Iran Regime’s Terror Threats Are Fueled by Impunity Over Human Rights Violations

Rep. Eliot Engel at tribute to victims of Iran's 1988 massacre


Written by
Shamsi Saadati

A resolution was recently introduced to the US House of Representatives which expresses “support for the Iranian people’s desire for a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran” and condemns “violations of human rights and state-sponsored terrorism by the Iranian Government.” The majority of the document is devoted to cataloging some of the regime’s most recent and most severe malign activities, and it concludes with the recommendation of a multilateral Western policy that holds the regime accountable for “breaching diplomatic privileges” and safeguards the Iranian people’s rights to move for a change of regime in their homeland.

H. Res. 118 makes it clear that the challenges to those rights are severe, permanent, and by no means limited to Iran’s territorial borders. The resolution emphasizes, for instance, that four Iranian operatives including a high-ranking diplomat were convicted by a Belgian court in February for plotting to set off explosives near Paris, at the annual gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The 2018 plot was evidently motivated in part by an uprising that took place in Iran at the beginning of that year, which was largely attributed to the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

Given that there were dozens of high-profile American and European dignitaries at the 2018 Free Iran rally, the terror plot was a prime example of how Western interests and personnel are threatened by the regime’s unbridled terrorism. The regime’s use of terrorism against its dissident dates back to the earliest days of the mullahs’ regime and it has weathered the most dramatic, authoritarian efforts to stamp out the MEK. It has also persisted in spite of an unfortunate international tendency toward silence in the face of accounts of those crimes.

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This silence goes a long way toward explaining the sense of impunity underlying the Paris terror plot – one of several of the regime’s terror and assassination plots to be uncovered just since the beginning of 2018. The Belgian court that prosecuted that case also made it clear that the four operatives were acting upon instructions from high within the Iranian regime. While their conviction and sentencing were a step up from Western reactions to various earlier terrorist incidents, but the lack of any other serious action confirms the regime’s assumption that it can attempt such crimes and face little to no consequence.

This assumption has clear parentage and has unfortunately been reinforced many times over the years. The Belgian court case is a notable challenge to it, and there have been others besides. But until those challenges begin to seriously outweigh the evidence of Western appeasement policy, the lives of Iranian dissidents will remain in constant peril both inside Iran and throughout the world.

The severity of that threat was made clear in November 2019 when residents of nearly 200 Iranian cities and towns took part in an anti-regime uprising with the MEK at its forefront. Having already faced a similar, if slightly smaller uprising in January 2018, regime authorities responded by opening fire on crowds, killing over 1,500 people and arresting 12,000 others. This death toll amounts to one of Iran’s worst single incidents of repression, but still pales in comparison to what has been called the “worst crime” of the regime and one of the worst crimes against humanity to take place anywhere in the world during the latter half of the 20th century.

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In the summer of 1988, prisons all across Iran convened panels of judges, prosecutors, and intelligence operatives which came to be known as “death commissions.” Spurred on by a fatwa from the regime’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini that described the theocratic system’s opponents as enemies of God, the tribunals began interrogating political prisoners over their affiliations and political attitudes, then promptly implemented death sentences for those who refused to demonstrate submission to the clerical regime and its fundamentalist ideology.

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Over the course of several months, over 30,000 political prisoners were executed in this way. Victims included teenagers and pregnant women, and most were buried in secret mass graves.

In recent years, some participants in the massacre have shamelessly defended their actions, even as public awareness of the crime grew. The regime’s former Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi went so far as to say that it was “God’s command” for death sentences to be meted out to members of the MEK – the prime target of the crackdown on dissent. At the same time, however, the regime officials have persisted in a coordinated campaign to suppress evidence of the 1988 massacre, fearing the demands of accountability that still might emerge if a clearer picture of the massacre were to develop.

This campaign was highlighted anew this week, in the form of reports that regime officials are on the verge of destroying one of the mass graves located in the city of Khavaran. Human rights defenders and the MEK have identified such graves in 36 different cities, but a number of these have already been destroyed, paved over, and slated for commercial development. With each of these actions, it becomes more and more the regime tries to escape from accountability over the 1988 massacre since the identities of its victims or the location of their remains will no longer act as evidence of this crime.

This phenomenon was highlighted last year by seven United Nations human rights experts, in a letter to regime officials. The letter demanded that Tehran release information related to the massacre and halt its practice of destroying gravesites, obstructing memorial gatherings at them, and otherwise silencing the families of the deceased. The authors went on to say that if regime officials take no action in this regard, the responsibility will fall to the international community.

They also highlighted that the 1988 massacre may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

After more than 90 days passed with no reply from Tehran, this letter was released to the public in an effort to convey its appeals to policymakers across the globe. It was then referenced in H. Res. 118, along with comments from Amnesty International which described the letter as a “momentous breakthrough” and a “turning point” in the world’s response to the regime’s assertions of impunity.

Of course, the validity of Amnesty’s commentary ultimately depends on the long-term effects of the letter, specifically whether or not the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States begin seriously pushing for an independent investigation into the 1988 massacre. Appeals for such an investigation have been variously repeated since the PMOI first began revealing the existence of mass graves in the months immediately following the killings. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reiterated that appeal with a renewed sense of urgency this week, in the wake of the reports regarding the imminent destruction of the site at Khavaran.

As that appeal begins to reach the ears of Western policymakers, they must keep in mind that the value of such an investigation goes far beyond the pursuit of justice for people who were murdered by the Iranian regime more than three decades ago. By challenging the impunity that grew out of those killings, the international community will also be taking vital steps toward stricter constraints on Tehran’s malign behavior as it relates to repressing dissent, promoting foreign terrorism, and even pursuing nuclear weapons

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