Earlier this month, it was reported that the Iranian regime President Ebrahim Raisi would likely be granted a visa to visit New York for the United Nations General Assembly. That news was soon followed by the revelation of an indictment-in-absentia for an Iranian operative who had plotted the assassinations of former US national security advisor John Bolton and former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This, in turn, was followed by an attack on the author Salman Rushdie in Western New York State, which served as a reminder of the fatwa from Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian regime’s first supreme leader called for Rushdie’s death in 1989.
Thirty-three years after that fatwa was issued, the threat of Iran-backed extremism and terrorist activity remains as prevalent as ever. The latest incidents underscore this fact while also highlighting the role that Raisi has had in amplifying the threat since he was installed in that position in June of last year. Many people familiar with Iranian affairs were quick to warn of the impact that Raisi would likely have on all of the regime’s malign activities, but there was little response to those warnings from the leadership of the United States or the European Union at the time.
Raisi’s prospective attendance at the UN General Assembly suggests that Western policymakers’ are still not taking those warnings seriously, even as they continue to be validated by developments inside Iran.
Even before Raisi was formally inaugurated last August, it was clear that the regime’s repression efforts at repressing dissent and intimidating the public were already accelerating. The first half of 2022 has seen more than twice as many executions as the first half of 2021 – a particularly chilling statistic in light of the fact that Iran is the undisputed world leader in terms of annual executions per capita. And this does not even consider those prisoners, including political prisoners, who die each year due to harsh conditions and deliberate denial of access to life-saving medical treatment in Iranian detention facilities.
There have been countless reports of this sort of mistreatment over the past year, alongside countless reports of politically-motivated arrests against the backdrop of continuous anti-government protests. The worsening climate of repression is exactly what one might have expected under the Raisi administration, in light of his legacy as a clerical judge, public prosecutor, and most recently, chief justice of the country’s judiciary.
In 1988, Raisi played a leading role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, serving as one of four members of the Tehran “death commission” who were tasked with interrogating detainees at Evin and Gohardasht Prisons to ascertain whether they had any lingering sympathies with the leading pro-democracy opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). The death commission’s mandate originated with another fatwa like the one that would be levied against Rushdie the following year, except in this case, the target of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death sentence was an entire segment of the domestic population that opposed tyrannical theocracy.
Raisi’s eager implementation of that death sentence was a long-term boon to his career and was arguably a major reason for the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei promoting him first to the head of the judiciary and then to the presidency. Khamenei was seeking to consolidate power and step up repression at the time in the wake of the nationwide uprising that rocked the clerical regime at the beginning of 2018. Thus, when an even larger uprising broke out in November 2019, the IRGC opened fire on demonstrations in numerous cities, killing at least 1,500 people, and Raisi’s judiciary initiated a months-long campaign of torture against many of those who were arrested amidst the violence.
In March 2018, Albanian authorities uncovered a plot to deploy a truck bomb against the MEK’s headquarters in the country. The following June, another attack was thwarted in Western Europe, this one targeting an international gathering of Iranian expatriates near Paris, organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The mastermind of that plot, an Iranian diplomat, Assadollah Assadi, was sentenced last year by a Belgian court to 20 years in prison, but the underlying investigation revealed that he had been in contact with a number of fellow operatives spanning much of the continent.
Last month, it was revealed that Albanian authorities had executed search warrants for several properties and questioned several Iranians associated with the Iranian regime who are believed to have been coordinating with the clerical regime to target members of the MEK.
One of the most egregious examples of this trend of appeasement is the signing of a treaty between Belgium and the Iranian regime, which sets the stage for Assadi to be released as part of a prisoner swap. Statements from international journalists and American lawmakers described that treaty as a “failure of Europe’s efforts to fight terrorism” and said it “allows the Iranian regime to establish its European terrorist command center in Belgium” by giving would-be operatives a reason to believe that they will face no serious consequences for any operations.
This message would arguably echo by the Western leaders, while Raisi remains the object of an invitation to attend the UN General Assembly next month. Unless it leads to his arrest, Raisi’s presence in New York can only be viewed as a symbol of the US willingness to look the other way on the terrorist threats that he has no doubt overseen as president of the Iranian regime.