On August 5, 2021, the Iranian regime will hold the inauguration ceremony for Ebrahim Raisi as the President of the regime.
Iranian activists have long urged the international community to launch formal investigations into crimes against humanity that were committed early in the history of the Iranian regime. Those appeals suddenly became more imperative last month when it was confirmed that one of the leading perpetrators of the regime’s 1988 massacre of political prisoners would become the next Iranian president.
Ebrahim Raisi was ostensibly elected to the position on June 18, although his candidacy was effectively uncontested, and the vast majority of the Iranian people have boycotted the election in protest. Iranian authorities and state media acknowledge that voter turnout was lower than in any other presidential election and the National Council of Resistance of Iran concluded that the actual level of participation was less than ten percent of the population.
The NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), promoted the boycott for months in advance of the election, framing it as an opportunity to “vote for regime change.” The election was also preceded by numerous public protests, many of them addressing separate issues but openly endorsing the boycott, while others focused squarely on Raisi’s background and condemned the ruling system for promoting him in spite of it.
In fact, many of Tehran’s critics understand that figures like the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were not merely overlooking Raisi’s background when they put him forward as the only viable presidential candidate, but were actively rewarding him for it. On this view, Raisi’s presidential candidacy and his prior appointment as head of the judiciary are examples of a much larger pattern by which the regime has elevated the careers of human rights abusers and participants in the 1988 massacre.
Both the current and the former Iranian Ministers of Justice are among those participants, and the nature of those positions underscores the fact that Tehran has not tried to distance itself from the massacre, but has cultivated its legacy for more than three decades. Raisi’s pending inauguration, scheduled for August 5, maybe the most significant development in this trend to date. Many anticipate that it will set the stage for even worse political repression than has been seen in recent years, especially where supporters of the MEK are concerned.
Those supporters are more numerous within Iranian society than most observers realized prior to 2018. The start of that year was defined by the presence of anti-government protests in more than 100 localities, all comprising a nationwide uprising that openly challenged the regime’s hold on power. Struggling to otherwise explain away the newly expressed popularity of slogans like “death to the dictator,” Khamenei acknowledged in the midst of that uprising that the MEK had “planned for months” to bring forth protests all across the country.
The supreme leader has repeatedly warned about MEK influence since then, thus departing from earlier propaganda narratives that describe the group as a cult with little organizational strength and no significant popularity among the general population. Other officials soon joined him in that endeavor, and their warnings proved justified in November 2019 when the MEK led another nationwide uprising, this one even larger than the last.
By that time, Khamenei had appointed Ebrahim Raisi as judiciary chief and had drawn the reproach from numerous human rights organizations who were aware of Raisi’s legacy. It came as little surprise to those organizations when Raisi oversaw months of torture in response to the second uprising. That torture affected thousands of individuals who had been arrested in the midst of the protests and thus threatened to grow the death toll from shooting incidents, which killed an estimated 1,500 peaceful protesters.
That threat still lingers today. Tehran’s practice of torturous interrogation is often aimed at eliciting forced confessions which in turn set the stage for prosecution for any number of vague national security charges that carry the death penalty. Pressure in favor of such prosecution can only be expected to increase once Iran’s executive branch and the judiciary are both under the control of individuals with long histories of support for mass execution and extrajudicial killing.
The threat is made all the greater by the fact that Raisi’s crimes against humanity were very specifically aimed at the MEK – the same organization that led the 2018 and 2019 uprisings and prompted the regime’s utterly panicked crackdowns. It is estimated that the 1988 massacre killed 30,000 political prisoners over the course of about three months. The vast majority of these were members and supporters of the MEK, which had been explicitly targeted by the fatwa which sparked the executions.
In 1988, Ruhollah Khomeini, the regime’s founder issued a religious decree which resulted in the execution of over 30,000 political prisoners. In his fatwa, Khomeini orders the execution of all the MEK members in prisons who persisted in their beliefs.
Ebrahim Raisi was a key figure in implementing this decree in Tehran, and he executed thousands of political prisoners. He and others have also defended it in recent years, even claiming that it was part of “God’s command” and that orders from the supreme leader are unquestionable. In so doing, they have also signaled to human rights activists that an investigation into the 1988 massacre still has vital implications for today. The Iranian regime has enjoyed impunity in that matter for far too long. If that impunity persists beyond Raisi’s inauguration, it will no doubt be viewed as an invitation for the Raisi government to expand upon its legacy of human rights abuses and try once again to annihilate the MEK and any opposition to the regime.