Six years after Rouhani’s election, moderation is as far away as ever for Iran

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

People hold placards and Iranian flags during a protest against the arrival of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Bern, Switzerland, 2 July 2018. [Anthony Anex/EPA/EFE]

EU governments and institutions should severe their ties with Iranian businesses and diplomats, pending serious reforms in order to implement human rights and freedoms, writes Julio Terzi.

Giulio Terzi was Italy’s minister of foreign affairs in Mario Monti’s government from November 2011 until March 2013, permanent representative of Italy to the United Nations in New York between 2008 and 2009 and ambassador to the United States between 2009 and 2011.

This week, Ebrahim Raisi assumed leadership of the Iranian judiciary, beginning a five-year term that could lead to an even worse human rights situation in the Islamic Republic. This is not to say that Raisi’s predecessor, Sadeq Larijani, was anything other than hostile to concepts such as due process, compliance with the Rule of Law and international norms in convictions and judgments.

But Raisi represents the worst features of the Iranian judiciary. At best, his appointment by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei signals the regime’s public disregard for international human rights principles, and at worst it sets the stage for a dramatic upsurge in politically-motivated killings.

The latter outcome would be very much in keeping with the past record of the former prosecutor general. In 1988, Raisi served on one of the “death commissions” that were assembled throughout the country in response to a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini.

These tribunals’ systematic interrogation of previously-sentenced political prisoners led to approximately 30,000 people being marked for execution on the basis of their failure to demonstrate loyalty to the theocratic dictatorship. All of those executions were carried out in a matter of months, and many of the victims were buried in secret mass graves, the locations of which have yet to be revealed.

The fatwa in question was intended to cause the destruction of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which had by then established itself as the leading voice of opposition to the Islamist regime.

Despite this group’s membership making up the overwhelming majority of the victims, the massacre failed in its goal and the PMOI went on to gain in strength and popularity over the next three decades. This was made particularly evident early last year, when the Islamic Republic found itself consumed by protests that Khamenei himself acknowledged as being led by PMOI activists.

All along the nationwide uprising, uncharacteristically provocative slogans were launched, like “death to the dictator” and other explicit calls for regime change. That also generated a severe backlash from government authorities, with more than 8,000 people arrested and 50 killed in January 2018 alone.

Raisi’s appointment as the new head of the judiciary should be interpreted as a part of that backlash: a deliberate message to Iran’s activist community that the regime is ready to carry out further massacres. Indeed, in the months leading up to Raisi’s appointment, many official statements had threatened the death penalty for those who were leading, even if peacefully, protests and strikes.

The PMOI-led, anti-government protests prompt Tehran to confirm, before the international community, what the Iranian public already knows. The regime is fully committed to political violence. It is not about to chart a new course neither in foreign nor domestic policy, regardless of the optimism which has pervaded Western countries at the time of  2013 President Hassan Rouhani election.

Although the supposedly” moderate” Rouhani is not responsible for Raisi’s appointment, he has shown total indifference to criminal and violent behaviour of any friend and ally of the “hardliner” Supreme Leader.

Even worse, some of the appointments Rouhani made did send a message similar to the one delivered by  Khamenei with the selection of the new judiciary chief. At the start of both his first and second term, Rouhani selected individuals to head his Justice Ministry who had played leading roles in the 1988 massacre of political prisoners.

The first of these, Mostafa Pourmohammadi even went as far as to proclaim -in 2016 – that he was proud of that role, and that death of PMOI’s members was “God’s command.”

Rouhani’s tacit endorsement of large-scale political killing is only one of the ways in which he has shown to be a loyal servant of the Supreme Leader, and the repressive system that enshrines that ultimate clerical authority.  Western policymakers have turned a blind eye to his record: because of their expectations about opening up Iranian markets and gaining access to Iranian oil.

Such a short-sighted attitude cannot be a guiding principle for Western policies toward the Islamic Republic anymore. If the widespread unrest has not made this clear, the regime’s disregard for human rights should do so.

It is long past time for the international community to strongly support the Iranian activists who are putting their lives at risk by standing up to the Islamist regime. They fight for a democracy based on the 10-point plan of the Iranian resistance leader Maryam Rajavi.

EU Governments and Institutions should severe their ties with Iranian businesses and diplomats, pending serious reforms in order to implement human rights and freedoms. The criminal perpetrators of the 1988 massacre must be brought to justice.

The international community should push for an independent inquiry about all the crimes committed by the Iranian regime. If Tehran would not bend to these demands, the democratic nations should more actively support the PMOI and its partners inside the Iranian society.

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