When this year’s United Nations General Assembly convenes this week, it is safe to assume that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will not address domestic human rights abuses.
Even as Tehran continues to portray criticism of its human rights record, including this year’s report by the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Asma Jahangir, as a Western conspiracy to discredit the Islamic theocracy, Iranian citizens and human rights activists are increasingly calling for the perpetrators of past crimes to be brought to justice.
Last year, an audio recording surfaced of Hossein Ali Montazeri deriding senior officials for the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Poised to take over the country’s supreme leadership, Montazeri provided chilling details of the butchery. The leaked recording sparked unprecedented public dialogue and compelled some regime officials and direct participants to acknowledge and even defend the massacre.
Previous calls for international action, notably from the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), whose activists comprised the vast majority of the victims, had gone unheeded. Western powers tended to turn a blind eye, often in hopes of currying favor with supposed moderates in the Iranian regime.
Rouhani is a prime example of one such “moderate.” Optimistic Westerners described him thus before he was even sworn in as president in 2013. This goes a long way toward explaining why Rouhani’s presence at the UN continues to be embraced year after year, even as accounts of Iran’s past and present human rights abuses continue to pour in.
That welcoming attitude is at odds with Ms. Jahangir’s report, endorsed by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The contradiction will be loudly decried by protestors planning their own “welcome” for Rouhani. Iranian expatriates, supporters of the PMOI, and other opponents of the Iranian regime will insist that he is personally responsible for the regime’s abuses, both present and past, when Rouhani’s role in the clerical establishment was already well-founded.
Rouhani was an official in 1988 and certainly aware of what was happening. Unlike Montazeri, who lost his rank as a result, neither Rouhani nor anyone who currently wields power alongside him spoke out. Meaning the legacy of that massacre is entwined with the current president’s person, and with his administration insofar as he has deliberately surrounded himself with cabinet ministers and advisors who are well-known participants in and defenders of the 1988 massacre and a range of subsequent abuses.
For his first term, Rouhani appointed Mostafa Pourmohammadi as Minister of Justice. In 1988, Pourmohammadi served as one of four individuals on the Tehran “death commission” that issued the death sentences. He was personally responsible for thousands of deaths. Twenty-five years later Rouhani named him personally responsible for the standards of justice throughout the Islamic Republic.
Rouhani removed Pourmohammadi, replacing him with someone less notorious, but no less guilty. Alireza Avayi held essentially the same position on a 1988 death commission, albeit in a different province. The two men’s juridical origin stories are effectively the same, and the records of their subsequent activities are similarly brutal.
Which is why it makes no sense to condemn the 1988 massacre, while welcoming Rouhani year after year. The Islamic Republic’s appalling human rights record did not end with the 1988 massacre; it did not end in the following decades or with the death of Ruhollah Khomeini; and it certainly did not end with the election of the supposedly moderate Rouhani.
Iran’s current president oversaw one of the bloodiest periods since the summer of 1988. More than 3,100 people have been hanged since Rouhani took office, and the rate of killing shows no sign of slowing. Over 100 executions were carried out in July alone, several of them in public and at least one involving a minor at the time of his alleged crime.
The execution of minor offenders violates international human rights conventions, which the Islamic Republic plainly rejects. Tehran has seemingly increased death sentences for minors. Dozens are on death row today, along with 5,300 adults. Rouhani has contributed to the rhetoric that the Islamic Republic will accept no “foreign imposition” upon its domestic affairs.
If that is Rouhani’s view of the international community, specifically those aspects of it tasked with defending human rights for all peoples, then why should the UN or its member states give him a public platform? Embracing a person who both expresses and embodies contempt for human rights sends the wrong message to his administration, the Iranian people, and human rights advocates throughout the world.
Maryam Hejazi is a member of the Board of Directors for the Organization of Iranian American Communities-US (OIAC).