This November has been marked by a remarkable number of milestones in Iranian affairs. Each one of them arguably provides further grounds for a more assertive turn in European policy toward the Iranian regime.
Last week, the third committee of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Iran’s human rights violations – the 67th resolution of its kind. That move closely coincided with the one-year anniversary of a major activist uprising inside Iran, which led to a major crackdown on dissent and thus furnished additional evidence of the regime’s contempt for human rights.
This week, the US government imposed new sanctions on Iranian regime. And next Friday, the persistent danger of that foreign terrorism will be highlighted by the trial of four Iranian operatives who conspired to set off a bomb at a rally in a Paris suburb.
The connections among all of these developments are even stronger than they may appear on the surface. The terror plot in question, which was thwarted in June 2018 through the cooperation of multiple European authorities, had essentially developed as part of the same repressive strategy as was applied to the November uprising. That uprising was a sort of sequel to a similar nationwide protest movement that erupted in the final days of 2017 and led to rare acknowledgement of the prominent social role of a longstanding democratic opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK).
The past three years’ Iranian terror plots and domestic crackdowns have escalated in sequence because of growing fears over the MEK’s challenge to the mullahs’ hold on power. Though it lasted through much of January 2018, the first uprising was ultimately disrupted by a campaign of shootings, indiscriminate arrests, and torturous interrogations. Dozens of peaceful protesters were killed, but the message of the message of the uprising did not disappear. Instead, calls for regime change and slogans like “death to the dictator” came to define a “year full of uprisings,” as directed by the National Council of Resistance of Iran President-elect Maryam Rajavi.
It was in response to all of this that Iran’s leaders signed off on a terror plot that was primarily intended to target Rajavi, but might also have killed any number of the hundreds of high-profile political dignitaries that traveled to the June 2018 rally from throughout the world. Investigations into the plot have established that it was an official state operation, and one of the defendants in the upcoming trial is a high-ranking Iranian diplomat named Assadollah Assadi.
Assadi’s status as the mastermind of that plot is a likely sign of the regime’s desperation in the face of an ascendant, organized opposition movement. It goes to show that Tehran was willing to put the status quo at risk with regard to its relatively stable relations with Europe. One would think that after that risk failed to pay off, the regime would be in danger of serious consequences for a transgression that directly threatened Western policymakers and citizens. But so far this has not been the case.
Faced with an uprising that was about one-third larger than its predecessor nearly two years earlier, Iranian authorities decided almost immediately to open fire on crowds, killing approximately 1,500 participants and innocent bystanders. It was arguably the worst single instance of political repression in the Islamic Republic since the late 1980s, when “death commissions” facilitated the systematic execution of an estimated 30,000 political prisoners over just several months.
Unfortunately, neither of these massacres received direct reference in last week’s UN resolution. But the NCRI nonetheless credited that resolution with leaving no doubt “that this regime is the world’s leading abuser of human rights today, has flagrantly trampled on the Iranian nation’s fundamental rights in all its political, social and economic aspects, and is in no way compatible with the twenty-first century, and must therefore be banished by the world community.”
Meanwhile, commemorations of the November 2019 uprising helped to focus some international attention on that month’s massacre while also emphasizing that it is part of a tradition of crimes against humanity that includes the much larger 1988 massacre. Relevant statements from the NCRI and its supporters stand right alongside the UN resolution in demonstrating the need for a coordinated and assertive international effort to hold the regime accountable and prevent more of the same.
Meanwhile, the United States has continued to model some of the tactics by which this might be accomplished. The Treasury Department announced this week that new economic sanctions would be applied to the regime’s intelligence minister and to Mostazafan Foundation, which is responsible for expropriating financial assets from the Iranian public, so they may be spent freely on measures that personally enrich the regime’s Supreme Leader Khamenei, “reward his political allies, and persecute the regime’s enemies.”
Unfortunately, European policymakers have been resistant to adopting a firm policy towards the regime. But this month’s flood of information about Iran’s vile conduct should serve as inspiration for those policymakers to reexamine their approach to the regime. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime’s persistent fear of domestic unrest suggests that the international pressures could pay dividends by providing the organized opposition movement with greater opportunities to plan the next uprising, in relative freedom from government attacks both at home and abroad.