On Thursday, the Iranian regime formally inaugurated a notorious human rights violator as its newest president. Less than two years before taking office, while serving as judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi oversaw aspects of a crackdown on nationwide protests which killed at least 1,500 people and saw thousands of others arrested and subjected to torture. Yet this pales in comparison to the massacre of political prisoners that Raisi played a leading role in during the summer of 1988.
In July of that year, the regime’s founder and first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa which declared members and supporters of the organized opposition group, the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, MEK to be inherently guilty of “enmity against God.” The edict quite explicitly stated that all those who were in prison at the time and would not conclusively disavow their support for the MEK would be “condemned to execution.”
In the interest of fulfilling that order, the regime convened “death commissions” to interrogate inmates at prisons throughout the country. As deputy prosecutor in Tehran at the time, Ebrahim Raisi willfully assumed a leading role in the interrogations at Evin and Gohardasht prisons. His implementation of death sentences quickly proved to be so ruthless and efficient that Khomeini personally empowered him to extend his authority beyond the capital city and “deal with reports from Semnan, Sirjan, Islamabad, and Doroud cities, and regardless of the administrative maze, execute what God’s command is.”
This official reference to divine will has been repeated over the years by participants in the 1988 massacre, so as to defend their actions and reassert their belief in the infallibility of the clerical supreme leader. Raisi himself has contributed to those efforts, especially in the years since the 2016 leak of an audio recording from the time of the massacre, which featured Hossein Ali Montazeri, then Khomeini’s designated successor, condemning Raisi and others for their participation in the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.”
By contrast, Montazeri, the only prominent regime official to object to the killings, was not only removed as Khomeini’s successor but was driven out of the ruling elite altogether by the following year. He then went on to spend the final years of his life under house arrest while the men whom he had condemned in 1988 continued to ascend through the ranks of the Iranian government and industry.
Of course, history has not closed the book on the massacre yet, and individuals like Raisi will be held accountable more than 30 years later, and that the memory of its victims and its critics will be duly honored. As to the number of those victims, it is estimated that over 30,000 people were killed across Iran in a span of about three months. But the exact details of the executions and burials are not known and may never be known, if only because regime authorities have taken steps to destroy evidence of the secret mass graves in which many victims were buried.
Unfortunately, the chances for a comprehensive investigation have diminished over the years, but this is not to say that an investigation is any less urgent today than it was in 1988. Quite to the contrary, the passage of time has only made it more important for the international community to challenge Tehran’s sense of impunity by demanding as full an accounting of the killings as possible, and by making it clear that anyone confirmed to be responsible for the massacre will be subjected to Magnitsky sanctions, global isolation, and ideally prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
What’s more, if sanctions and other forms of pressure are directed at the Iranian regime’s new president immediately, it will send a strong signal to the Iranian people that they have meaningful political support in the wake of three solid weeks of popular unrest. The latest protests reportedly feature explicit calls for regime change, much like the nationwide uprisings of January 2018 and November 2019. If this type of unrest continues to grow and the Iranian regime becomes even more isolated on the world stage, the day might soon come when a new, democratic government is in place in Iran and its people are finally able to bring Raisi and his colleagues to justice themselves.