Monday marked the second anniversary of the nationwide uprising in Iran. In a matter of only 5 days in November 2019, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps killed over 1,500 peaceful protesters. About 12,000 participants were then arrested and subjected to indefinite detention amidst inhumane conditions, and frequently to extensive bouts of torture as well.
Sadly, the international community had little to say about the crackdown at the time. Not much changed with the passage of its first anniversary, and now with the second anniversary looming, the Iranian regime has made it abundantly clear that it does not take seriously any of the toothless condemnations of its human rights record. The regime’s assertion of impunity reflects the ongoing impact of backlash against the 2019 uprising, but it also underlines the legacy of violations stretching back more than three decades, including the most serious crime against humanity for which no one has been held accountable to this day.
The clearest indication of that impunity came in June when, following a tightly controlled electoral process, it was confirmed that Ebrahim Raisi would be the regime’s new president. At the time of the 2019 uprising, Raisi was head of Iran’s judiciary and thus he played a leading role in the torture campaign that followed it. Details of that campaign were recorded and labeled with the title Trampling Humanity in a 2020 Amnesty International report. The human rights organization was later quick to respond to Raisi’s “election” by calling it a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
Director-General Agnes Callamard was certainly making reference to the 2019 crackdown when she issued her statement to this effect. But her observation that Raisi should have been “investigated for the crimes against humanity of mass murder, enforced disappearance, and torture” was based primarily on accounts of his role in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners. As one of four officials who sat on the Tehran “death commission” in the summer of that year, Raisi helped to set the pace of executions that would soon overtake the entire country and lead to over 30,000 hangings and deaths by firing squad over a period of about three months.
The world’s silence on the 2019 crackdown is a direct analog to its silence on the 1988 massacre, with both serving as powerful contributors to the regime’s sense of impunity. In September 2020, when some human rights defenders were still assessing the severity of the previous year’s repression, seven UN experts wrote an open letter to Iranian authorities urging transparency over the 1988 massacre and an end to a pattern of harassment targeting victims’ families. But the letter seemed to acknowledge that there were no chances of a serious Iranian response and to assign some blame for that situation to the UN and its leading member states.
The authors noted that in December 1988, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution on Iran’s human rights record which recognized the recent surge in politically motivated killings. However, it also noted that no relevant bodies followed up on the issue, and that this failure to act “had a devastating impact on the survivors and families” and emboldened Tehran to continue perpetrating the same sorts of abuses while also attempting to cover them up or downplay them on the international stage.
The second anniversary of the 2019 crackdown should serve the same purpose as the thirty-third anniversary of the 1988 massacre, which is to remind Western policymakers and human rights advocates about the compounding impact of longstanding failures. There is a direct line between international silence over the 1988 massacre and the regime’s decision to put forward one of its main perpetrators as the new Iranian president. Western powers had a clear opportunity to sever that line in late 2019 and early 2020 by holding Ebrahim Raisi and the regime as a whole accountable for their most recent assault on human rights, but they failed once again.
If that failure still persists, the line between 1988 and 2019 will continue on into the future and will surely enable further crackdowns on dissent, violations of human rights, and even crimes against humanity. Already, with Raisi having only been in office for three months, the effects of his impunity have manifested in an upswing in the rate of executions for the regime that already leads the world in state-sanctioned killings per capita. Meanwhile, ongoing protests recall attention to a prediction offered by Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, in a July conference that responded to Raisi’s “election” and urged stronger Western policies toward the Iranian regime.
“In the new era,” Mrs. Rajavi said, “the hostility and enmity between the Iranian regime and society will intensify more than ever before.” She went on to say that the international community’s response to Raisi being rewarded for his past human rights abuses would be “the litmus test of whether it will engage and deal with this genocidal regime or stand with the Iranian people.”
The nations of Europe have been in recent years acting with a single-minded obsession with preserving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has had a profound impact on policymakers’ willingness to confront and risk offending the Iranian regime. But while the consequences of that offense may indeed include the collapse of the nuclear deal, it would be a horrible betrayal of Western principles to suggest that that price is greater than the price of thousands or even tens of thousands of Iranian lives.