Tehran remains unapologetic over its worst crime against humanity
In August 2016, a leaked audio recording from 1988 helped highlight why its creator quickly went from being second in command of the Iranian regime to spending his last years under house arrest. In it, Hossein-Ali Montazeri describes the "worst crime of the Islamic Republic" and tells his colleagues they will be "etched in the annals of history as criminals."
The crime was the systematic execution of political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Prisoners had been interrogated before tribunals that came to be known as "death commissions," then sentenced to hang if they garnered any suspicion of disloyalty. It is estimated that approximately 30,000 prisoners were hanged on the basis of these interrogations, over the course of just a few months.
In the recording, originally made in 1988 and released in 2016, Montazeri confirmed some of the most lurid details of the massacre, including the fact that the victims included young teenagers and pregnant women. Such accounts demonstrate that the regime entertained no compromise in its effort to stamp out opposition to the theocratic dictatorship at the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The overwhelming majority of the victims were affiliated with the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which remains the leading pro-democracy resistance group to this day.
Earlier this year, one of the leading participants in the 1988 death commissions gave a television interview in which he was challenged over the regime's legacy of brutality toward the PMOI. Mostafa Pourmohammadi never hesitated in defending his record, but he likened the massacre of defenseless political prisoners to collateral damage in the fog of war. And far from trying to brush off the killings as a mistake of the past, the former Intelligence Ministry representative suggested that more killings could be forthcoming.
"We have no ambiguity about [the PMOI]," he said. "We are at a time of war. Now is not the time to talk. Now is the time to fight them; now is the time to subdue them." Elsewhere in the same interview, Pourmohammadi declared that Tehran will not re-examine the conduct of its judiciary until the Iranian Resistance has been completely eliminated. In earlier remarks, he left no doubt about how this could be accomplished.
Looking back on his own role in the 1988 massacre soon after the Montazeri recording was released, Pourmohammadi told Iranian state media that he felt proud to have helped carry out "God's command" of death for the PMOI. His understanding of God's command was, unsurprisingly, identical to the fatwa Khomeini had issued just before the killings began. "Whoever at any stage continues to belong to the 'Monafeqin' must be executed," the edict read in part. "It is naïve to show mercy to those who wage war on God."
The absolutism of this message was reinforced by Montazeri's ouster following the killings. At the time, he was being groomed to assume the office of supreme leader after Khomeini's death. But the creator of the theocratic system would tolerate no criticism and began to isolate his second-in-command as soon as Montazeri, who died in 2009, dared to call a massacre by its name.
The killings have been described in similar terms throughout the world, with some calling them the 20th century's worst unpunished crime against humanity. This view has certainly gained traction since the release of the Montazeri recording. But despite the fact that more than three years have passed, little further action has been taken to bring the perpetrators to justice or to end what Amnesty International called a "crisis of impunity" concerning Iranian officials.
The human rights organization notes that even as the world has become more aware of the killings over the past three years, "the authorities have increasingly glorified the perpetrators ... as 'national heroes' and likened any criticism of the atrocities to support for 'terrorism.'" Meanwhile, Maryam Rajavi, the current leader of the PMOI and its parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, warns that Western habits of "turning a blind eye to [Iranian officials'] crimes are the very reason they have become emboldened in exporting terrorism and in warmongering."
Left to its own devices, the Iranian regime will continue to suppress those within its own ranks who, like Montazeri, call attention to a history of human rights abuses. At the same time, people like Pourmohammadi continue to rise through the ranks of the clerical regime, as evidenced by his own recent post as the head of the Ministry of Justice.
Accountability for such a regime can come only from beyond its borders. And that is why Amnesty International, the NCRI, and others have been urging a U.N. investigation into the 1988 massacre, with the goal of filing charges in the International Criminal Court. Such an inquiry should have begun years or even decades ago. But it is as urgent now as ever, especially since impunity informs so much of the regime's behavior.