The outcome of Iran’s sham presidential election should increase the sense of urgency for an international investigation into the clerical regime’s single greater crime against humanity and human rights violation. The 1988 massacre of political prisoners was carried out on orders from the regime’s founder and first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini over 30,000 lives. The underlying fatwa primarily targeted Iran’s leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), and was carried out by “death commissions” comprised of clerics and intelligence officials who continued to rise through the ranks of the regime for more than three decades afterward.
The June 18 “election” of the regime’s President Ebrahim Raisi is the latest example of this phenomenon. On his way to becoming president, Raisi was appointed head of the judiciary in 2019 – a development that not only reaffirmed Khamenei’s commitment to rewarding perpetrators of the 1988 massacre but also provided the former death commission prosecutor with an opportunity to expand upon his legacy via a crackdown on large-scale protests and other forms of popular dissent.
Raisi’s appointment took effect about eight months before the outbreak of a nationwide anti-government protest movement in November 2019. That uprising spanned nearly 200 localities and was widely recognized as a follow-up to a previous uprising in December 2017 and January 2018. In the earlier instance, Khamenei himself acknowledged that the unrest had been largely promoted and directed by the MEK. His statements to this effect contradicted essential regime propaganda, the spread of which had been made possible by the 1988 massacre.
Since then, regime officials and state media outlets have either avoided reference to the leading opposition group altogether or else referred to it as a “cult” or a “grouplet” lacking in significant popular support and organizational strength. In effect, these claims promoted the idea that the 1988 massacre had been successful in accomplishing its goal, as stated in an August 6, 1988 letter from Khomeini to another leading official who had complained about the shocking scale of the killings. “May God obliterates every one of the hypocrites,” Khomeini said, using a common derogatory term for members and supporters of the MEK.
As recently as 2016, Iran’s Assembly of Experts praised the fatwa for bringing the MEK “to the brink of annihilation.” But in reality, it had only served to force the movement underground. The recipient of the August 6 letter, Hossein Ali Montazeri, rightly predicted that if the death commissions’ actions continued along the path that had been set out the month before, it would only engender more opposition to the theocratic system, and thus support for the MEK as its democratic alternative.
This trend has continued ever since, driven by a wide range of factors including the regime’s simultaneous commitment to covering up the details of its worst crime against humanity and justifying the political philosophy behind those killings. The January 2018 and November 2019 uprisings went a long way toward demonstrating the cumulative effects of three decades of government activity that prioritized the violent suppression of dissent. The second of these uprisings posed so great a challenge to the regime that it was compelled to further step up the repression, killing over 1,500 peaceful protesters in shooting incidents over just a few days, then systematically torturing thousands of arrestees connected to the unrest.
As the head of the judiciary at the time, Raisi played a leading role in this crackdown. His forthcoming ascension to the office of the president raises concerns about further crackdowns along these lines, especially now that it has been announced that Raisi is to be replaced as judiciary chief by another leading figure in the 1988 massacre, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei.
The collective promotion of death commission members reinforces the culture of impunity surrounding the massacre and the regime’s entire history of human rights abuses. But that impunity has been sustained in part by the regime’s commitment to suppressing evidence about the scale of the massacre, and by the international community’s failure to seriously pursue demands for transparency and accountability. Some political groups and human rights organizations have certainly made those demands known, but a tepid international response has given Tehran room to accelerate its obstructionism on a recurring basis.
It stands to reason that regime authorities will have even more incentive to continue this pattern in the coming months, as the start of the Raisi era brings forth a new wave of public awareness about the massacre and its legacy. Thus, there is ample reason to be concerned that at the same time Tehran is using mass arrests and politically motivated executions to forestall another nationwide uprising, it will also be undertaking projects such as the destruction of gravesites where many victims of the 1988 massacre are interred.
Over the years, groups like Amnesty International have repeatedly pointed to reports of such desecration in order to show that vital evidence could be lost – potentially forever – if major world powers and the United Nations do not become more assertive in their dealings with Tehran’s human rights record. Meanwhile, the MEK has attempted to help jump-start international investigations into the 1988 massacre by highlighting past and ongoing efforts by its intelligence network to identify the locations of mass graves.
As Head of the Iranian Judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi has presided over a spiralling crackdown on human rights which has seen hundreds of peaceful dissidents, human rights defenders and members of persecuted minority groups arbitrarily detained. https://t.co/Ry0F3vIkql
— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) June 19, 2021
To date, such graves have been identified in at least 36 different Iranian cities, though some of them have already fallen victim to construction and development projects specifically designed to complicate any future investigations while also preventing the massacre’s survivors and the families of its victims from gathering to memorialize the 30,000 victims of Tehran’s effort to completely destroy the source of organized opposition. Those same advocates for the victims have been subject to often-severe harassment and threats from the authorities, some of which was detailed in a letter by UN human rights experts, which was sent directly to those authorities in September 2020.
That letter called upon the regime to reconcile with its own past sins, rather than continuing to build upon its legacy. But it also noted that the international community had failed to follow up on contemporary reports regarding the 1988 massacre, and it made clear that if Tehran would not address its own behavior, the responsibility would fall to foreign entities.
In December 2020, the UN experts’ letter was published for a general audience after Tehran declined to respond, thereby demonstrating its persistent embrace of the massacre and the other human rights abuses that have grown out of its legacy. This message was strongly reiterated last month with the confirmation of Raisi as the Iranian regime’s next president. But this development coincided with a mass boycott of the sham electoral process, which arguably signaled the continuation of the pro-democracy opposition movement that previously found an outlet in the January 2018 and November 2019 uprisings.
Western policymakers should conclude from Iran’s political situation that they have a moral responsibility to confront Iran’s human rights record before it gets worse. At the same time, they should conclude from the situation of social unrest that actions toward this end may also serve to promote and amplify those Iranian voices that may lead the country toward a future free of familiar abuses and free of the theocratic dictatorship behind them.