In October, the European Commission introduced a proposal for an EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime – a framework similar to the Magnitsky Act in the United States, which streamlines the enactment of sanctions on human rights abusers throughout the world. In discussing the proposal, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen cited prior difficulties the European Union had encountered when trying to respond to situations in Belarus, Turkey, and Russia. Conspicuously absent from the discussion was Iran, which is the leading country in violation of human rights in our time yet has benefited from very different European policies.
With the Global Sanctions Regime potentially coming into force next month, this has not changed. The EU remains largely silent over human rights abuses perpetrated or facilitated by Iran’s regime, and this raises serious questions about the political response if those abuses should accelerate once again. Those questions urgently demand answers, since such acceleration is all but inevitable.
Nearly a year earlier, in November 2019, the Iranian regime undertook perhaps is greatest single crackdown on dissent in decades. While media suppression and politically-motivated arrests and executions are all common practices in Iran, it is comparatively rare for authorities to carry out mass killings in public view. But that is exactly what the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) did in response to a nationwide uprising last year. Amnesty International confirmed that the IRGC had been shooting to kill when it opened fire on crowds of protesters in various cities, and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) later reported that the death toll from those encounters reached 1,500 in a matter of only days.
— NCRI-FAC (@iran_policy) December 23, 2019
The scale of that crackdown was arguably surprising, but the international community cannot reasonably claim to have had no warning. Less than two years earlier, Tehran had responded violently to another nationwide uprising, killing dozens of participants in the streets and torturing several others to death in the aftermath of sweeping arrests.
The earlier uprising also marked the de facto end of longstanding propaganda about an organized opposition movement, as the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged the unrest had been facilitated in large part by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
Persons familiar with modern Iranian history should recognize the significance of these warnings, in terms both of the regime’s vulnerability and of the potential for backlash that exceeds the scale of the November 2019 killings. For regime authorities, invoking the MEK is tantamount to calling for mass executions. In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa that primarily targeted MEK while declaring that perceived domestic enemies of the regime were guilty of waging war on God himself, and were therefore subject to summary execution. As a result, “death commissions” in numerous Iranian prisons began interrogating political prisoners over their affiliations before hanging an estimated 30,000 in about three months.
Tehran declined to respond to a letter sent in September by seven UN human rights experts, which asked for details about what happened in the summer of 1988 and also demanded explanations for the regime’s ongoing harassment of survivors and families who are actively pursuing justice for the massacre’s victims. The text of that letter was recently made public, and it highlights the fact that many figures who serve on the death commissions or cooperated with them are currently in positions of great authority in Tehran, including those of Justice Minister and judiciary chief.
These figures are currently setting policy for the regime, with obvious implications for human rights. And lest there be any doubt that the regime stands behind the legacy of the 1988 massacre, the former Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi told state media in 2016 that he considers himself “proud” to have carried out “God’s command” of death for the MEK. Pourmohammadi is now a major adviser to the Supreme Leader, and there can be little doubt that he and his colleagues will push to once again ramp up the violence in response to MEK-led unrest, especially if they believe there will be no serious response from the international community.
That belief was justified in October by the European Commission’s implication that Tehran would not be a target for measures imposed under the Global Sanctions Regime. And that justification has been strengthened on many subsequent occasions, even as Iranian authorities have continued their crackdowns on dissent, punishing participants in the 2019 uprising and pre-emptively arresting activists around the time of the uprising’s one-year anniversary. At virtually every turn, EU policy discussions have ignored these developments in favor of a narrow focus that puts the 2015 Iran nuclear deal ahead of all other matters.
On Monday, the participants in that agreement held their latest discussions and released a joint statement affirming a mutual commitment to keeping it on life support pending possible re-entry by the United States following next month’s presidential transition. The United Kingdom, France, Germany could have easily conditioned any negotiations with the regime to the ongoing human rights abuses, and EU principles, namely Magnitsky Act. But no statement of this kind appears to be forthcoming, and that is why Tehran will see it as license to continue its abuses with little fear of consequence.
If it is not bad enough that this Western silence amplifies the risk to innocent Iranian who are pushing for democracy in their homeland, it should be noted that Iran’s assumption of impunity may also blow back on Europe itself. That very nearly happened in June 2018 when the regime attempted to supplement its domestic crackdowns with an attack on exiled supporters of the Iranian protest movement. Currently, four Iranian operatives are on trial in Belgium over the planned terrorist attack, which would have seen explosives detonated at the Free Iran gathering near Paris, an event that was attended by hundreds of political dignitaries from Europe and the US.
The prosecution in that case has firmly established that the defendants were acting with full support from the Iranian government. This goes to show that the regime’s domestic and foreign policies are closely linked, and similarly ruthless. And that in turn suggests that it is in Western countries’ own interests to vigorously defend the rights of the Iranian people. But instead of doing so, most of those countries have shown consistent willingness to engage with the regime on friendly terms and without conditions.
This habit of appeasement must be brought to an end, even if it means risking the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is beyond worthless if it reinforces Iranian officials’ belief that they can kill innocent people with impunity, both at home and abroad, and still escape European sanctions.