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Iran’s Human Rights Record Will Get Worse in Absence of New Western Pressures

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The June 18 “election” of Ebrahim Raisi as the next Iranian president was the ultimate expression of the Iranian regime’s culture of impunity. That impunity has been reinforced by permissive Western policies and the international community’s general refusal to demand accountability from Iranian officials for past involvement in human rights abuses and terrorist activity.

Raisi has been implicated in both those categories of activity and is arguably one of the officials most deserving of prosecution for crimes against humanity. Amnesty International issued a statement the very day after his “election” in which it emphasized the monstrous implications of him being elevated to the second-highest office in the regime instead of being “investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture.”

The statement called attention to Raisi’s current record as head of the Iranian judiciary, a position that he was given by the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in March 2019. As the nation’s top legal authority, Raisi oversaw an expansion in how the death penalty was used, prompting the judiciary to carry out its first execution in decades for a person accused of merely consuming alcohol. He underscored the regime’s lack of concern for international consequences when he pushed for the execution of figures like Navid Afkari, a champion wrestler who had become the focus of global human rights campaign after he was sentenced to death on obviously fraudulent murder charges after being arrested for participation in large-scale protests in 2018.

But the ultimate test of Raisi’s repressive philosophy came in November 2019, when even more widespread protests broke out in response to the government’s announcement of a sudden increase in gasoline prices. The unrest quickly came to be recognized as the follow-up to another nationwide uprising in January 2018, and as a showcase for the same organized leadership.

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The November 2019 uprising was the apparent culmination of all the protests that had kept the original uprising’s slogans and calls for regime change in mainstream circulation for many months beforehand. This being the case, the regime reacted with fairly predictable panic, enabled by Raisi’s well-established penchant for repression and also by Western powers’ persistent unwillingness to seriously confront the Iranian regime over attacks on its own people.

As a result, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps opened fire almost immediately on participants in the 2019 uprising. Within only a few days, the death toll mounted to over 1,500, and soon thereafter it was reported that upwards of 12,000 people had been arrested. Amnesty International later issued a report titled “Trampling Humanity” which detailed much of the torture that those arrestees were subjected to for months afterward, most of it at the hands of a judiciary run by the man who would go on to become Iran’s next president.

Raisi’s contributions to this crackdown should not have come as any surprise to persons familiar with his background. In the summer of 1988, he was one of the key figures in the Tehran “death commission” that implemented a fatwa targeting the MEK and other committed opponents of the fledgling theocratic dictatorship. With his religious edict, the regime’s founder Ruhollah Khomeini declared the MEK to be enemies of God and instructed his subordinates to execute them accordingly. The death commissions began interrogating political prisoners, many of whom had already served out their sentences and ordered the hanging of virtually all those who continued their support for the MEK.

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Raisi’s death commission oversaw the executions in Evin Prison, which had already established itself as home to Iran’s largest population of political prisoners. As such, he had a hand in the largest share of the over 30,000 killings that took place between July and September 1988.

In recent years, as public awareness of this role has grown, Raisi has boldly defended the killings, reasserting his belief that the will of the supreme leader cannot be questioned and that Khomeini was right to advise that the MEK and its affiliates should be handled with “no mercy.” His record and his unrepentant public profile helped to fuel protest following the announcement of his presidential candidacy. Many of those protests identified him as the “henchman of 1988,” while others featured the families of those who were killed in the 2019 crackdown and provided them with a platform for arguing that much worse crimes against humanity will follow if his ascension to the presidency is not questioned.

That promotion has already been questioned by the Iranian people, the vast majority of whom participated in a boycott of last month’s election in order to condemn the system that put him forward as the only viable candidate. “Reformist” politicians were excluded from the election entirely, but most of the so-called reformists’ outlets endorsed Raisi as the next president.

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In dozens of Iranian cities, the MEK’s “Resistance Units” promoted that boycott specifically as a means to “vote for regime change,” and, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, predicted that it would be the precursor to even larger and more diverse uprisings against the clerical regime than the uprisings of 2018 and 2019.

There are already signs of such an uprising emerging. Large-scale labor strikes broke out the very day after Raisi’s election, and recent protests over recurring blackouts featured such provocative slogans as “down with the Khamenei.” Of course, in the face of Raisi’s pending administration and in the wake of the 2019 uprising, it is all but certain that the growth of these protests will coincide with the growth of violent repression. However, that severity of that repression could be greatly diminished if it were clear to Tehran that there would be international consequences for further human rights violations.

This is certainly the position of the Iranian resistance, which will present concrete recommendations for how to send that message in the three-day Free Iran World Summit beginning this Saturday. Western policymakers and the entire international community are welcome to listen to the speeches that comprise that event, in order to better understand the problems that have been exacerbated by Western appeasement, the ways in which Iranian activists are already working to address those problems, and the ways in which that work can be supported through tougher economic sanctions and greater diplomatic isolation of the Iranian regime.