This month marks the second anniversary of the major Iran protests. In mid-November 2019, residents of nearly 200 Iranian cities and towns took part in a nationwide uprising that featured slogans like “death to the dictator” and other gestures of support for regime change. Immediately, the regime’s security forces were ordered to open fire on crowds of those protesters, killing 1,500 in a matter of days and sparking a broader crackdown that would see countless activists tortured over a period of several months.
The head of the judiciary at the time, and thus the ultimate overseer of all that torture, was Ebrahim Raisi, a clerical judge who had served the regime by justifying a wide range of human rights abuses since shortly after the 1979 revolution.
In the summer of 1988, Raisi became one of four officials to sit on the Tehran “death commission” that was tasked with implementing a fatwa by then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. Raisi and his colleagues interrogated thousands of political prisoners over their political views and affiliations, then ordered the summary execution of anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime and thus, in Khomeini’s words, guilty of “enmity against God.”
Raisi’s appointment as judiciary chief in early 2019 was widely recognized as part of a broader pattern whereby participants in the 1988 massacre were systematically rewarded for their willingness to murder dissidents and suppress rights of free speech in order to safeguard the mullahs’ hold on power. The regime’s Minister of Justice at that time was among those who took part in the killings, and his predecessor in that position not only sat on the death commission but also defended his actions in a 2016 interview, saying he was “proud” to have carried out “God’s command” through the mass execution of members of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK).
That MEK accounted for 90 percent of the victims of the 1988 massacre, the overall death toll of which has been estimated at over 30,000.
The very day after Raisi’s selection Amnesty International lamented the fact that Raisi was elevated to the second-highest position in the regime “instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of mass murder, enforced disappearance, and torture.” Amnesty’s Director-General Agnes Callamard also noted that this development was a “chilling reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
The anniversary of the November 2019 uprising is as much a reminder of that impunity as it is a reminder of the underlying brutality. It marks two years of shameful silence on the part of most Western policymakers, and it also recalls attention to the opposition President, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi’s observation, in a July conference, that Raisi’s presidential inauguration would present the international community with a “litmus test of whether it will engage and deal with this genocidal regime or stand with the Iranian people.”
That inauguration took place in August, and not only did major world powers fail the test by refusing to center Raisi’s past human rights abuses in their discussions of the new administration, but the European Union even went so far as to send a delegation to attend the swearing-in. That was an insult to those who have personally suffered at Raisi’s hands, either during the 1988 massacre or during the crackdown on the 2019 uprising. But so far, neither the EU nor its member states or allies have changed course.
The need for them to do so will only become more urgent as the current situation continues to unfold. Despite the severity of the crackdown two years ago, Iranian protesters have remained active and have periodically rekindled the slogans that turned both prior uprisings into symbols of popular support for regime change. The regime remains noticeably concerned about the prospect for more such unrest, with Khamenei having declared in early October that “security is our most important issue,” while one commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps acknowledged that IRGC is being forced to fight “within our home” instead of beyond the borders of Iran.
The anniversary of the 2019 uprising will inspire more unrest from Iran’s domestic activists and the MEK’s “Resistance Units,” and also that will prompt officials like Raisi to lean even further into the impulses that guided their actions in 1988 and beyond. In this sense, the international community is likely to be presented with its litmus test all over again, and its passage or failure may determine just how hard a road the Iranian people will have to walk in the direction of regime change.
The sad fact is that Tehran’s repressive actions in November 2019 were most likely emboldened by the international community’s silence regarding the appointment of a notorious violator of human rights to the position of judiciary chief. If Western policymakers and other stakeholders don’t reverse their silence on Raisi’s promotion to the presidency, they will certainly reinforce the regime’s sense of impunity and thus embolden the next sequence of human rights abuses against a population that has recently made extraordinary progress in its fight for freedom and democracy.