By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
In 1988, the Iranian regime undertook the systematic massacre of political prisoners. Over the course of several months, approximately 30,000 detainees were interrogated over their political views and affiliations, then sentenced to summary execution by “death commissions” when they failed to demonstrate complete loyalty to the theocratic regime. The proceedings were primarily focused on affiliates of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK), whose expatriate activists tried to reach the international community with news of the ongoing massacre.
Numerous policymakers and diplomats in Europe and North America were duly informed of the Iranian regime’s most severe endeavor to stamp out dissent, but nearly all of them turned a blind eye, apparently believing that such dissent was too weak or too disorganized to present a serious challenge to the mullahs. Though misguided, this belief has guided Western policy toward the clerical regime for most of its four decades in power. Specifically, it has guided that policy toward betrayals of core Western principles and the neglect of the 1988 massacre is perhaps the most shameful example.
For whatever it’s worth, that silence was seemingly motivated by an impulse to promote the greater good. After failing to recognize the existence of a viable alternative to Iran’s theocratic system, many Western policymakers decided that their best option was to maintain ordinary relations with the regime in the interest of elevating “moderate” officials over their hardline colleagues. In practice, this meant avoiding any serious upset to the regime as a whole, even if doing so came at the expense of ordinary Iranians’ lives.
What the international community should have recognized in 1988 was that no Iranian official can realistically be referred to as “moderate” if they are willing to stand by and witness, or actively participate in, a vast political purge like that year’s massacre. While the authors of Western appeasement policy might try to defend themselves by arguing that the objects of that policy were likely not aware of the killings while they were happening, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that every major Iranian official knew about the massacre and effectively condoned it.
This fact was highlighted once again on Tuesday, August 18, 2020, when Amnesty International posted about the massacre from its Farsi Twitter account. The message explained that the families of political prisoners had reached out the human rights organization in the summer of 1988 to explain that visitations had been halted in facilities throughout the country and that there was growing suspicion about widespread abuse and killings. Amnesty quickly responded by issuing an “Urgent Action” statement and reaching out directly to a number of Iranian government ministers and officials, including the Minister of Justice.
Under these circumstances, it was impossible for any prominent figure in the regime to remain ignorant of the leadership’s plan to stamp out dissent. It was also unlikely that anyone could ascend through the ranks of the regime after the fact without first learning about the killings and condoning them. In fact, even the current makeup of the regime’s leadership reflects a pattern that has rewarded the supporters of political violence and punished critics.
This is not to say that there have been many critics. Only one former regime official is known to have stood against the massacre of political prisoners. Remarkably, he was Ayatollah Khomeini’s designated successor in 1988. Unfortunately, this did not stop him from being entirely ousted from the regime and later placed under house arrest, where he would live out the final years of his life.
Had this not been the case, Ali Hossein Montazeri might have been the kind of person that Western officials could have reached out to in the interest of promoting the regime’s moderation, but if they had seen the writing on the wall, they would have known that their future negotiating partners would have been drawn only from the ranks of individuals like Ebrahim Raisi and Alireza Avaie, both of whom served on the death commissions that scheduled executions in 1988 and who now serve as the regime’s judiciary chief and Justice Minister, respectively.
Ordinarily, it would be unfair to hold policymakers responsible for their failure to correctly predict the trajectory a foreign government would take, years in advance, but in this case, if hope for moderation was the guiding principle of Western policy toward Iran, then news of widespread killings should have brought that an end to that dream in 1988, or shortly thereafter. Certainly, that principle provided nothing close to the justification for the neglect of an unmistakable crime against humanity. Any Iranian official who balked at criticisms of that crime would have immediately exposed himself as being just as unworthy of foreign engagement as Ayatollah Khomeini himself.
After 32 years, it is almost inconceivable that anyone would still be clinging to the hope of moderation. It is entirely inconceivable that anyone would regard that hope as a reason to continue avoiding demands for accountability among the perpetrators of the 1988 massacre. Therefore, anyone who is interested in correcting past mistakes of Western policy should now be pushing for an investigation into the long-neglected killings and this investigation should be viewed as the first step on the way to prosecution at the International Criminal Court for the massacre’s perpetrators.
The upcoming session of the United Nations General Assembly provides a perfect opportunity for governments that were silent in 1988 to raise their voices and elevate awareness of what Montazeri called “the worst crime of the Islamic Republic” and others have called the worst crime against humanity to take place in the half-century after World War II. There is no statute of limitations for such a crime, and there is no point at which silence or complicity become forgivable in absence of atonement.
Western leaders must take action to counter their predecessors’ mistakes – not just the mistake of looking the other way on the 1988 massacre, but also the mistake of believing that Tehran could be gently nudged in the direction of respect for human rights.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)