage at a literary event in Western New York by a young man who had praised Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The incident, coming at a time when Tehran was considering the “final text” of an agreement to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, once again demonstrates that the threat of Iran-backed terrorism knows no borders and is not constrained by political considerations unless those constraints are clearly forced upon it.
The UN General Assembly represents a vital opportunity to impose those constraints and to counter the message sent by conciliatory gestures like Beligum’s treaty for the “transfer of sentenced persons”. Raisi must not be permitted to attend the gathering, least of all without being forced to address his own history of human rights abuses and his support of the regime’s terrorist acts. All other Iranian officials and operatives must then be made to recognize his isolation as a sign that none of them will enjoy impunity in such matters ever again.