It was recently reported that the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany are planning to summon Iranian ambassadors to hear a coordinated diplomatic protest over the baseless arrest and mistreatment of political prisoners, including dual nationals. It is a rare step in the right direction for Western policy toward the Iranian regime, but it will be of little value unless it promptly leads to other, even more assertive steps.
The international community has much work to do if it is to compensate for the effects of a decades-long strategy of appeasing the Iranian regime and hoping for its policies and behaviors to shift toward moderation. That hope has been dashed on many occasions since the mullahs took power in 1979. And the only recognizable effect has been the increasing entrenchment of a sense of impunity among the regime’s leaders.
The ever-growing population of Iranian political prisoners has borne the brunt of that effect, as made clear by the recently intensified crackdown on dissent in the wake of two nationwide uprisings against the theocratic system. During the first of these uprisings in January 2018, dozens of peaceful protesters were killed and several thousand were arrested. When anti-government slogans like “death to the dictator” re-emerged across roughly 200 cities and towns in November 2019, the death toll very quickly mounted to 1,500, and the number of arrests came to exceed 12,000.
Detainees from both uprisings are still facing the prospect of execution, as are participants in the intervening protests. It was one of these protests that ultimately led to the execution of renowned champion wrestler Navid Afkari earlier this month. That execution was carried out just weeks after his dual death sentences were confirmed, and in defiance of a growing chorus of international appeals for Tehran to spare his life.
Afkari’s execution highlighted the extent of the regime’s resistance to reform or moderation. It was presumably a major contributing factor in European policymakers’ decision to issue a more formal condemnation of the underlying crackdown. But it should also lead those same policymakers to be prepared for the regime’s dismissal of the warnings their diplomats will soon receive.
It will take much more than a series of summons for the regime to conclude that its assumption of impunity is mistaken. Tehran will not change its ways simply because the international community has voiced disapproval. It will only respond to coordinated pressure that is unmistakably tied to the regime’s human rights record. In fact, leading Iranian opposition groups have long sought to convince the international community that with regard to human rights and all other matters, a “language of strength” is all that the clerical regime understands.
Representatives of those groups were present in recent days at a number of rallies organized in Washington D.C. and various European cities by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Their message went further than any Western government including the United States, in that it urged not only the re-imposition of UN sanctions that have been suspended since 2016, but also the re-examination of human rights violations and terrorist incidents from the regime’s 41-year history.
The expatriate activists were joined in many cases by politicians who have previously expressed support for the NCRI and the activist movement behind the two recent uprisings. More than 250 lawmakers from across Europe and the Arab world also joined in signing a statement that embraced the US’s decision to declare that UN sanctions had “snapped back” following violations of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The statement went on to highlight further demands voiced by Iranian activists, including the coordinated blacklisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a formal investigation into the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.”
In the summer of 1988, “death commissions” in numerous Iranian prisons began hauling political detainees from their cells to answer questions about their affiliations and their views toward the theocratic system. Those who failed to demonstrate fealty to the clerical regime were declared guilty of “enmity against God” and summarily executed. During a period of just a few months, 30,000 people were killed by hanging or firing squad, then buried in secret mass graves.
No one has ever been held accountable for this crime against humanity, arguably the worst to be carried out anywhere in the world during the latter half of the 20th century. That has led Amnesty International to describe the 1988 massacre as an “ongoing” violation of international laws and human rights principles. And many critics of current Western policy toward the regime have identified it as a principal foundation of the regime’s sense of impunity.
In 1988, Iran's authorities forcibly disappeared and secretly executed thousands of political dissidents. For more than 30 years, their families have not know when, how and why their loved ones were killed They seek #truthandjusticenow for these crimes against humanity. pic.twitter.com/DWzetNLzUR
— Amnesty Iran (@AmnestyIran) August 25, 2020
For that reason, the UK, France, and Germany should not expect Iranian activists and expatriates to take their diplomatic summons very seriously if they are not backed up by efforts to break the Western world’s silence on Iran’s historical human rights violations. A meaningful challenge to the regime’s impunity would involve formal investigations of the 1988 massacre and other such crimes. Ideally, those investigations would ultimately lead to charges at the International Criminal Court, especially for those perpetrators who retain powerful positions within the regime to this day.
Tentative investigations by human rights groups and NGOs have identified dozens of such individuals, including Iran’s current Justice Minister and the head of the national judiciary. But the United Nations bears the bulk of the responsibility to confirm these findings and utilize them in a way that holds the regime to account. The proposed diplomatic summons only demonstrate that that responsibility has grown in recent years, as the regime’s persistent impunity has set the stage for more peaceful protesters, and possibly some Western nationals, to follow in the footsteps of murdered activists like Navid Afkari.
After 32 years of silence, a formal investigation of the 1988 massacre is the least that Western nations can offer by way of recompense. And far beyond simply making up for past mistakes in Western policy, that investigation and resulting sanctions or criminal charges could set the stage for an altogether new strategy – one that embraces a language of strength and provides much-needed support to an Iranian activist community that has accelerated its fight for democracy and may soon overthrow the theocratic system, as long as Tehran no longer benefits from appeasement.