By Jubin Katiraie
On Thursday, the US government simultaneously reaffirmed its commitment to a strategy of maximum pressure on the Iranian government and its support of Iran’s popular resistance.
And while Washington remains uniquely assertive in these matters, there is growing international awareness of Iran’s repression of dissent. And there are tentative signs this could set the stage for multilateral action to confront that repression.
In May 2018, the White House re-imposed sanctions that had been suspended under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and since then it has added a number of additional sanctions as well. But these targeted a number of individuals and groups, on the basis of various justifications. The latest such targets include two high-profile Iranian judges, as the US State Department follows through on its promise to “expose and sanction” persons responsible for human rights abuses against participants in an ongoing protest movement.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered that promise around the same time that he urged Iranian activists and independent journalists to reach out to the US and the broader international community with accounts of the Iranian authorities’ violent reaction to anti-government demonstrations.
Although Tehran cut off internet access throughout the country soon after the nationwide uprising began on November 15, connectivity began to be restored about a week later. In a matter of just days, Pompeo reported that the State Department had received upwards of 20,000 messages, many of them containing photos and videos of the government’s bloody repression. On the basis of that information, the White House was later able to estimate that as many as 1,000 people had been killed by Iranian security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
This was significantly greater than the roughly 200 deaths that had been recorded up to that point by Amnesty International. But it closely aligned with the findings of the leading Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Since the Trump administration first weighed in on the casualty figures, Amnesty has revised its estimate to more than 300 while also continuing to acknowledge that the true figure is likely to be much greater. Meanwhile, the PMOI raised its estimate to 1,500 and announced that 547 victims had been identified by name.
New Sanctions, with More to Come
The State Department’s explanation of newfound sanctions took no explicit position on the scale of the killings, but it conveyed the same account of underlying repression which seems to be universally agreed upon by non-governmental organizations and Iranian activists. Amnesty’s recent statements on the topic have emphasized that the overwhelming majority of confirmed casualties were the clear result of protesters being deliberately shot in the head or vital organs. But the same statements also affirm that Tehran’s repression is a much broader phenomenon, encompassing many thousands of injuries and arrests since unrest began five weeks ago.
Secretary of State Pompeo similarly called attention to that broader phenomenon, condemning Iranian authorities for depriving citizens of the rights of due process and free assembly, not only via outright political violence but also through arbitrary arrests and prosecutions. Furthermore, the new sanctions appeared tailored to punish prominent figures in the Iranian judiciary for routinely using these tactics, which have only accelerated in response to popular protests.
After naming Abolghassem Salavati and Mohammad Moghisseh as the targets of new asset freezes and restrictions on commerce that touches the American financial system, the Secretary of State noted that both men have a long history of overseeing “the Iranian regime’s miscarriage of justice in show trials in which journalists, attorneys, political activists, and members of Iran’s ethnic and religious minority groups were penalized for exercising their freedom of expression and assembly and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, lashes, and even execution.”
Thursday’s announcement also set the stage for the future designation of other Iranian officials who are determined to be responsible for human rights abuses, either in the past or in ongoing clashes between authorities and activists. Some such sanctions are made possible by preexisting US law concerning religious persecution by foreign governments. The State Department has accordingly designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” in this area.
At the same time, Pompeo underscored the broad human rights aim of maximum pressure strategies, saying, “The United States has stood, and will stand under President Trump, for the Iranian people.” And a day earlier, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US House of Representatives arguably delivered this message even more clearly, via the passage of a resolution that specifically expressed support for the ongoing nationwide protests while also acknowledging unresolved past human rights abuses perpetrated by Iran’s theocratic dictatorship.
Welcome Recognition for Iran’s Resistance
The broad intent of H.Res.752 was laid out in its title: “Supporting the rights of the people of Iran to free expression, condemning the Iranian regime for its crackdown on legitimate protests, and for other purposes.” Among those other purposes is the formal recognition of a crime against humanity that was committed in the summer of 1988, for which no participant or enabler has been held to account in the International Criminal Court or any national court system.
The resolution identified that 30-year old incident as “the barbaric mass executions of thousands of political prisoners by hanging and firing squad for refusing to renounce their political affiliations and in some cases for possessing political reading material.” It also noted that teenagers and pregnant women have been identified among the estimated 30,000 victims of that massacre, though many victims remain buried in secret mass graves.
On its website, the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the MEK welcomed the Foreign Affairs Committee’s gesture. The PMOI has long sought wider recognition of the 1988 massacre, partly because of its clear significance to the existing regime’s human rights record and partly because the vast majority of the massacre’s victims were members of the MEK.
The memory of these and other killings has fueled concerns that Tehran could be setting the stage for a similarly bloody crackdown in the wake of public demonstrations that have been widely recognized as the greatest challenge to them since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. This fear is amplified by the fact that the MEK has been credited with a significant role in the organization and facilitating those demonstrations, just as it had been in the midst of a previous nationwide uprising at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.
According to the MEK, at least 12,000 people have been arrested for public activism since mid-November. Photographs and videos have confirmed the re-purposing of elementary schools and government buildings as makeshift jails, in order to accommodate a volume of arrests that the system is ill-equipped to handle. And even though the judiciary has publicly ordered the speedy processing and release of anyone not deemed to be a “rioter” or a leader of the protest movement, there are no clear criteria for this distinction, and officials have threatened that the death penalty might be utilized to punish those who are deemed ineligible for release.
An Open Invitation for Support
The NCRI, among other organizations, has repeatedly urged the international community to help prevent the fulfillment of such threats by demonstrating that authorities stand to face serious consequences for both human rights cases of abuse, including those committed in previous decades. Toward that end, it has repeatedly recommended that the United Nations launch an inquiry into the 1988 massacre. And lately, it has made similar recommendations with regard to the ongoing crackdown while referring to it in similar terms.
Soona Samsami, the NCRI’s US representative, said in response to the unanimous passage of H.Res.752, “This timely bipartisan resolution sends an unequivocal and powerful message to the people of Iran that U.S. Congress fully supports them in their nationwide uprising for a free Iran and that it strongly condemns the massacre perpetrated by the Iranian regime in November.” But she also underscored the notion that there is still more to be done, including more sanctions to be opposed in addition to those which were announced on Thursday.
The NCRI statement pointed to its release of a new publication, Uprising Shakes Iran Regime’s Foundations, which identifies 92 high-ranking officials who have played a substantial role in the repression of dissent over the past five weeks. Samsami argued that these individuals “all need to be sanctioned by the US government,” in keeping with Secretary Pompeo’s promise to the Iranian people.
Additionally, the NCRI website declared that the Iranian leading authorities, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, “must be held accountable for crimes against humanity and a fact-finding mission must be sent to Iran to evaluate the scope of the crimes and examine the cases of those killed, wounded, or detained.”
Naturally, such a mission would be expected to rely on multilateral support, rather than unilateral action by a US administration that has overseen three years of steadily escalating tensions with the Iranian government. Fortunately, other Western countries have shown a similar, if more measured, interest in publicly condemning Tehran for the recent violence and tacitly endorsing the notion of consequences on an international scale.
Many of those countries have attempted to maintain conciliatory policies toward the Iranian government, in comparison to the US strategy of maximum pressure. This trend has been motivated in part by a European commitment to preserving the 2015 nuclear deal, which was signed by Britain, France, and Germany along with Iran, the US, Russia, and China. But Iran has committed at least five separate violations of that agreement so far, in order to continue its longtime blackmailing campaign. And this has led to speculation that American and European foreign policies may be drifting closer together.
Not Just Washington?
That speculation is further justified by the European response to other, even more, blatant examples of the Iranian regime’s malign behaviors. These include persistent ballistic missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, destructive influence in regional conflict areas like Syria and Yemen, and of course the obvious human rights abuses that have been recurring throughout Iran since mid-November.
As such, the European Parliament passed its own resolution on Thursday denouncing the “widespread and disproportionate” use of deadly force by Iranian authorities in response to anti-government protests. The European resolution does not strictly parallel the one presented to the US House of Representatives, insofar as the former is not obviously backed up by the threat of sanctions. But it nonetheless adds to a chorus of international condemnation for Iran’s abuses, possibly cutting into the perceived sense of Iranian impunity.
The Brussels resolution also effectively endorses the NCRI’s call for UN leadership of human rights inquiries involving the Iranian government. Although European lawmakers did call upon that regime itself to conduct a “prompt, impartial, independent, and transparent” investigation into the actions of its own instruments, the resolution also appeared to anticipate the response that this request would receive from critics who consider the Iranian government to be fundamentally incapable of internal reform.
Thus, the European Parliament also addressed the UN with a request that it initiate “without delay a comprehensive investigation” into the violence pervading Iran’s protests. There is little doubt that the UN will be open to this request in theory. After all, it coincides with the passage of the 66th resolution condemning Iran’s overall pattern of human rights abuses. This too was embraced by the NCRI, with its President-elect Maryam Rajavi declaring that it “reaffirms the indisputable imperative that impunity for the criminal leaders of this medieval regime should end and all of them must face justice for 40 years of crime against humanity.”
But the practical implications of prior UN resolutions have been limited. And it remains to be seen whether the 66th will be any different by virtue of its proximity to multinational statements addressing an ongoing human rights crisis. Expectations may be tempered by the fact that the UN General Assembly also passed a resolution on Wednesday, this one urging the US to remove restrictions on the movement of Iranian diplomats when visiting the country for UN meetings. The request implies persistent faith in the notion that diplomatic methods can still produce a change in Tehran’s behavior.
This faith has been largely rejected by the Iranian Resistance movement, but many Western policymakers still seem to be struggling with questions about the limits of diplomacy. Yet the widespread and growing condemnation of Iran’s behavior may help to resolve those questions, especially if Tehran makes it clear that it has no interest in changing that behavior.
This was the apparent implication of the Iranian government’s formal rejection of the UN resolution. Abbas Mousavi, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, repeated familiar talking points by describing that resolution as the “political and instrumental use of human rights and employment of double standards.” And although this view has never been deemed credible in the wake of prior such resolutions, the reference to double standards may be especially hard to defend at a time when Iran stands alone to face its critics while actively engaged in the massacre of political dissidents throughout its territory.