On August 3, Ebrahim Raisi will be inaugurated as the new president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and there is little doubt that the Iranian people will be scrutinizing Western reactions to that development. Many commentators in the expatriate activist community have already criticized those governments for their relative silence in the wake of Raisi’s June 18 “election,” but the Iranian Resistance leader Maryam Rajavi has said that the United States, Britain, and the European Union will face a “litmus test” for their principles only after Iran enters into its “new era” with Raisi’s inauguration.
Rajavi delivered these remarks at the Free Iran World Summit, a globally live-streamed event organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Dozens of American and European supporters of the NCRI also spoke as part of the summit, often reiterating the coalition’s calls for an investigation into Raisi’s background and the imposition of much stricter pressure on the Islamic Republic as a whole.
The prospective investigations concern Raisi’s role in a massacre of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. As Tehran’s deputy public prosecutor at the time, he reportedly took on a key role in the “death commission” that headed off implementation of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa which labeled members of opposition groups as inherently guilty of the capital crime known as Moharebeh, or enmity against God. As a result of this religious edict, an estimated 30,000 individuals were executed over about three months, with most of them being members of the leading pro-democracy activist group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
Since then, Iranian officials and state media outlets have generally promoted the idea that the PMOI ceased to be anything other than a “cult” in the years following the massacre. But this narrative was proven false in January 2018 when none other than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged that the group had played a leading role in promoting a nationwide uprising that was in full swing at the time. The PMOI was similarly credited for a series of follow-up demonstrations later that year which featured the same anti-government slogans, as well as another, even larger nationwide uprising in November 2019.
The latter uprising formed the background for Raisi to compound his legacy as a violator of human rights. Having taken over leadership of the judiciary several months earlier, he directed much of the regime’s response to the unrest and helped to make the situation much bloodier than in the wake of the first uprising. Within days of the protests breaking out in November 2019, approximately 1,500 people were killed in shooting incidents by security forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. At least 12,000 people were arrested around the same time, and many of these were subjected to systematic torture over a period of months.
This, too, is something that the international community might investigate in the interest of passing the “litmus test” Mrs. Rajavi referred to in her speech on July 12. She specifically described that test as determining “whether it will engage and deal with this genocidal regime or stand with the Iranian people,” and she made it clear that the answer to this question would be made all the more important in a new era defined by the increased conflict between the Iranian people and the clerical regime.
The seeds of that conflict were clearly sown at the beginning of 2018 and began to germinate over the subsequent two years as mass protests proliferated and directly challenged the regime’s hold on power. These challenges diminished somewhat in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, which naturally made large-scale demonstrations more difficult to organize. But authorities’ warnings about the growing influence of the PMOI never ceased, and rightly so. In early 2021, clashes between security forces and residents of Sistan and Baluchistan Province led Mrs. Rajavi to conclude that “the flame of the uprisings has risen from the ashes of the coronavirus.” And in June, anti-government activism found another outlet in the mass boycott of Raisi’s presidential bid.
Thanks to the regime’s candidate vetting process and the direct intervention of the supreme leader, the outcome of that election was never seriously in doubt. Rather than lending credibility to a tightly controlled political process, millions of Iranians opted to avoid the polls on June 18 and protest both Raisi’s pending promotion and the entire dictatorial system behind it.
Renewed public unrest emerged the very day after the sham election, in the form of labor strikes that encompassed the country’s oil and gas industry. Those actions underscored the public’s disregard for Raisi’s campaign platform, which emphasized anti-corruption measures as a means of improving economic outcomes for ordinary citizens. As judiciary chief and attorney general before that, Raisi had ample opportunity to pursue such anti-corruption measures, but he invariably focused his attention only on political adversaries while protecting the regime’s overall power structure.
Over the past two weeks, Iranian authorities have attempted to highlight the forthcoming presidential transition in order to quiet unrest over other matters, but these appeals have also been roundly rejected. On July 15, protests broke out in the province of Khuzestan and called attention to the role that government policy and paramilitary dominance of the Iranian economy have played in exacerbating water shortages in that province and beyond. Since then, the unrest has spread, both to highlight other affected areas and to simply express solidarity with the residents of Khuzestan.
Mrs. Rajavi and the NCRI unsurprisingly issued a call to action for the country’s activist population and especially the youth after it became clear that the regime’s only answer to the protests was a renewed outpouring of violent repression. Amnesty International was quick to recognize the crackdown and just as quick to describe it as a chilling reminder of the mass shootings in 2019. At least a dozen people were killed in the first twelve days of the water protests, though the PMOI anticipated that the identities of other victims will be confirmed very soon.
In keeping with the NCRI’s call to action, these killings appear to have accelerated the unrest rather than curtailing it, and advocates for regime change anticipate that this trend will continue in the “new era” defined by Raisi’s inauguration. According to the NCRI, the sole reason for Raisi’s appointment to the presidency was to allow him to draw upon his history of human rights violations to help the regime crackdown even more fiercely on dissent in the wake of the recent uprisings.
But the NCRI also expects this scheme to fail, and it points to the mass denial of Raisi’s legitimacy as prime evidence that the water protests may morph into another nationwide uprising following his inauguration. Of course, this outcome will be all the more likely if that inauguration also marks the adoption of measures by Western powers which similarly deny legitimacy to the new Iranian president, as by investigating and prosecuting him for past crimes against humanity.
Such investigations would go a long way toward ending the era of impunity that has defined the Islamic Republic for the better part of four decades. It would also send a long-overdue message of support to Iranian activists who earnestly share the core principles of Western democracies.