The European Union deserves praise for its latest sanctions on Iranian officials. But the purpose of that praise ought to be to encourage more of the same, not to give the impression that these measures are sufficient or that they justify offering new concessions to the regime in other areas. The new sanctions are the first in eight years to be imposed by the EU for Iranian human rights violations, and they come a year and a half after the inciting incident, a crackdown on dissent that rivals the scale of anything that has taken place in the Islamic Republic since the decade immediately following the 1979 revolution.
This is not to say that nothing had happened in the years leading up to the new sanctions which would have justified more of the same. Quite to the contrary, there are still human rights issues from 2013 onward that demand more serious international attention, as well as unresolved issues from the entire history of the Islamic Republic. Indeed, the November 2019 crackdown that was cited in the EU’s latest sanctions announcement was almost certainly motivated in part by the climate of impunity that had grown up in Tehran as a result of longstanding Western silence over those issues.
An early and particularly egregious example of that impunity emerged in 1988 after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring that domestic opponents of the theocratic system were guilty of “enmity against God” and therefore subject to summary execution. Judicial authorities responded by setting up “death commissions” in prisons throughout the country, tasked with the mission of interrogating political prisoners over their views and affiliations. After a period of several months, these tribunals had sent approximately 30,000 people to the gallows and had faced little pushback from the international community, despite expatriate activists’ efforts to bring attention to the killings.
No one has ever been held accountable for this massacre, and many of its leading perpetrators have been rewarded with increasingly powerful positions in Iran’s government and private sector. Last year, seven United Nations human rights experts wrote a letter in which they highlighted the “devastating impact” of inaction in the face of contemporary reports of the killings. Although the issue was raised in the 1988 resolution on Iran’s human rights, they noted, “the situation was not referred to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly did not follow up on the resolution and the UN Commission on Human Rights did not take any action.”
The letter went on to suggest that Tehran viewed that inaction as a license to continue both perpetuating and covering up human rights abuses right up to the present day. This was also the implication of references to the 1988 massacre in an Amnesty International report on the state of the world’s human rights, which was released last week. Notably, that report’s section on Iran raises the issue of the November 2019 crackdown within a sub-section on “impunity,” just one paragraph after a reminder that former members of the death commissions still “hold top judicial and government positions, including the current Head of the Judiciary and the Minister of Justice.”
In 1988, those figures escaped accountability thanks to Western policies that prioritized engagement with Iranian “moderates” over confrontation with the hardliners driving the regime’s policies of domestic repression and foreign terrorism. In 2013, that Western strategy was reinforced through the electoral victory of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whom several American and European policymakers embraced as a potential source of reform inside the Iranian establishment. That narrative was promptly rejected by the likes of Iranian opposition groups such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which noted that the Islamic Republic’s system of the absolute clerical rule allows for few real differences between the two mainstream political factions.
Nonetheless, Western optimism was reinforced through nuclear negotiations soon after Rouhani’s election, even as the Iranian people continued to suffer reprisals for political activism, as well as escalating enforcement of laws and social norms grounded in an official, fundamentalist view of Shiite Islam. After the nuclear negotiations concluded in 2015, European policies became entirely preoccupied with preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Islamic Republic seemed to recognize this, and the consequences gradually became evident in the regime’s worsening behavior both at home and abroad.
The November 2019 crackdown was a particularly clear example of this trend, but the writing was on the wall throughout much of the preceding six years during which the EU refused to impose any new sanctions related to human rights abuses. The warning signs became unmistakable after January 2018, the month of Iran’s most significant anti-government protest since the 2009 Green Movement.
Whereas the Green Movement was largely confined to Tehran, the 2018 uprising spanned more than 100 localities and also featured unusually explicit calls for regime change. Confronted by both the scale and the intensity of that message, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei struggled to downplay the significance of the movement and was ultimately forced to acknowledge that it had been organized in large part by the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran – the main constituent group in the NCRI coalition.
This contradicted many years of propaganda about the group’s supposed weakness and lack of popular support – propaganda that dated back at least to 1988 when the PMOI became the primary target of the 1988 massacre. Khamenei’s acknowledgment of an organized threat gave the ruling system renewed incentive to stamp out dissent by any means necessary.
Six months after the uprising, the EU nearly suffered the consequences of this situation in the form of a terrorist attack on a gathering of Iranian expatriates near Paris, which was also attended by hundreds of political dignitaries from throughout the world. Yet even then, European leaders persisted in their strategy of coddling the regime in hopes of preserving and extending the nuclear deal. Thus they made little to no public mention of the terror plot after it was thwarted in the summer of 2018, nor when its would-be perpetrators were convicted in a Belgian court last February.
If the EU was willing to overlook Iran’s potential killing of Western politicians on European soil, then Tehran had good reason to believe that it would also overlook the actual killing of 1,500 Iranian civilians – the reported death toll from the November 2019 crackdown. That conclusion was finally challenged a year and a half after the killings, but the EU’s new sanctions on eight Iranian paramilitary and security officials do nothing to challenge the underlying pattern of impunity as it concerns the 1988 massacre, the 2018 terror plot, and the vast array of intervening malign activities.
Worse still, the EU risks undermining the message of those sanctions if it continues pushing the White House to remove its sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. If Western policy continues to prioritize the JCPOA over all else, and thereby restores the status quo in spite of all recent and ongoing human rights violations, then Tehran will have come away from those violations with more rewards than penalties. This is clearly the opposite of the outcome EU leaders should be promoting since the resulting sense of impunity will inevitably encourage the Iranian regime to expand its malign activities in all areas, including those that directly undermine Western interests and global security.