On Thursday, the United States announced the imposition of yet another package of sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran, this time targeting two judges involved in the execution of popular wrestling champion Navid Afkari, as well as three prisons where the abuse of political prisoners is believed to be especially prevalent. The latest measures broaden the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy and come just days after the White House announced sanctions for more than two dozen individuals associated with Tehran’s missile, nuclear, and conventional weapons programs.

One Reuters report described the weapons-related sanctions as “putting teeth behind UN sanctions on Tehran that Washington argues have resumed.” After failing to pass a Security Council resolution that would have extended an arms embargo that is due to expire on October 18, the Trump administration fell back upon its position that despite pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the US still had the power to declare Iran non-compliant with that deal and trigger the “snapback” of all formerly suspended sanctions. However, all other signatories have rejected this argument, leading to various questions about how much weight to unilateral American actions will carry with foreign companies and financial institutions.

Thursday’s sanctions arguably stand to further complicate those questions by tying a greater portion of the current sanctions regime to Iran’s record of human rights violations. This topic is a source of much broader international agreement regarding the need to constrain Tehran’s behavior, as compared to the nuclear agreement which the European Union and its member states insist had been serving its intended purpose before the US withdrawal.

Summary of Repression and Human Rights Violations in Iran—August 2020

Agreement on matters of human rights became even more apparent in the run-up to Afkari’s execution, at which time widespread reporting on his false murder accusation, torture, and forced confession led to an international outpouring of appeals for his death sentence to be vacated and his case reopened. However, the practical effects of those appeals were very limited, as the Iranian judiciary apparently accelerated the timeline for implementing the execution in hopes of silencing high-profile criticism.

Critics of Western policy toward the Islamic Republic have reacted to this situation by noting that the condemnation of Afkari’s death sentence was not backed up by concrete action – something the latest US sanctions seek to rectify. However, it remains to be seen whether America’s traditional allies will join in recognizing the value of this sort of pressure, especially in the wake of numerous comments from European policymakers alleging that the maximum pressure strategy has been ineffective with regard to Iran’s nuclear development, regional imperialism, and so on.

This sentiment was expressed, for instance, by French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, in his speech to the UN General Assembly. He also used that speech to insist that not only his country but also the United Kingdom and Germany would continue to stand firmly behind the nuclear deal with all its attendant financial benefits for Iran. Macron naturally did not specify whether or not this commitment precluded the European governments from imposing new sanctions on Iran specifically related to human rights violations, but his position will presumably come clear as the “E3” proceed with plans to formally condemn the Afkari execution and similar human rights abuses.

France, the UK, and Germany all reportedly plan to summon their Iranian ambassadors in order to voice their concerns about Iran’s treatment of activists and political prisoners in the aftermath of two recent, nationwide uprisings and various other demonstrations like that for which Afkari was arrested. But these plans have already met with skepticism from Iranian expatriates and pro-democracy activists who believe that European policies have remained overly conciliatory in contrast to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure approach.

Their criticisms found a particularly visible outlet over the past week in public rallies outside the White House and in a number of European cities. Each of those demonstrations, organized by Iranian community groups, expressed support for the argument that UN sanctions on the Iranian regime are now back in force. Additionally, they urged more concrete action from both the US and Europe on matters related to the regime’s regional imperialism and its domestic crackdown on dissent.

In particular, protesters demanded a formal UN investigation into the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in 1988, a watershed moment in the development of Iran’s sense of impunity regarding human rights abuses. Groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), which was the main target of the massacre, point to persistent disregard for this crime against humanity when arguing that more assertive policies are needed in order to prevent more of the same in the future.

Insofar as no one has been held accountable for the 1988 massacre, it is arguably reasonable for Iranian officials to assume that they will face no serious consequences for incidents like the Afkari execution or the shooting deaths of an estimated 1,500 peaceful protesters during the nation’s second recent uprising in November 2019. Indeed, that assumption has proven more or less accurate so far, with the new US sanctions being only one of a small handful of concrete actions that were taken specifically to address those abuses.

Iranian Opposition Urges Continued Pressure on Tehran After Wrestler’s Execution

While the Islamic Republic waits to see whether those sanctions will be embraced or ignored by the UK, France, and other US allies, the situation seemingly continues to deteriorate for pro-democracy activists. One prominent political prisoner and human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi, wrote an open letter last week in which she complained of increasing restrictions on herself and other inmates, and described them as conveying “the regime’s clear message that it knows no legal, logical or religious bounds in denying the rights of dissidents.”

Shortly thereafter, fellow political prisoner and renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was rushed to hospital as her health deteriorated from a hunger strike that had surpassed the five-week mark. Her protest seeks to win freedom for a wide range of political prisoners, but the Iranian judiciary has rarely compromised in the face of prior such actions and is generally more likely to break hunger strikes through forced feeding or false promises of case reviews and other concessions.

Tehran’s recent conduct, including the Afkari execution, suggests that this resistance to compromise is only intensifying under the present conditions. In fact, some prominent figures have even responded to those conditions by explicitly calling for more brutal crackdowns and more extensive executions. Iran Human Rights Monitor quoted one religious cleric as saying in a state media interview, “All protesters are moharebeh,” or persons who have waged war on God. “They must be tortured to death. Their limbs must be amputated, and they must be violently executed at the site where they committed the crime so that no one would dare to do such a thing again.”

The reference to this interview came in the context of an article describing reports of military commanders organizing local “hit squads” to put down persistent unrest. But IHRM noted that as well as reaffirming the regime’s commitment to violence, such reports indicate that the regime is running short of personnel and failing to maintain control over the population, thus potentially making it more vulnerable to the effects of multilateral sanctions tied to the human rights situation.