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Iran’s Regime and the Death Sentences of Protesters

Iran’s Regime and the Death Sentences of Protesters


On Thursday, an international campaign forced the Iranian regime to temporarily halt its death sentences for three men who participated in the nationwide Iran protest last November. The sentences had been upheld by the regime’s Supreme Court two days earlier, leading to widespread protests on social media. A Persian hashtag meaning “don’t execute” was reportedly used five million times and gained support people from all walks of life, foreign lawmakers, and international human rights defenders before the judiciary responded to the pressure.

Yet that response consisted only of a vague statement regarding the possibility of the death sentences being halted. It expressed no actual commitment to justice, and seems tailor-made to deflect some portion of the criticism in hopes of making the issue fade from public awareness. The international community must not allow this to happen. And after more than 40 years of dealing with the same behaviors from the Iranian regime, veteran policymakers should certainly know better than to fall for its schemes.

The Iranian regime has a very long history of this sort of thing. And unfortunately, because of the appeasement policy, Western governments deliberately closed its eyes on the regime’s human rights violations. Since the 1980s, they have been eager to embrace any of the regime’s so-called “moderate” official or policy. This impulse was on clear display in 2013, when the regime’s apologists portrayed the “selection” of Hassan Rouhani as the regime’s president was as a great opportunity and change.

Rouhani became the regime’s president amidst a number of high-minded promises regarding freedom for political prisoners, fewer restrictions on media and the internet, and more peaceful relations with the country’s neighbors and adversaries. Now, more than three years after his 2017 “re-selection,” there has been no progress toward any of these supposed goals. In fact, Iran’s human rights situation has arguably gotten worse, especially in the wake of activist uprisings that have normalized the demand for a real alternative to avowed hardliners and faux reformists.

It goes without saying that the people are unaffected by the judiciary’s statement on recent death sentences. After all, many of them have borne direct witness to the extent of Tehran’s bloodlust where pro-democracy activism is concerned. The regime’s unwillingness to compromise with such activists was apparent during the first uprising at the beginning of 2018, which led to dozens of participants being shot dead and several being tortured to death while detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

But the brutality became absolutely undeniable less than two years later, with the November uprising that has now been used to justify capital punishment for Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi and Saeed Tamjidi. They were not the first to be handed such a sentence and they will most likely not be the last. But even if everyone who is currently detained in connection with the uprising is spared from the hangman’s noose, it will have little impact on the final death toll among peaceful protesters. Iran’s leading opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), has reported that 1,500 people were killed, mostly by the IRGC, during just several days’ protests.

This is another area of the regime’s human rights record in which it is relying heavily upon Western credulity in the face of coordinated disinformation. At the beginning of June, the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee released its first official estimate of the death toll, insisting that only 230 people had died, while shifting the blame on a “third party” who shot and killed many of them. This was a desperate move by the regime, using the COVID-19 pandemic, to downplay its crime and somehow quell the restive Iranian society.

The 1,500-person estimate of the MEK was ultimately confirmed both by Reuters News Agency and the US State Department. But for more than six months, Tehran simply rejected all foreign and independent estimates, then provided no explanation for why it had taken so long to calculate a lower death toll than those provided by both domestic and foreign sources.

This penchant for manipulation is something that international community must keep in mind as they consider how to respond to the latest developments in the case of Moradi, Rajabi, and Tamjidi. The same can be said of any other human rights issues that come under international scrutiny in the near future. And there are tremendously many that could.

There are also larger lessons to be learned, beyond just avoiding the assumption that Tehran is being sincere when it appears to bend to pressure from human rights activists. That assumption is based on a fantasy about the regime’s potential for internal reform, which has been roundly rejected by the Iranian people, especially in the past few years. The Iranian resistance has been warning for years against Western policies that anticipate such reform and provide concessions in hopes of facilitating it.

Those protesters’ willingness to risk their lives for the democratic cause ought to inspire shame in Western policymakers who seem unwilling to so much as risk the status quo in Iranian relations. As long as they remain so wary of a truly assertive strategy for dealing with Tehran’s abuses, they will only amplify the threats already facing the Iranian people, the organized Resistance movement and the world.