THE crisis of Iran’s potential nuclear breakout has only grown worse over the past year, even as the US has been working with its European allies to restore the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
This argument is made all the more absurd by the fact that Iran has expanded practically all of the other malign activities targeted by those sanctions, as well. In 2019, the regime compounded its 40-year legacy of human rights abuses by carrying out the worst crackdown on dissent in many years.
Approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters were killed in November of that year, within days of a nationwide uprising breaking out across nearly 200 cities and towns. Thousands of protesters and activists were then made victims of a campaign of torture by the Iranian judiciary for months afterward.
At the time, the judiciary was led by Ebrahim Raisi, who would go on to become the regime’s president in June 2021. His promotion to Iran’s second highest office was widely regarded as a reward not just for the 2019 crackdown but for a long history of brutal suppression, as exemplified by his leading role in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners during the summer of 1988, 90 percent of whom were activist of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK).
Many other participants in that massacre have been similarly rewarded, including both of the previous Iranian Justice Ministers, but Raisi’s ascension to the presidency is perhaps the clearest indicator to date of the regime’s expectation of impunity where human rights are concerned.
Indeed, Amnesty International responded to that development in June by lamenting that Raisi had not been made subject to investigation “for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance, and torture.” This, said Director General Agnes Callamard, was a “grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.”
As Western policymakers plan for their potential dealings with the Iranian regime over the coming year, they should recognize and exploit their opportunities to confront that impunity. By doing so, they could effectively safeguard the rights of Iranian activists who have been working tirelessly to secure freedom for the civilian population and to facilitate regime change leading to a truly democratic system of government.
At the same time, expanding pressure on the regime over its human rights abuses would benefit Western nations’ security interests by forcing the regime to focus on domestic affairs and to thus scale back its foreign provocations.
Those provocations include, but are by no means limited to, the ongoing expansion of the Iranian nuclear program. Since 2019, the regime has reportedly stockpiled more than 120 kg of uranium enriched to 20 percent fissile purity, plus a smaller quantity enriched to 60 percent, putting it very close to weapons grade. The regime has also been steadily improving upon its cascades of enrichment centrifuges, so as to make it possible for the final sprint toward nuclear breakout to be extremely quick. And as if to confirm beyond a doubt that that is the regime’s intention, some facilities have even begun manufacturing uranium metal, a substance with practically no function other than as part of a nuclear warhead.
Tehran’s progress in each of these areas is made possible in large part by the regime’s confidence that the Western powers will never take serious measures to stop it. This confidence has been reinforced by the Vienna talks, which the US, Britain, France, and Germany have all remained committed to in spite of their representatives all declaring that Iran’s proposals since November have been unrealistic, bombastic, and contrary to the compromises supposedly established by earlier sessions of those talks.
But Tehran’s assumption of impunity is ground in so much more than that. Its roots stretch back at least to 1988, when Western policymakers were made aware of the ongoing massacre of political prisoners, particularly by the Iranian resistance leader, Massoud Rajavi, who urged immediate action, but did nothing to stop it. This inaction forever diminished the impact of later human rights sanctions, and ultimately led to the current situation in which Raisi, the “butcher of 1988”, is setting policy for the Islamic Republic, amplifying its crackdowns on domestic unrest, and raising the already world-leading rate of executions to new heights.